Michael Pascoe: David Pocock offers sense amid stupidity on housing

Unsurprisingly, the fate of the Albanese Government’s election gimmick excuse for a housing policy has fallen into the standard Canberra sideshow of Senate politics – primarily Greens v Labor, while an attempt to actually deal with our shelter crisis is nowhere to be seen.

Well, not quite.

Overshadowed by the Greens fantasy grandstanding (“$5 billion a year and freeze rents!”) and Labor’s hypocritical empathy washing (“think of the women and children escaping violence!”) has been David Pocock’s dissenting report to the Housing Australia Future Fund Senate Committee Inquiry.

If you read the committee report and the dissenting reports by the Coalition, Greens and Senator Pocock, it becomes obvious the independent Senator for the ACT was the adult in the room actually listening to and thinking about the submissions and testimonies.

The government members seem to have had their fingers stuck firmly in their ears while loudly chanting “$10 billion Magic Pudding Fund! $10 billion Magic Pudding Fund!”

Decades of failure

That’s what you get when your Housing Minister, Julie Collins, claims the rental crisis was “the legacy of the former Liberal-National government”, when it is the result of failed Labor and Coalition governments, both federal and state, over the past three or more decades.

Even the Morrison government couldn’t so comprehensively stuff housing in just four years.

The Greens were on the hallucinogenic high of power without responsibility and the thrill of being in the spotlight acting tough for their base of young renters after compromising on climate.

“In short, the government should invest $5 billion every year in public, community and affordable housing, and produce a national plan for renters that includes a two-year freeze on rent increases,” the Greens report summarised.

“Given the government just found $368 billion for nuclear powered attack submarines, it is no longer credible for Labor to claim that the budget can’t sustain a modest $5 billion a year investment in housing.”

Be on notice that the AUKUS submarine debacle will now be the excuse for funding anything and everything that sounds nice.

At least the Greens get the reality of our housing crisis, unlike the major parties.

However, there are physical and fiscal constraints on what the government can quickly spend and achieve on housing, especially when it’s already averaging $5 billion a year on Commonwealth Rent Assistance, effectively subsidising private landlords.

Destination oblivion

But it could always be worse.

It could be the Liberal Party which remained asleep down the back of the bus that left last year, destination Oblivion, off with the pixies or the developers’ lobby, or both.

The Coalition dissenting report was so weak it even attempted to favourably reference last year’s embarrassing House of Reps housing tax inquiry chaired by Jason Falinski, the now ex-MP who wrote a report so bad the committee secretariat took their names off it.

There are serious and major problems with the government’s lame Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF), but about all the combined brain power of Liberal senators Andrew Bragg and Dean Smith could manage was a trite:

“This proposed HAFF will simply funnel off taxpayers’ money, in league with the major super funds, into housing development, with no modelling or guarantee that this will make housing more affordable.”

Climate bill

David Pocock has been a key figure in the social housing conversation. Photo: AAP

No wonder the Greens are claiming to be the real Opposition, such is the Liberal Party’s position as a waste of space.

In contrast, Senator Pocock’s report canvassed the actual central catastrophe as well as some relevant side issues before coming up with recommendations for what could actually be done.

One such very relevant side issue is the run-off of National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) properties.

This Rudd-era initiative to subsidise properties rented at below market rates was capped by the Abbott government at 38,000 properties with the subsidy ending in 2026. There were more than 23,000 still running at the start of this year.

(Note that Labor’s HAFF Magic Pudding optimistically aspires – doesn’t promise – to deliver 30,000 more social and affordable dwellings over five years from 2024. That doesn’t even cover what will have been lost by the NRAS.)

One of Senator Pocock’s recommendations:

“With a further 6,600 properties exiting the scheme this year, the number of social and affordable homes available to tenants is quickly decreasing well ahead of any eventual new HAFF supply coming online. There is a strong argument for the Commonwealth to focus on spot purchases of NRAS properties under the HAFF or consider an extension of NRAS to help manage the gap between one scheme ending and the other commencing.”

Obvious, isn’t it?

(The Queensland Government, as bad as any in allowing public and social housing to stagnate, is making a show of buying “up to” 335 ex-NRAS properties. It still means no increase in supply.)

Main recommendation

Senator Pocock’s main recommendation is to back the Grattan Institute’s submission to increase the HAFF’s initial capital to $20 billion “to arrest the net decline in social housing supply and ensure a more adequate policy response to Australia’s worsening housing crisis”.

It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would at least stop government housing going backwards.

He made several other sensible and achievable recommendations, including allowing the fund to be scaled up as required, maintaining the real capital value of the fund, removing the (very theoretical) $500 million annual disbursement cap, and bringing forward the first review of the fund to 2026.

It’s all the sort of stuff that you might hope a government and opposition actually interested in solving the problem, instead of fooling voters and/or mollifying donors, would go along with.

Personally, I’m with the likes of Dr Cameron Murray and John Hewson in thinking the very idea of a Magic Pudding fund is silly when the government should be investing in housing directly, but Senator Pocock’s recommendations were working within the confines of the HAFF bill.

It would be a start for the Government to be serious about housing instead of pretending.

It must be frustrating to be the only adult in the room.

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