Anti-poverty campaigner: ‘Scrap Stage 3 and spend big on public housing’

February 14, 2024
Kristin O'Connell and a public housing block in Melbourne
Governments should build public housing and buy empty homes instead of implementing more tax cuts, argues Kristin O'Connell (inset). Photo: Inner Melbourne Community Legal

Homeless people are dying more than 30 years earlier than the general population, a new Guardian Australia report has revealed.

It said homeless people are dying at an average age of 44, compared to 77 in the general population. Many of these deaths were “directly connected to the trauma and desperation of homelessness, and compounded by the vast waits for emergency and public housing”.

Meanwhile, the waiting lists for public and social housing continue to grow: almost 60,000 people were on the New South Wales waiting list in October. NSW and Victoria are pushing ahead with plans to demolish public housing sites, but tenants and communities are pushing back.

Kristin O’Connell, spokesperson for The Antipoverty Centre (APC), spoke to Green Left’s Isaac Nellist about the need for government investment in public housing, among other solutions, to counter worsening poverty.

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What do you take away from The Guardian’s recent report on homeless people dying much earlier than the general population?

It is not a shock to a people campaigning for the welfare system to become truly supportive and an actual safety net.

We have been saying for a long time that the system of supports and the so-called welfare system kills people and, of course, it kills people in the worst situations at a far greater rate than anyone else. It is really significant to have been able to put a number on this. But it's also something that should not come as a surprise.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics says more than 122,000 people are experiencing homelessness. As rents and house prices rise, what do you think governments should do?

That number, high as it is, doesn’t tell the full story. There are so many people living in overcrowded homes and people who will be forced into homelessness when their next rent rise hits.

The government could easily fund enough public homes to ensure that everyone who needs one has the option to live in public housing. It has no political will to do that.

Right now, there are lots of empty homes — second homes, holiday homes or short stay rentals like Airbnbs.  The government could buy these and house people.

The Queensland Labor government announced recently that it had “secured” some disused retirement homes — a good first step. But it should be going far beyond empty retirement villages and looking at all empty homes.

Of course we still need to build more public housing, but buying existing buildings can be done far more quickly.

Secondly, there are a lot of people who don’t currently qualify for public or community housing and are in a state of severe rental stress.

Those people can be assisted if the government did some very obvious things such as strict rent control.

I don’t think a rent freeze at this point in time is appropriate, because we have all been pushed so far, and our rents have gone up so much that the slightest financial hit — whether it's unexpected medical costs or some other crisis — is going to throw us out of our homes.

The APC has been proposing that there should be rent rollbacks for those experiencing severe rent rises. If the government needs to bail out greedy property investors to do that, that’s what they should do.

There are many mechanisms the government could use to significantly reduce rental stress, reduce public housing waiting lists and get people who have no shelter, or who are living in insecure or unstable situations, into housing.

 Labor claims its Stage 3 tax cuts changes make the policy more “fair”. What’s your take?

Some are praising Labor’s changes as a great maneuver to “snooker” the Coalition. But it could outmanoeuvre the opposition by scrapping Stage 3 and do something really good with the money that benefits a lot of people.

Stage 3 is a terrible waste of money. Any spending that is not going to those who need it most makes no sense. Labor should spend $300 billion on public housing and increase Centrelink payments. If that kind of money was invested in public homes, with extended eligibility, it would have an even greater impact.

Everyone on a low income, employed or unemployed, would benefit from that investment.

Lots of people may notice the tax cut, but is $4000 a year going to make a difference to someone on $250,000 a year? That kind of figure given to those on the lowest incomes would make an enormous difference.

The government could invest in housing, healthcare and education. These things could benefit everyone — even those on high incomes — and make a big material difference to those on the lowest incomes.

Fundamentally, Stage 3 is a regressive policy. It further flattens the tax system, and we already have one of the least progressive tax systems in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

When I was born, the top tax rate was about 60¢ to the dollar. It is now about 45¢.

The APC has been scrutinising the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) annual donor returns, particularly in the employment services industry, which reveal which companies have donated what to political parties. What have you found?

We published Punishment for Profit last year, which looked at the entire ecosystem of compulsory activities known as “mutual obligations” and the providers that benefit from the privatisation of the system which polices mutual obligations, called “employment services”.

One of the largest, APM, donated about $700,000 to Labor and the Coalition from 2014 to 2023. Their contracts over that time were worth about $800 million.

In response to the catastrophic rollout of Workforce Australia in 2022, we called on the government to pause payment suspensions until the problems were resolved. It declined to do that and instead set up an inquiry into the system.

Throughout the inquiry, not only did the government continue to penalise people — during the inquiry there were more than 2 million payment suspension notices issued — the AEC data revealed that APM donated $150,000 to the Labor Party during that time.

When Labor was first elected, employment minister Tony Burke told campaigners the reason he couldn't pause payment suspensions was because he was concerned about the viability of the providers.

This is extremely telling: it shows he was aware that people would stop engaging with these providers because they were not helping them.

If the inquiry treated providers which have abused people, and profited from that abuse, as credible witnesses, it would have no credibility. That credibility has been even further undermined by the APM’s donations.

Some say we should get rid of the system entirely and spend the $4 billion a year elsewhere.

But there are so many people who want useful help, access to education, training, exploring career options, doing work experience and other things that might help them get a job.

At the moment, the government is spending $4 billion on a service that gets in the way.

The APC would love to see the money being spent on services — ideally a high quality public sector service, that people could voluntarily access when they want help.

We also obviously need all payments to be raised above the poverty line. There should also be a support services for people to access.

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