19 February 2020







Thanks to both the Committee for Sydney and the School of Built Environment for organising tonight’s event.

Thanks to everyone for coming out on a Tuesday evening to discuss housing policy.

And of course, thanks to the authors: Professor Pawson, Associate Professor Milligan, and Associate Professor Yates.

This is the kind of book we need in Australian public policy – a book with academic rigour, with loyalty to the evidence, and with a commitment to using that expertise to shape public debate.  

Congratulations to the three of you.

I want to preface my remarks this evening by saying the Labor Party is in a process of policy development at the moment.  So I’ll be talking about my view, my recollections as housing minister, rather than what we’re planning on doing, or planning on announcing before the next election.

This book we’re launching tonight is called Housing Policy in Australia, but it just as easily could be called The Problem with Housing Policy in Australia.

As everyone here would acknowledge, these issues are real and urgent – and they’ve gotten worse over the past three decades.

The evidence is hard to refute.

When you look through this book, you see a lot of graphs – and few of them are moving in the right direction.

The most familiar measurement is the most damning: the price of buying your first home.

For most of the twentieth century, Australia enjoyed a comparatively high rate of home ownership.

This grew fastest in the post war era, encouraged by government assistance and the opening up of suburbia, peaking at over 70% in the 1960s.

But by the mid-1980s, this great democratic project stalled – and began sliding into reverse.

In the past thirty years, the price of housing has trebled – while real incomes have grown by just 50%.

Where it once took the median household the equivalent of six months’ income to pay for a 20% deposit on the median house, it now requires the equivalent of fifteen months.

For a generation of people, particularly those without access to family wealth, these numbers reflect a profound social change – effectively locking them out of their surest path to economic security.

For those living in capital cities like Sydney and Melbourne, this change has been dizzying in its speed and scale.  

But it’s not just aspiring home buyers who are being hurt by this housing market.

The rising cost of housing has also inflated the private rental market – making it much harder for lower income Australians to access adequate housing without going into serious financial stress.

The number of Australians renting privately has itself increased over the past 20 years – from 18% of the population to around 25% now.

Renting is fine, if that’s your choice – but people still want stability, and current rental laws provide little of that.

This has all combined to intensify economic inequality – further dividing asset owners from renters, and those with manageable mortgages from those with extreme mortgage stress.

Looking at these stats together, it’s hard to disagree with the book’s basic premise – that there’s a pressing need for government to intervene in a dysfunctional housing market; that government should actively promote the goals of efficiency, equity and stability.

Pretty much the only support for first home buyers now is a modest measure to allow 5% deposits – a policy that only increases the cost of a loan.  Largely a cheap knock off of our previous First Home Buyers Scheme.

As Robert Menzies put it in his ‘Forgotten People’ speech, ‘the home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole’.

The party of Scott Morrison is no longer the party of Robert Menzies.

The Coalition is now more concerned with protecting a speculator’s twelfth investment property than assisting a first home buyer, or a low income renter, or a homeless or marginally housed Australian.

I know people’s tolerance for ‘back in the good old days’ speeches is limited, but I also suspect you invited me here tonight with at least a little indulgence – so here goes:

When Labor came to office in 2007, we inherited rising house prices, a shortage of new dwellings, and a financial crisis that demanded urgent action.

Our response to these problems was ambitious – and it improved the supply of housing across the nation.

In fact, Associate Professor Milligan described it at the time as ‘the comeback of national housing policy in Australia’.

Our ambition touched every corner of the housing market.

As part of our economic stimulus, we introduced the First Home Owners Boost – with goal of supporting the construction industry, while also making it easier for people to buy their first homes.

This is not something I would contemplate in a strong market, but facing a downturn in construction, I felt it was sensible stimulus – and it meant up to $21,000 for people buying newly constructed dwellings.

It was one of the many policies that helped keep this country out of recession.

To go with this, we designed the National Rental Affordability Scheme – which provided incentives for investors to make properties available to lower and middle income Australians, for 20% below market value.

We built more than 36,000 new affordable homes, of the 100,000 promised before the scheme was closed – homes that wouldn’t have existed without our intervention. 

We invested heavily in social housing, the first substantial increase in decades – and the last.

The Social Housing Initiative included $6 billion for the construction, repair and upgrading of social housing.

The Labor government built 21,600 new social homes, returned 12,000 back to the community after serious repairs, and helped improve another 80,000. 

These are real, tangible improvements – and they changed lives.

So did our National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing – putting $5.5 billion over ten years into Indigenous communities, addressing overcrowding, homelessness and severe shortages.

The thing I’m proudest of, though, was the Homelessness White Paper, which set out a comprehensive national strategy to tackle homelessness, with substantial new investment.

We built new facilities, opened new programs, reformed the system and set ambitious targets. 

Since then, Australia has abandoned the target to halve the rate of homelessness. It breaks my heart.

My point is not that our policies were perfect, or that they offer a silver bullet for solving our housing crisis.

My point is that, if we want to confront a problem of this scale, we need to approach it with this kind of energy and commitment.

We need to muster our resources and ambition.

We need road maps like Housing Policy in Australia, but we also need the political power to implement them.

I hope this book gets a wide audience. It’s a vital topic, backed up by impressive scholarship.

Thanks again for inviting me to this launch. 

And thanks for pushing equity to the centre of our housing debate, exactly where it should be.