Minister Collins interview on RN Breakfast

TOPICS: The Albanese Labor Government’s ambitious housing agenda and the Housing Australia Future Fund; renters’ rights; Tasmania.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Now state and territory housing ministers have written to senators in Canberra, urging them to back the government’s key housing bill. The ministers, all from Labor governments except the Tasmanian MP Guy Barnett, says the $10 billion housing affordability fund is an important step towards improving more Australians – providing more Australians with a safe and secure home. Julie Collins is the Federal Minister for Housing and Homelessness and our guest this morning. Julie Collins, welcome.

JULIE COLLINS, MINISTER FOR HOUSING: Good morning, Patricia, and to your listeners this morning.

KARVELAS: Independent senators Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell have agreed to back your housing affordability legislation. What have you agreed to? They say it’s 1200 of the 30,000 social affordable homes in Tasmania. Is that the deal?

COLLINS: What we’ve agreed to here is to make sure that every state and territory gets their fair share of housing from the Housing Australia Future Fund and from other federal government programs. What we have seen in the past from some federal government programs, particularly around social housing, is both of the territories got zero and what we want to do is make sure that every state and territory gets their fair share of funding. They put a proposition to us. We’ve had a good look at it, and we’re pretty confident that it is a good arrangement whereby every state and territory gets their fair share of funding and homes. We know that everywhere in the country –

KARVELAS: What’s their fair share?

COLLINS: Well, we know that everywhere in the country is having a housing issue, and what we’re talking about here is a floor of approximately 1200 homes in every state and territory.

KARVELAS: Okay. New South Wales is a much bigger state than a state like Tasmania, but – what – the floor is the same for everyone?

COLLINS: That’s correct. That’s correct, and this is about making sure that every state and territory gets their fair share. It’s also about allowing some of the community housing providers some surety of pipeline, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, so that they can grow and so that they can get some scale in terms of investments in those smaller states and territories.

KARVELAS: Why is the floor the same for every area, when the need isn’t the same in every area?

COLLINS: Well, we’ve had a look at that, and this is about, as I said, making sure that every state and territory gets their fair share-

KARVELAS: But it wouldn’t be fair – that’s the question.

COLLINS: The other bigger states will get their fair share. They will get a lot more than the floor. We’re talking here about a floor. We know, for instance, working with the other states and territories that a lot of them have already got plans available. They’ve already got homes that they want to build, and they’re waiting on this fund and the investment returns from this fund to get more homes on the ground more quickly. We’ve had states and territories lift already. What they need now is a bit more leverage with some federal government funding through the Housing Australia Future Fund to get more homes on the ground more quickly.

We’ve heard the New South Wales Minister come out, and she said it’s worth about 16 to 19,000 additional homes for New South Wales. We’re talking about serious investments – 30,000 social and affordable rental homes in the first five years of this fund right across the country. And the important thing about this fund, Patricia, is it will be there in perpetuity. There will be, you know, certainty of funding for long-term projects, for investors over the long term. And what we’re trying to do is leverage that and get institutional investors into social and affordable housing in Australia. And that’s what the fund will allow us to do, by being there in perpetuity with returns every year available.

KARVELAS: When will construction start on these homes, and how long will it take to build the 1200 floor?

COLLINS: Well, we’re talking about over five years from once the fund being established. What we already have done is unlock the $575 million from the National Housing Infrastructure Facility immediately. We already have homes under construction through federal government funding since we’ve come to office today. We did that as an interim measure while we waited for the Housing Australia Future Fund to get up and running. We know that once the bill passes the parliament, that it will take some time to generate some returns and those returns then being available for investment, which is why we’ve done that.

We also, of course, have allowed NHFIC – which we soon hope will become Housing Australia – an additional $2 billion of concessional loan lending to community housing providers, to get more homes on the ground more quickly. We anticipate that money will be available from 1 July, and we anticipate up to another 7000 additional social and affordable rental homes from that investment. So we are adding significantly. We’re getting actions significantly. But what we need, of course, is to get this fund, this bill, through the parliament.

KARVELAS: The Greens argue the future fund offers no support for renters and there’s no guaranteed minimum spend if the fund doesn’t generate a return. So that means potentially, if it’s not getting a return you can’t do anything, right?

COLLINS: Well, if you have a look at the other future funds and advice we have from the future fund guardians is that there is an average of around 9 per cent return. What we want to do is invest and have certainty, and that’s what the fund is about. It’s not the only thing the government is doing, as I have clearly outlined, Patricia. We are doing other investments. There is a National Housing Accord. We’re doing it through commonwealth state housing agreements, very significant investments with the states and territories into social and affordable housing.

The important thing is these are rental homes. We’re talking about an additional 30,000 social and affordable rental homes. We know that fundamentally in Australia the issue here is that there are not enough homes. Compared to the OECD average, we have less homes per thousand people in Australia. This housing problem has been around for a long time. It is getting worse. We need to act, and the fund is about ensuring that it is there in perpetuity to make sure that we have funding certainty for institutional investors.

KARVELAS: Minister, if I could just get in here. Last year – this is what Adam Bandt says, the reason the Greens won’t give you support is because of the way you’ve constructed this. He says last year based on that model not one house would have been built. What’s your response to that?

COLLINS: What I would say is that this investment is a broad investment. It’s the same –

KARVELAS: But is he right? Last year not one house would have been built?

COLLINS: That is not right, no. I mean –

KARVELAS: Well, how many would have been built on the model?

COLLINS: What we’re talking about here is a fund that is there over the long term, and it is not the only thing we’re doing. What we have is a group of experts who want this bill passed. We have Homelessness Australia, National Shelter, the community housing industry, Power Housing Australia, the Property Council, the MBA. As you said yesterday, every single state and territory housing minister wants this bill passed, and today we have the Jacqui Lambie senators, Senators Tyrrell and Lambie supporting this. I think everybody knows that this bill needs to be passed, and what I would say to Liberal senators and to Green senators is that they need to listen to the community concern and the experts, and they need to pass this bill.

KARVELAS: Okay. But I just want to get you back on that detail, if I can. You’re saying he’s wrong. How many houses would have been built?

COLLINS: Well, all existing future funds provide consistent and reliable annual disbursements. I mean, we’re talking over a decade the average return is 9 per cent, right. This fund will operate the same way as other future funds that they’ve set up. But, as I said, it is not the only thing we are doing –

KARVELAS: I understand that part. I do understand that part. But just on this part – that’s the question.

COLLINS: The fund is important to show that we have the funding there in perpetuity, right. That’s what it’s about. It’s about –

KARVELAS: But is he right, though, then on last year, on his point?

COLLINS: No, he’s not right-

KARVELAS: Well, how many houses would have been built then?

COLLINS: Well, the fund is not there – it’s not through the parliament yet, Patricia. We want to get the fund through the parliament. That is the point-

KARVELAS: Yeah, I know, but on the model – I know it wasn’t there. I mean, that’s logical. But on the model itself – I’m sorry, Minister, I have to return you to the model. Is he right that no houses would have been built? And if you say he’s wrong, how many would have been built?

COLLINS: Well, what we need to do to is get the fund up and running. We’ve been very clear that the average disbursements from the other funds, they’ve all made reliable annual disbursements. Their average return has been 9 per cent per annum over the past decade-

KARVELAS: So you don’t know how many?

COLLINS: - A lower return in one year is usually balanced by returns, greater returns in other years. What we’re talking about here is over five years we expect 30,000 homes, social and affordable rental homes for Australians from the fund. These funds are operating in Victoria and in Queensland, and they are making returns and they are investing in housing across the country.

KARVELAS: Okay. So there’s other issues, of course, in the rental market, if we can get a bit broader, Minister. I mean, people right now are struggling with rents, as you well know and as you’ve acknowledged. So will your government consider a national freeze on rent increases? It’s also a key demand of the Greens, who you need to get over the line for your housing legislation. Is that a reasonable idea? It happened during Covid.

COLLINS: Look, Patricia, obviously the states and territories have the levers available to them. What we have had is the discussion at national cabinet and a discussion at the housing ministers yesterday about strengthening renters’ rights, about having a bit more consistency around what renters’ rights are across the country. That is what we are looking at. This is being led by states and territories. They are the ones that have the levers available to them. The federal government doesn’t have those levers available to it. What we are doing right across the housing portfolio is working with states and territories, who primarily have the levers when it comes to housing in Australia.

KARVELAS: Okay. They do, but they’ve kicked the can down the road. There appears to be no immediate action for the people who just are struggling to pay their bills right now. What’s the plan for them?

COLLINS: The immediate action is about getting more homes on the ground more quickly. Every time these people are delaying this fund, they’re delaying homes on the ground more quickly. We have already unlocked money. We are already getting homes underway now, rental homes for Australians. What I would say to people is every single day that this bill is delayed is delaying homes on the ground. That’s what delays are about. They’re about delaying getting homes on the ground.

KARVELAS: I know, but the housing affordability fund won’t fix the immediate affordability rental crisis. Does there need to be a lift next week in the budget in rent assistance, Minister

COLLINS: Look, there is no silver bullet. We can’t turn around a decade of very little action from the former government. We can’t turn around decades of, you know, not enough supply in Australia overnight. There is no silver bullet. What we’re doing is working as quickly as we can with states and territories to turn around what are very serious housing challenges in Australia. We have our election commitments that we are trying to implement here with our Housing Australia Future Fund. At every opportunity as a federal government we’ve added to that.

We have made very significant announcements with the $575 million. Through the National Housing Accord, we’re getting states to do more in terms of planning reform. We’re getting states to match our additional 10,000 affordable rental homes, so that’s 20,000 affordable rentals out of the National Accord. We have the additional $2 billion in financing that I announced last week. We’ve changed tax concessions in relation to build to rent, and the depreciation of those to get more investment into those.

We are at every opportunity, Patricia, trying to turn this around, working with states and territories. We have a very ambitious housing agenda. We are being told it’s incredibly ambitious, and it is. But it is deliverable. And what we want to do is try and turn this around as quickly as we can. But there’s no silver bullet for this. There is no easy solution.

KARVELAS: No, Minister, but there are solutions that can be taken when there’s a crisis, right? Now, I’ve got lots of text messages from Tasmanians – you’re a Tasmanian – who really appear to be very angry about the AFL getting granted this public money instead of it going into the housing crisis. Do you think an AFL team is more important than putting the money into that housing?

COLLINS: Look, what we have done in terms of the Macquarie Point precinct is we are investing in the precinct. This precinct will include social and affordable mixed housing development. We’re talking about as part of that getting more homes on the ground for Tasmanians, as part of that negotiation we did with the Tasmanian Government. We also know that, of course, investing in that site and activating that site will return benefits to Tasmanians - benefit and income that will be able to go back into more housing. And as you’ve just heard, you know, federally we are also investing significantly in housing in Tasmania and right across the country.

KARVELAS: Julie Collins, thank you for joining us.

COLLINS: Thank you, Patricia.