Interview with Minister Julie Collins on ABC RN Breakfast

TOPICS: Homelessness; Albanese Government housing reform agenda

PATRICIA KARVELAS: An ambitious plan to tackle homelessness through investments in social housing was one of Labor’s points of difference during the election campaign. The centre piece of that is a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund, which aims to build around 30,000 social and affordable housing properties in its first five years. Now in government the challenge of developing and implementing a national strategy on homelessness falls to the Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Small Business Julie Collins. She joins us this morning. Minister, welcome to Breakfast. 

COLLINS: Good morning, Patricia, and to your listeners. 

KARVELAS: You’re going to be delivering a significant speech today. In the speech you’re going to urge Australians to help tackle homelessness in their own backyard. What do you mean by that? 

COLLINS: Well, it means about working with local community organisations and understanding the need for social and affordable housing to be built in communities right across the country, Patricia. If we are going to, you know, deliver on our commitment of the 30,000 social and affordable houses, they’re going to have to be in communities right across the country. And I say to all Australians: these investments should be welcomed and that everybody in our entire community benefits from everybody having a safe place to call home. 

KARVELAS: You served at Minister for Homelessness in 2013. How has the situation facing Australia changed since then? 

COLLINS: Well, I think it's changed significantly since then. What we’re seeing is that – and what I’m hearing from people is it’s much harder for people to be able to purchase their home and it’s much harder for people to be able to rent a home. I’m seeing – and, you know, even before the election, Patricia, I was getting people coming to my electorate office, more people than I’ve seen before, with housing stress. People who are, you know, at the end of their lease or, you know, separating, trying to find somewhere to rent, somewhere to buy to put their families. It’s becoming more and more difficult for people. So we do need to be ambitious, and it’s terrific we had our first Housing Ministers meeting just a few weeks ago, the first in almost five years. And it was terrific to talk to the other states and territory ministers. We realise that there is a national affordability issue and we all need to work together to try and solve it. 

KARVELAS: There are some really acute issues happening, particularly in terms of rising rents. Is that something you’re going to be working on and considering lifting rent assistance? 

COLLINS: Well, we’re talking to the states and territories. One of the good things about that meeting was that the states and territories are sharing some of the innovative things they’re doing in different states and territories and how they’re managing that. So I think, you know, to have the ministers all in the one room sharing the information about what is and what isn’t working. The other thing that we agreed to do is to share some data and information. Because I think what we need is evidence about what does work. You know, if we’re investing taxpayers’ money, whether it be at the state, the federal or the local government level, we need to make sure we’re getting our very best return and that we’re actually improving housing affordability, not making thing worse. 

KARVELAS: Yeah, but when it comes to rent assistance, that’s entirely a Commonwealth payment. Is that something in the budget context that’s being – that’s under consideration, lifting rent assistance? 

COLLINS: We’re not at the moment. We’re talking to states and territories about what can be done in terms of rental affordability. Ultimately it’s an issue around supply, and we want to build 30,000 more social and affordable homes on top of what states and territories are doing. 

KARVELAS: There are 162,500 households on the social housing waiting list. And your policies, certainly they go further than the last government’s, but it will go nowhere near dealing with that backlog. How are you going to deal with that backlog? 

COLLINS: Well, what we’re talking about with the 30,000 social and affordable homes is on top of the efforts that the states and territories are already doing. We’re talking about working with communities, social housing providers, with local governments, with private developers, as many people as we can, to sort of get a plan and get us all heading in the same direction so that we can actually all target this so we can all work together and leverage off each other to try and get more homes on the ground as quickly as possible. For instance, the state and territories, I think, by 2024 will have delivered around 15,000 additional social and affordable houses across the country. So our effort will be on top of that. 

KARVELAS: Do you agree, though, that 30,000 isn’t enough to deal with the problem? 

COLLINS: Well, it’s, you know, the Federal Government stepping up to the plate, Patricia. We've had nine years of neglect when it comes to housing affordability in this country, and investment particularly in social housing. So it’s going to take a long time to turn that around. The $10 billion fund is a very significant investment and it’s been very welcomed by the sector but also by states, territories and local governments. 

KARVELAS: Yeah, they’ve welcomed it, but they say that it’s not enough still. I’m just – yes, you talk about the lack of attention – 

COLLINS: Yes, that’s why we need – sorry. 

KARVELAS: No, please go ahead. 

COLLINS: Yeah, that’s why we need a national plan. That’s why we need a national plan. And that’s why we’re also going to put together a National Supply and Affordability Council to look at what the issues are, what are the restrictions, how do we get more homes on the ground faster right across the country. And I think if we’ve got the three tiers of government and we’ve got the community housing sector, we’ve got the construction industry all working together on a national plan to deal with housing and homelessness, we’ll get a lot further than we have without a national plan. And I think having some leadership and trying to get everybody working together means we’ll get much better results and we’ll be able to get more homes on the ground faster right across the country. 

KARVELAS: In the speech today at the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute you’re going to accuse the Coalition Government of a decade of inaction. But do governments of both stripes have to take some responsibility for policies which have driven up the cost of housing dramatically over the last few decades? 

COLLINS: Well, we have seen a very significant increase in construction costs – I think about 46 per cent over the last decade. 20 per cent of that was in the last two or three years. Some of it is down to supply chain issues which, from talking to the construction industry, they expect to ease some time next year. So we hope that some of the current inflationary pressures around costs of construction start to stabilise or come down a little bit by next year. But certainly there has been a significant issue right across the world, not just here in Australia. 

KARVELAS: But in terms of the rise in house prices that we’ve seen broadly in our country, obviously we’re seeing some shift at the moment, but historically, if you look at housing policies – negative gearing, for instance, that Labor wanted to tackle and now doesn’t – do you accept that that’s led to the sort of situation we’re in? 

COLLINS: Well, that’s why we need evidence and data about what’s working. That’s why, you know, sharing evidence and data and getting the states and territories to provide some of that and having the national supply and affordability council will give us the evidence base about what is the best investments from state and federal governments when it comes to housing affordability in Australia. Without the data and evidence and without a national plan we’re really just, you know, running on the hop, which is what the former government did for nine years. We actually need a plan. We need the data and the evidence about what is working and what isn’t. 

KARVELAS: One thing you are doing is saying that the Commonwealth has a responsibility here. Under the last government – and I certainly spoke to the previous Minister – the argument was that it was actually a state issue. Are you seeking to rewrite that arrangement? And how do you – what’s your concept of what the commonwealth should be doing in this space? Should it be taking the leadership role? 

COLLINS: Well, clearly there are very significant constitutional issues around states and territories and their responsibilities for housing. But when you look at right across the country, we have a national housing affordability issue. This is not an issue that’s occurring just in one state or one territory; this is a national issue. So by providing some leadership and getting everybody to work together on a national plan we might be able to tackle it nationally rather than on a state-by-state basis. I mean, some of the states are doing innovative things. Some of them admit that perhaps they didn’t do things as quickly as they could have or should have. But by all working together we can actually try and tackle some of it. And if we’ve got a national plan, if we’re looking at the data and the evidence through a national supply and affordability council, doing some of the work that the AHURI are already doing, we actually might be able to tackle some of this. It’s not going to happen overnight, but at least we’re starting to make an effort and show some leadership and stepping up to the plate.

KARVELAS: Will the national plan include a strategy for getting local government to release more land and state governments for housing development? 

COLLINS: Some are already doing that. There’s already some innovative programs that I’ve been able to go and visit where local government has given land over to community housing organisations, state governments and community housing organisations working together and getting more properties on the ground faster because local governments are releasing land. And in some cases, you know, they are handing the land over for next to nothing, to be frank. So it has been interesting talking to some local government organisations, and I certainly hope to form a great relationship with local government and get everybody trying to work together, Patricia. 

KARVELAS: If you’re just tuning in, I’m speaking the Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Small Business Julie Collins. So this national plan, and you say it won’t, you know, change everybody overnight, and, of course, it does – there’s a huge amount of time it takes to sort of really turn this around. But when do you hope to have the national plan all done and dusted so we can see what the long-term planning is beyond what you took to the election? 

COLLINS: Yeah, so in terms of the national plan, what we want to do is have some short, medium and long-term outcomes, I guess, from the plan working with people. We expect it will take around 18 months to develop a plan, and what we’ve done in the meantime is we’ve offered the states and territories an additional year in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement to allow those services to continue and have some certainty while we work together on the national plan. So we do need to get working, and I'm working as quickly as I can. I want to get the National Supply and Affordability Council up and running. We want to get legislation in to get the Housing Australia Future Fund up and running, so we’re hoping to get that legislation introduced before the end of the year. So we are working as quickly as we can. 

KARVELAS: Minister, thank you for joining us today. 

COLLINS: Thank you very much, Patricia.