By Tanya Plibersek

03 August 2020


SUBJECTS: National Homelessness Week; importance of social housing; JobKeeper; Victorian coronavirus outbreak; aged care; Western Australia border closures.
JACK DE GROOT, CEO OF NSW ST VINCENT DE PAUL SOCIETY: Welcome. My name's Jack de Groot. I'm the CEO the St Vincent de Paul Society here in New South Wales. It's tremendous to have you all and to have our local Member, Tanya Plibersek, with us, the Opposition spokesman for Housing and Homelessness, Jason Clare, and the Leader of the Opposition at the Federal level, Anthony Albanese, here with us as we talk about the issues of homelessness as we commence National Homelessness Week. Let's pay respects to the traditional owners, standing on Cadigal Land of the Eora Nation.
As I've said, this week is National Homelessness Week. And, ‘Everybody needs a home’ is the theme of this week. Here we're at the Matt Talbot. For over 80 years, the Matt Talbot has been the scene of the provision of shelter to those who are homeless on the streets of Sydney. COVID-19 has changed many of the realities for people who experience chronic homelessness and street sleeping. At one level, it's provided an opportunity. But the pandemic has created a greater vulnerability in our community and the threat of homelessness to more and more people. There's over 116,000 Australians who are homeless each night or at risk of homelessness, sleeping on the streets, in cars, on someone's house or an overcrowded accommodation. For many of the residents here at the Talbot this is a place of the first step in the change process to move from extraordinary vulnerability to a shelter, and then to accompaniment as they change their aspirations for a home, their right to home, and a sustainable and secure housing solution for them. The St Vincent de Paul Society throughout New South Wales knows the desperate need for an investment in social and affordable housing. By the end of this year, we will have finished a three-year program of building 502 houses. For each year for the next decade, New South Wales needs at least 5,000 new social and affordable houses to take care of the existing homeless challenge, but to also meet the increasing risk of homelessness to people as they survive the terrible burden of the pandemic. Whether it's unemployment, domestic violence, the great vulnerability in our community now because of anxiety and mental health challenges, the issues of homelessness are on the rise, rather than on the decrease. Five thousand new social affordable houses each year for the next decade will be a crucial step to take care of the issues confronting people in regard to homelessness throughout this state. And more needs to be done nationally. We welcome the initiatives of state governments, but we also need to see the nation build together something that brings justice and housing to all. So, let me welcome Tanya Plibersek, the Member for Sydney and Shadow spokesperson for Education to address you. Welcome, Tanya.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, MEMBER FOR SYDNEY: Thank you so much, Jack. And it's my pleasure to welcome Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition, to my electorate, and our Shadow spokesperson for Housing and Homelessness, Jason Clare. The Matthew Talbot holds a very special place in the community here in Woolloomooloo. It's been here for many, many years and has supported thousands of very needy Australians at the time when they've been most desperate in their lives. Supported them with accommodation, with a meal, with health services, but also with a sense of community and friendship. I think the Matthew Talbot, like many homelessness services, proves that we can reduce and even end homelessness if we set our minds to it. And this period during COVID-19 has been an extraordinary example of what can be done if we are determined. When Labor was last in Government during the Global Financial Crisis, we were presented with a similar problem. And we worked towards housing people who were homeless at that time very successfully. In fact, the extension here was funded out of our White Paper on homelessness. It was opened by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 as one of the many, many commitments we made to reducing homelessness at that time. During the Global Financial Crisis, we spent $5.6 billion on building new social housing. We built more than 21,000 new social housing dwellings and fixed up another 80,000. We supported about 80 new homelessness services. We committed to 100,000 National Rental Affordability Scheme dwellings. All of that came to a screaming halt when the Liberals came into office Federally. We want to see a renewed commitment to helping homeless people leave homelessness behind forever. Thank you very much. I think we're going to hear from Anthony now.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much, Tanya. And thanks to Jack for welcoming us here at Matthew Talbot. And thanks to those people who we've had an opportunity to speak to this morning as well - people who are doing it tough, people who rely upon the compassionate and committed service provided here for decades. When I was a much younger man, going to school up the road here at St. Mary's Cathedral, I and my fellow students used to volunteer here and help with meals and help to do our bit. It was a part of our commitment to Catholic social justice principles. And that is what this institution has done - looking after vulnerable Australians. At a time like now, with the pandemic, there are more Australians vulnerable than perhaps any time in our lifetime. And governments need to step up to the plate. We need to make sure that people aren't left behind during the pandemic, and that they're not held back during the recovery. And one way that we can do that is by investing in social housing. It isn't enough for the Government to encourage those people who have a lazy $150,000 sitting around to renovate their home to make a contribution. What we need to do is to provide that support which would create jobs, which would create skills while it's happening, and leave a lasting legacy, as Labor did with Tanya Plibersek as the Housing Minister during the Global Financial Crisis. This should be an absolute no-brainer to invest in social housing, when we have over 100,000 Australians homeless in a country as rich as we are. And we've seen during this pandemic, with people housed in hotels and temporary accommodation, that if need be, we can step up. It shouldn't take a pandemic, or the hosting of an Olympics, for us to provide support so that people aren't sleeping rough. It should be something which, as a relatively wealthy society, we can do. Because the economics of it are also very clear. If you invest in social housing, provide people with opportunity, there is a cost to the Budget of construction, but that produces an asset. But there's also a reduction in costs, in health costs, in the justice system, in so many areas if we actually don't just leave people behind. So, I think today, it's very important that we do that.
I had the opportunity this morning to once again speak to Daniel Andrews about the Victorian situation. And our hearts and our thoughts are with our Victorian friends who are doing a tough, who are going to have to endure more restrictions over the coming weeks. And what that means as well is that the Government, when it comes to the economy, needs to do two things. One, it can't withdraw support too quickly by either withdrawing or reducing JobKeeper and JobSeeker so that it creates more hardship and in the long run means that the economic downturn is longer and deeper. We need to make sure that we have a flexible approach to these issues and that it's tailored towards the economic conditions as they are rather than as we want them to be. That means, for example, that a range of businesses that have seen their revenues increased in the short-term in June, but with the increased lockdown have seen that decrease, and we'll see that decrease further into September, need to be given support. It means the businesses that weren't suffering before, but are suffering in the coming period, need to be given support. We need to keep that relationship between employers and employees, that is the heart of the wage subsidies behind JobKeeper, going as a necessary. It means also, though, that we need to look forward to the future. We need to look forward to what mechanisms are necessary so that we leave a legacy. One way to do that is by investing in infrastructure. One part of infrastructure isn't just investing in roads and railways, it's investing in social infrastructure. Investing in the childcare centres we need, the aged care centres we need, the homelessness services we need and the social housing that we need.
I'll just say one final thing about the Prime Minister's backflip when it comes to Western Australia. Labor has been consistent during this pandemic. We have not sought, at any stage, to have dual messages of saying that it's up to the states on the one hand, but then to be critical of the decisions which states have made. The Prime Minister has been critical, whether it be of Annastacia Palaszczuk's decision to close Queensland borders, or Mark McGowan's position on Western Australian borders, or referring to outbreaks as somehow being about Victoria, rather than about 'We're all in this together as a nation'. On Western Australia, Mark McGowan is right and has been right from the beginning. The Prime Minister needs to explain why it is that he joined with Clive Palmer in a legal challenge to the closure of those borders because he said that was just a matter of course, but then has withdrawn that support today. Both things can't be right. Of course, it was always opportunistic for him to join Clive Palmer who was so supportive of the Liberal National Party during last year's election. And it's opportunistic today for the Prime Minister to get the message that Western Australians have been doing the right thing under the leadership of Mark McGowan, and that's something that has the overwhelming support of people in the West. I ask Jason to make some comments.
JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: Jack, thanks for inviting us to be here today. And thank you to your whole team here at Matthew Talbot for all the work that you've done, all the work that Vinnies has done over decades here to help people who've fallen on tough times and help them get back on their feet, changing lives. And we're also glad to be here to support your campaign to build more social housing. Because by doing that, by putting a roof over the heads of more Australians, we can change even more lives. And I have got to tell you that you have got two politicians here in Albo and Tanya who get it. There's not many political leaders who understand the importance of putting a roof over people's heads more than Anthony Albanese. He grew up in a social housing flat not far from here. And there's not many politicians who have done more to build social housing than Tanya Plibersek. Tanya mentioned it before, but she's too modest to say that there aren't many politicians since Chifley that have done more to build housing and put a roof over people's heads than Tanya. More than 20,000 homes built, and more than 80,000 rundown and dilapidated social housing dwellings renovated and repaired that changed lives. But there's more work that we need to do. And here on the eve of Homelessness Week, it's important that we say that something good has happened. In the grip of the pandemic, thousands and thousands of Aussies that normally sleep on our streets and in our parks have been provided with a bed and a roof over their head. They've been put into empty hotel rooms and empty motel rooms. It should tell us something. If there's enough will, we can fix this problem of homelessness. We can get rough sleepers off the streets and transform lives. Just like you do every day here, Jack. We're at a crossroads, though, at the moment. What happens in the months ahead? Do people after the pandemic get forced back onto the street and back into the park? Or do we fix this permanently? Do we provide a permanent home for people? State governments around the country are doing some really good things here. Dan Andrews made a big announcement only last week about providing more funding for accommodation for rough sleepers. But the National Government needs to provide some national leadership here as well. That's why we've been calling on the National Cabinet to step up, look at this problem, and provide a long-term solution. And one really practical thing that the Federal Government can do is put more money in to build more social housing. It would be a win-win. It would create more jobs for tradies and more homes for people who really need it. But the economy shrinking at the moment, and unemployment is growing. More than 240,000 Aussies are expected to lose their job by Christmas. And we need a jobs plan. This could be part of it. This should be part of it. Building social housing and repairing old dilapidated social housing. It would create jobs for tradies and homes for homeless Australians.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Jason. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Victorians are going to really struggle in eight weeks' time. Do you think that the $1,500 payment as it is should be extended after?
ALBANESE: Well, quite clearly, the Government will be receiving some updated economic figures on Tuesday. The Government needs to deal with it as it is. And the early withdrawal of support will mean a deeper downturn and more intense than it needed to be. What we need to make sure is that the economic recession that we're experiencing, the first in 30 years, is not longer than it needs to be and is not deeper than it needs to be. And the logic of JobKeeper, keeping those relations between employers and employees, is absolutely essential. It needs to be at the heart of the economic response. So, we need to deal with that. But we also need to look further ahead as well. And the problem for this Government's response is that, frankly, the economic updates, the statements in the Parliament from Josh Frydenberg in way back in May, have had nothing to say about the creation of jobs. So, we need to make sure that JobKeeper and JobSeeker are at appropriate levels and available for an appropriate level of time. But we also need to have JobCreator. And one way we can have job creation is through social housing investment.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of paid pandemic leave? Do you think there is an urgent need for it?
ALBANESE: There is an absolutely urgent need for paid pandemic leave. The time for discussion is long gone. Labor absolutely believes that the Government should step up wherever there are gaps in paid pandemic leave. Because we know that what is happening is that if you are a worker who's casual, who's relying upon turning up at work to put food on the table for your family, then you're under enormous pressure to do that. And the Government needs to step in here. A number of private companies are paying paid pandemic leave, and they deserve congratulations and thanks for doing that. But the Government needs to acknowledge that this has been a huge gap. In the long run as well, what this is identifying is the weakness in the labour market due to the casualisation of the labour force, whereby so many Australians work in insecure work without sick leave, without holiday leave, without the sort of conditions that people in permanent work have got and have had for a long period of time. So, these vulnerable Australian workers need to be looked after. Because if someone is put in that situation, it's a health risk for them, but it's a health risk for everyone they come into contact with as well. And it's about time the Government stops saying that they're looking at this and actually act. Because they know that this is at the heart of the problem.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister is obviously supportive of the stage four restrictions in Victoria. How do you feel about that?
ALBANESE: I support the actions of the Victorian Government, which is based upon health advice. And I have been consistent about supporting the health advice. I spoke to Daniel Andrews this morning. And I speak to him regularly and get updates, as I do with other leaders. And this is unfortunate, but it's necessary. What the Federal Government needs to do, though, is not just say they're supportive of it, but to respond to the economic response that will be required of increased support as a result of these restrictions having an impact on the economy. So, it's not good enough in this case to just say, 'Yes'. It needs to be, 'Yes, and it requires a Federal Government response'. Just as the Federal Government needs to step up on the issue of aged care. The Federal Government has responsibility for aged care. It can't continue to just pass the buck. It needs to be prepared across the nation on these issues. The Federal Government's responsible for regulating aged care. In Newmarch, here in New South Wales, sent a big loud message to the Federal Government. And unfortunately, Scott Morrison wasn't listening and didn't respond.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the Federal Government has done enough on aged care?
ALBANESE: Well, quite clearly, the Federal Government has responsibility for aged care. What's important is that now we had Newmarch months ago, we've then had outbreaks in Victoria and other places as well, it must be said, and the Government needs to have in place a national plan and response on these issues. Thank you.