Michael Pascoe: Not being Scott Morrison isn’t enough in a crisis

Anthony Albanese must act now on public and social housing, Michael Pascoe writes.

Anthony Albanese must act now on public and social housing, Michael Pascoe writes. Photos: TND/AAP

Not being Scott Morrison was enough to make Anthony Albanese Prime Minister. It is not enough to handle the three immediate and growing crises bearing down on Australia.

Yet in one of those crises, there is opportunity for the government to make the best both politically and economically of decades of policy failure coming home to roost.

Aside from not being the compromised and dodgy Coalition, Labor only had to promise fractionally more than the Liberal Party on climate and housing to win government.

On national security, Labor wilfully did even less than that to provide no target – Anthony Albanese is Scott Morrison when it comes to going all the way with the USA.

Morrison robodebt

Former PM Scott Morrison. Photo: AAP

That mutes the federal Opposition, if not Paul Keating and a growing body of opinion not afforded the luxury of the mainstream media cheer squad.

Labor looks set to politically get away for a bit longer with its pea-and-thimble carbon offset trickery, but only for a bit. A reckoning awaits.

On housing though, the alarm is already ringing with Labor’s election policy exposed as a dud, the fig leaf of its $10 billion Magic Pudding housing fund in danger of being blown away in the Senate, the expressions of concern for the homeless, the housing stressed and women needing to escape domestic violence nothing more than political theatrics.

Housing even worse than before

In numerous articles on our housing disaster over some years now, I have to admit I have made a mistake: It is even worse than I realised.

When looking at the stagnation of public housing supply while our population jumped and housing prices soared over the past three decades or so, I naively concentrated on the number of public and community housing permanent dwellings.

On that basis, using figures from the latest Productivity Commission report on government services, over the past nine years Australia managed to add 13,556 permanent dwellings after community housing groups managed to acquire a few more dwellings than the state governments sold off.

That was a gain of 3.4 per cent, while Australia’s population grew from 23 million to 26 million.

But it is not the number of dwellings that really matters – it is the number of households that occupy them. It turns out the community groups that state governments have been busily unloading their responsibilities onto are not as efficient as governments in actually putting households into dwellings.

The number of public and community housing households has actually only risen by 1315 since 2013 – one-third of one per cent, a rounding error.

Households in public and community housing

Source: Productivity Commission

States failing communities

This disaster has primarily been the doing of state governments of both colours, aided and abetted by federal governments of both colours. The performance of the various states range from absolutely appalling to simply very bad.

For example, Queensland has managed to increase its number of public and community housing dwellings by 1.3 per cent since 2013. That compares with the state’s population growing by 16.6 per cent.

Worse again: The number of Queensland public and community housing households shrank by 375 in that time to 62,127.

A Queensland Council of Social Service report has found about 100,000 households suffering housing stress in Queensland would typically be eligible for social housing – if there was any.

Qld Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Meanwhile, Premier Palaszczuk has garnered predictable headlines by unleashing a red herring of possible caps on rent increases. That’s easier than really doing something.

Victoria’s Andrews government occasionally tries to talk a public housing game. The reality is the number of combined public and community housing households there has gone backwards by 905 over the past nine years to 75,206 in a state with a population north of 6.6 million.

South Australia’s combined public and community housing stock actually shrank by 2325 in the past nine years, but the Malinauskas government didn’t blush in putting out a press release that, gee whiz, it would build 564 additional public homes by 2026.

Housing is a complex issue, but the key element in providing sustainable and secure shelter is building sustainable and secure shelter.

The neoliberal property developer/investor dream of leaving it to “the market” has demonstrably and unsurprisingly failed.

‘Steady decline over more than 25 years’

Professor Hal Pawson of the UNSW City Futures Research Centre spelt it out for the Senate Economics Committee inquiry into Labor’s Magic Pudding fund: “The private rental market’s efficacy in generating housing suitable for low-income Australians has been in steady decline over more than 25 years. Census-based research shows that since 1996 the shortfall in the number of private rental dwellings affordable to this group has increased from 48,000 to 212,000.”

(Professor Pawson actually welcomed the Magic Pudding fund, but proceeded to supply the numbers to show how inadequate it is.)

If the Albanese government’s $10 billion fund passes the Senate and even if it makes the sort of net return the government hopes it will and, “even if” again, those returns are enough to have built 30,000 social and affordable dwellings in six years’ time – it will mean an average of 5000 units a year, a growth rate of 1.2 per cent on present public housing stock and falling.

That’s below the government’s forecast population growth, never mind any dream of making an impact on the worsening inequality between property owners and the rest.

Meanwhile, rising interest rates, weaker economic growth and global economic uncertainty are reducing developers’ and investors’ desire to build – the housing shortfall is set to worsen in the next couple of years.

And that’s the opportunity for the government in its present failure: There is the chance to get serious about buying and building social housing while “the market” is failing.

When COVID was hitting, just about every economist in the land recommended investing in social housing – but the dim-witted Morrison government instead delivered a couple of billion dollars in subsidies for private owners who mostly didn’t need it.

Ditch the Magic Pudding fund, bang state government heads together to get their co-operation and get serious about our housing crisis – that would be something to be proud of, something that would be more than not being Scott Morrison.

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