Minister Collins Interview on ABC Brisbane Mornings with Rebecca Levingston

SUBJECTS: Albanese Government’s ambitious housing agenda; National Housing Supply and Affordability Council

REBECCA LEVINGSTON, HOST: The federal government's housing package is set to deliver 30,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years at a cost of $10 billion. Julie Collins is the Federal Housing Minister. Minister, good morning.

JULIE COLLINS, MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND MINISTER FOR HOMELESSNESS: Good morning to you, and to your listeners this morning.

LEVINGSTON: How many people are homeless in Australia?

COLLINS: Well the last census data was back in 2016, so we're actually looking at the new data released this year about how many they are. We do expect it to have increased from last time.

LEVINGSTON: What are the actual figures, Minister?

COLLINS: It's over 100,000 Australians. We need to work more closely with states and territories, which is what we have been doing. We have obviously had three meetings of Ministerial Council meetings now with the state and territory Ministers, and we're all working together on that to try and get as many homes on the ground as quickly as we can.

LEVINGSTON: So over 100,000 people in Australia right now are classified as homeless.

COLLINS: Well that's the 2016 data. We're looking for the new release from the ABS coming as quickly as we can.

LEVINGSTON: Do you anticipate it will be more than 100,000?

COLLINS: We do unfortunately, yes. We do think that things are becoming more difficult. What we do know is it's more difficult for Australians to find a safe, affordable place to call home.

LEVINGSTON: And what about the actual breakdown within that? Because I was speaking to someone from an older woman's housing network. They're saying that around about 400,000 older women are on the precipice of being homeless. That's a really vulnerable group. We know that there are tens of thousands of young people who experience homelessness as well. Can you break down that 100,000 figure?

COLLINS: Well, it is done by the ABS. In terms of the older women experiencing homelessness, that's why we're talking about 4,000 of the 30,000 social and affordable homes being for older women who are at risk of homelessness and women and children fleeing family violence, because we understand that that is a particular high risk group that's growing in terms of its cohort.

LEVINGSTON: There's a huge shortfall then, isn't there, Minister, in terms of even the goal of building 30,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years doesn't go anywhere near actually putting a roof over every Australian's head.

COLLINS: Well, obviously, what we want to do is work with the states and territories that also have got significant programs. The Queensland government, at their Housing Summit, have increased their fund in terms of social and affordable housing from $1 billion to $2 billion, which is a significant increase.

It's also on top of what social housing providers are doing. And we have other programs where we're working with social housing providers to get more homes on the ground more quickly. The other thing we're doing is looking at how we get institutional investment into social and affordable housing in Australia. We've had an investor roundtable with the Treasurer about how do we get more of those institutional investments into that sector.

LEVINGSTON: You're listening to the Federal Housing Minister, Julie Collins, on ABC Radio Brisbane. My name is Rebecca Levingston. Minister, how many houses or units are currently vacant in Queensland or Australia?

COLLINS: Well, we've obviously had that census data. The issue here is that not all of those homes are actually available or are technically vacant, even though they show up as a vacancy from the ABS data. And it is, I suppose, difficult to ascertain exactly how many. And that's the beauty of the Supply and Affordability Council, because it can look at the data and the evidence and tell us that information.

LEVINGSTON: Because I think people understand that sometimes there are holiday homes and the fact is, we live in a society of inequality. But I guess do you have data on how many houses or units sit vacant long term?

COLLINS: Well, that data is not available - that's the point. A lot of people say that you could look at, for instance, the data from water or electricity and those types of utilities, but given some of them, as you point out, are holiday homes, some of them are turnovers, some of them are deceased estates. So that data is actually very difficult to drill down. They do suggest that a significant number of what are called vacant homes are not actually vacant. I mean, the number in Queensland, I understand, is around 80,000 that people talk about, but it's probably much lower.

LEVINGSTON: Why do we have a labour shortage and a housing shortage? Because international workers are not back to the numbers we need them to be. Even international students are not back to pre-COVID numbers. So why do we have housing shortage and a labour shortage?

COLLINS: Yeah, I think what's happened here is we haven't built enough houses over the last few years. That's why we've got our National Housing Accord, which is also part of our ambitious housing agenda, whereby we're talking about, you know, building homes of all types right across the country, to have an aspiration of a million from 2024 onwards over that five years. Because we do need to try and stop the stop-start of the building cycle and have more of a gradual increase, so that we do have the skills and the labour.

There are obviously massive constraints in the sector at the moment because of the pandemic and supply chains, but people are experiencing the worker shortage and skill shortage right across the world. Obviously it's a very significant issue here in Australia, which is why we've done things like fee free TAFE, which is why we're adding to university places, which is why we're looking at skilled migration in the short term about how do we get more of those skills in to get more homes on the ground as quickly as we can.

LEVINGSTON: Minister, the challenge for us here in Queensland too, is we have a very ambitious infrastructure program, in particular around Olympic spending. Two major stadiums, 16 other smaller facilities as well, which will put real demand on that labour workforce. Do you prioritise building a stadium over building social and affordable housing? Every politician I talk to says we must do both. But at some point, reality has got a crunch. How does Queensland compare to other states when it comes to the social housing shortfall and rates of homelessness?

COLLINS: Well, it is a significant problem right across the country. Every state and territory raises it at every meeting that we have, in terms of trying to get the workforce and trying to get people on the ground. But, I mean, the types of people that are building homes are slightly different to those that would be building the infrastructure for the Olympics, and we can do both. And from talking to the Queensland government and to colleagues in Queensland, there are obviously a lot of opportunities around the Olympics too, in terms of getting more social and affordable homes on the ground and trying to work with the sector there to make sure that we can utilise facilities after the Olympics and those types of things.

Those discussions are happening because we all want to work together to get more homes on the ground as quickly as we can. I think the point in the past is the former Federal Government did very little when it came to housing. What we've got now is a Federal Government that is stepping up to the plate. We realise no tier of government is going to solve this alone. All three tiers of government need to work together. But importantly, as you point out, with the construction sector, with industry, we need to try and get institutional investment into the sector and we need to work with the community housing providers. We all need to be on the same page, heading in the same direction, which is why this advice of the Supply and Affordability Council is going to be so critical.

LEVINGSTON: But do you think, priorities-wise nationally, when it comes to housing, can we put a house over every Australian's head? Like, is that possible? Because in terms of the big challenges in our society, Minister, around poverty, domestic violence, youth crime is such a big issue for us in Queensland at the moment. It's been front and centre, and at the heart of that are young people who come from trauma and don't have a stable home. And then going down a path that ends up relating to crime creates horrendous consequences. Can Australia put a house over the roof of every Australian's head?

COLLINS: What we can do is we can work as hard and as quickly as we can to get as many homes on the ground as quickly as we can. I certainly think that in a country as wealthy as Australia, it's something we absolutely should aspire and aim to do. I don't think it's beyond Australians, I don't think it's beyond us working with other tiers of government with the sector and with institutional investments to get more homes on the ground as quickly as we can. I do think that there are obviously a range of other issues that are impacting the housing sector. But we do need to all be working together and we need to make sure that supports are there for those people that find it difficult to maintain a roof over their head and that's making sure that those wraparound support services are available to keep people in tenancies, to keep people in their home.

LEVINGSTON: But is that the ultimate goal for you as the Minister for Housing, to have every Australian in a home?

COLLINS: What my ultimate goal is to make housing more affordable in Australia and by getting more homes on the ground as quickly as we can.

LEVINGSTON: Right. I'm just surprised that you're just not keen to say "Yes, absolutely". Because it would seem that in terms of this country, we have all sorts of aspirations about what we want to do in lots of different sectors. Why wouldn't we proudly shout from the rooftops that that's what we want to do, house all Australians?

COLLINS: Of course we do. We want as many Australians to have a roof over their home as possible. We need to make sure that more Australians do. We know that affordability is a really significant issue at the moment. We're working as quickly and as hard as we can to get as many homes on the ground as quickly as we can.

LEVINGSTON: Minister, very much appreciate your time this morning and we really look forward to hearing what else comes from the interim committee meeting today. Julie Collins, thank you so much.