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Homes Tasmania Bill 2022

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 18 August 2022

Tags: Social and Affordable Housing, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, we are debating the most fundamental shift to housing policy in this state since the Homes Act was first enacted in 1935. I agree with much of what my colleague, Ms Haddad, has said about this legislation. I also acknowledge it does come from a fundamentally good place.

I do not like this legislation, Mr Deputy Speaker. As a former housing minister, I understand that the Homes Act was clunky, very outdated and quaint. As the minister said yesterday, there are only so many times you can amend an old act before it effectively becomes unworkable. However, the creation of a statutory authority for the delivery of social and affordable and potentially other housing is a neoliberal response to a problem created by neoliberal policy.

Some members who were here in the first term of the Hodgman Liberal government will recall that in the first two Hodgman government state budgets, there was zero attention paid to the need to invest more in the delivery of social and affordable housing. Catch-up was played in the third budget delivered under the Hodgman Liberal government and it has been catch-up ever since.

The original draft of this legislation - and this is a truth that is being highlighted by organisations like Shelter Tasmania and the Tenants' Union of Tasmania - shifted the focus, so where the Homes Act's focus was very clear about the expectation on the Director of Housing to deliver social housing, the original draft of this legislation, which was the one we had the briefing on, in the purposes of the act prioritised development and a broad range of housing policy delivery over the need for social and affordable housing, over the clear social imperative on government to drive the delivery of homes for people on low to moderate incomes and particularly to people in acute housing need.

We very much appreciated the briefing we were given. We made a submission to the draft legislation and made a number of suggestions, some of which have been adopted, so we are pleased to see that in the purposes of the act, the highest order purpose now is to increase the opportunities for eligible persons and persons on low to moderate incomes to satisfy the basic human need for housing by living in safe, secure, appropriate and affordable housing. That was originally a little lower down the list of purposes of the act, but it is still slightly watery language, because it talks about increasing the opportunities for eligible people, and eligible people are people in need of housing or housing support. We have an amendment that simplifies that to state that the purposes of this act include to enable eligible persons and persons on low to moderate incomes to satisfy the basic human need for housing.

It is more than a basic human need: it is a fundamental human right. As it is right now in Tasmania - we do not need to labour the point any more than is necessary - that fundamental right is being denied to an increasing number of Tasmanians. Tasmanians are being priced out of their own paradise, whether it is in trying to purchase a home or to have an affordable rental. Clearly there needs to be a strategic, coordinated, well-resourced response in order to reverse that trend where our own people cannot find a place to call home and too many now are looking to the mainland for affordable housing.

This bill is an attempted response, through a neoliberal, very conservative lens, to sustained under-investment and policy failure in the housing space. We are prepared to give it a chance but I do not like this legislation. I am very worried about unpicking Housing Tasmania, which has given such great service to the people of Tasmania for so long.

I wonder what question time will be like when we want to understand why government is failing to meet targets it set, not targets that were set by what will become the authority, but when government is to be challenged on delivery failures, policy failures.

Will we have the same situation we have when we want to ask the Minister for Resources, for example, about Forestry Tasmania's climate crimes against nature? We are told to wait until Forestry Tasmania arrives at the government business enterprise scrutiny hearings which of course are on a two-year rotation, so every two years we are given an opportunity to ask Forestry Tasmania questions about their administration or their mismanagement of native forests in Tasmania. A similar situation happens with TasWater, another entity that sits somewhat outside government. It certainly does not sit in a government agency, so if we have inquiries from constituents about water infrastructure, water management or water quality, it is very hard to find the minister who is actually responsible.

Ultimately it is probably the Minister for Local Government, but we need some reassurance from the minister here in his second reading response that should a member of the Opposition or crossbench stand up and ask the sorts of questions we have asked before about housing supply, people being squeezed out of their homes, people not being able to find a home, that the minister will answer that question and not point to an unelected board. The transparency and accountability issues here are real, and the minister could deal with that by making an unequivocal statement about his willingness to accept responsibility for housing delivery and housing policy. It is the minister - and I have a copy of the draft statement of expectations here - who articulates government housing policy to this board through the statement of ministerial expectations. We have a draft statement and I understand the minister consulted on that statement.

Given that housing is critical social infrastructure and is an area of public policy that touches on the lives of every Tasmanian person, there has to be a clear line of accountability in this place on failure to deliver, or where improvements can be made. It is always tempting for governments to create an entity that shunts the problem outside government agencies. I am not saying that is the intention here, but it can make life easier for ministers and governments in an area of public policy that is so critical to Tasmania's sense of community and society and to our economy.

There are many people in this House we inhabit who are passionate about housing because we are in close contact with our constituents and we understand that it is the bedrock of life. If you do not have a secure affordable home, so many of life's opportunities are just denied to you.

As a collective, we really do need to get this right. There has been talk of tripartisanship in here this morning and, in this area of public policy, we should be able to reach that to the greatest extent possible because we all want this minister to be a good minister. We all know he has the energy and the intellect to be a good minister for housing, but he needs to take responsibility for what happens in that portfolio.

Perhaps the minister could address the concern we have about accountability and transparency. As Ms Haddad articulated very well, the shift here is from a Homes Act that was about the broad social responsibility that a government has to a corporatised entity. That is what this is. It is an authority with a board. It will operate along business lines as a corporation - which is a massive shift in the way we think of housing policy in this state.

We should all remind ourselves that before funding for public housing was so squeezed, and so directed at only those most in need, our state housing department agency built things. It built communities. Sure, it made some mistakes. It placed people too far, in certain examples, from services, employment, education or transport, but it was successive governments investing in public housing that created communities.

It is not just about building houses. It cannot just be about building houses. It has to be about creating liveable communities. I know the minister has taken that on board, and it was certainly in our submission to the Government.

We have gone from a situation where public housing was quite broadly available to people on low to moderate to reasonable incomes to very targeted housing now.

We do not want to end up having enacted legislation that establishes an authority that in any way weakens that social responsibility and the social compact between government and people to deliver secure, affordable social housing. It is very, very important that we do not move away from that, and corporatise housing as just another product, because it is not just another product. It is the foundation for life and wellbeing. It is an absolutely critical social infrastructure.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I still drive past Queens Walk, and feel glad I had an opportunity, as minister, to not do what my predecessor in the job suggested, and that is flatten it, because this is a complex of buildings that was made in the time when governments built stuff. It is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. It is excellent construction, good materials and, with some design tweaks through the marvellous people I was working with in Housing Tasmania, we have created a community. We have strengthened a community, and now Queens Walk is a place where people want to live. I am a semi regular visitor there because I have two friends there who are tenants, and the feel of it is very different from how it was when it was Stainforth Court. That is because government recognised it had a social responsibility to create liveable communities - places where people want to live, where they can afford to live, and where they feel secure. We do not want to move away from that.

When the minister talked in his second reading speech about modern and contemporary partnership models, I get a little shudder inside, because what we will see is developers lining up to come to the authority and make a case for taxpayer support to construct some housing. Clause 7 is a real concern: a housing provider could be a developer. This is a question that we raised in the briefing, and we were reassured that was not the intent, but it is potentially the effect - in fact, it is the effect - that a developer could be termed a housing provider.

Ms Haddad - They are. They are defined as a housing provider.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, or could have themselves recognised as a housing provider. I think in the Shelter submission - I do not have it at my fingertips right now - their suggestion was that the terminology be 'social housing provider'. That has not happened so we are about to capture a whole range of corporate interests within the housing space. Perhaps the minister could address that question. Two members have now raised a concern with clause 7.

The other concern - which we have tried to deal with in an amendment - is the fact that, at the moment there is no reference to the Public Works Committee oversight of expenditure made through the authority. We are talking here about expenditure of public money. We have sought to fix that up for the minister, and hope he will take it on board. I believe it would be wise. It would give the minister and this House that extra level of reassurance.

One of our amendments ensures that sections 15 and 16 of the Public Works Committee Act - which relate to the functions and powers of the Homes Tasmania board and the power to enter into partnerships and joint ventures, et cetera - apply to building or construction works undertaken by a partnership, trust or joint venture entered into under this section, as if the building or construction works are a public work for the purposes of the Public Works Committee Act.

You need to have oversight mechanisms in place when you are dealing with vast sums of money - and we are. The Government's own intended policy is to spend more than $1 billion delivering 10 000 new homes within the next 10 years. These are vast sums of money. If you are going to have a board of an authority that is external to government negotiating with private companies on contracts that will involve the outlay of public funds, the Public Works Committee needs to have some oversight. You cannot let public private partnerships in the social and affordable housing space just sail through on trust. That amendment certainly matters very much to us - and we obviously have a number of amendments.

One of the issues we raised in the briefing was the need for there to be reference to liveability, and creating liveable communities. We are an island community and it is one of the things that makes living here so great and such a privilege in a crazy world. We are connected, and we need to make sure that when we embark on providing homes for people, we are creating communities.

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, one of the questions that comes to mind when you examine this bill because of the provisions there that enable the new authority to enter into partnerships, joint ventures, et cetera, is how would that be any different from what happens currently? The Housing Innovation Unit, certainly when I was minister, was able to commission works, negotiate contracts and enter into partnerships, and it did, so there is already the capacity there within the HIU.

I do not know what has happened to the HIU exactly, except the capacity to do these very things and the major works that were undertaken by the agency were coordinated through the Housing Innovation Unit, which was able to deliver the two Common Ground facilities here in nipaluna/Hobart, a new facility in Devonport, the Thyne House upgrade in Launceston, Trinity Hill youth accommodation here in Hobart and the refurbishment of Queen's Walk, so the capacity is already there. Perhaps the minister could address whether these provisions in this legislation mirror what is already possible to achieve through the Housing Innovation Unit.

As I flagged earlier, we have a range of amendments that we hope the minister will be somewhat receptive to, remembering, however, that these amendments have been drawn from submissions including ours, but also the Shelter Tasmania and Tenants' Union of Tasmania submissions. They are an attempt to more strongly weight this bill towards social housing needs and supports.

We would like to see it as a very clear objective of the authority, Homes Tasmania, to decrease the proportion of Tasmanians experiencing housing stress or homelessness, so that effectively becomes a key performance indicator for the authority, to achieve housing equity for Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who certainly do not have housing equity now, and to improve the safety and wellbeing of women and children escaping family violence. These are all objectives that Housing Tasmania already has a focus on and there is no reason not to make sure that the focus is prescribed in the act we are dealing with right now.

We want to support and have drafted the amendment put forward by Shelter Tasmania which amends the meaning of 'eligible person'. There is in this legislation for the first time - it is not in the Homes Act as I understand it - a capacity for Homes Tasmania to demand from a person - seeking housing support, presumably - evidence as to whether a person is an eligible person, or evidence of the kind specified in the notice as to whether the person is an eligible person. Then, if the person, having been given a notice under the previous subsection, fails within the period specified to provide to Homes Tasmania the evidence of the persons required by the notice to provide, Homes Tasmania may, in its discretion, assume that the person is not an eligible person.

As far as I understand it, these are additions to the powers and functions of the new iteration of Housing Tasmania as a statutory authority. We are proposing that this be changed to:

Homes Tasmania, may by notice to a person, require a person to provide to Homes Tasmania within a reasonable period specified in the notice, evidence as to whether the person is an eligible person. If a person, after having been given a notice under subsection (5), fails within the period specified in the notice to provide to Homes Tasmania evidence that they are an eligible person, Homes Tasmania may, in its discretion, assume that the person is not an eligible person, unless there is evidence before Homes Tasmania that there are reasonable grounds for the failure.

I do not have at my fingertips the argument for that exact wording, but when we go into Committee I will do that.

We would like to understand the connection between the ministerial statement of expectations in terms of how Homes Tasmania operates. What legal weight does a ministerial statement of expectations have, given that it will change over a period of time and it will also change to reflect the changing policies of the government of the day? Perhaps the minister could talk us through the ministerial statement of expectations and what weight that has for Homes Tasmania as well as for the board.

We would also like to see the proposed board membership increased. At the moment, I think it is a maximum of six and a minimum of four. We think, for the portfolio responsibilities we are asking this board to administer from a business point of view the larger your skills-based board the better.

We would also note that the minister has made reference to a reference group of people with lived experience. The legislation's wording is quite loose around that because it says that the board 'may' have reference to a specialist group. I wonder if the minister agrees that it is better that the structure is embedded in the legislation and is not just an optional extra for the board, when they might have time to consult with a group of stakeholders in the housing and homelessness space. Some of them will be organisations with long lived experience, like Shelter Tasmania or the Tenants' Union of Tasmania. Presumably, there will be other people on that stakeholder reference group who have lived experience of homelessness and broader life experience of what it is like to live at the margins of society.

Could the minister address that issue? Perhaps just a really simple statement, minister, a clear statement about why this structure will make the difference that we need. It is still an unresolved question from the Greens' point of view. We want it to make a difference, do not get us wrong here, but we want to understand why you think it will make a difference given that Housing Tasmania already has many of these powers and functions to make sure housing is delivered, and that specialist homelessness services and housing support services are delivered. What is it about having a statutory authority overseen by a board that will make the difference to the delivery of more social and affordable housing in Tasmania?