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Issue #1488      9  February 2011


Housing – on the list of neo-liberal failures

High on the list of disasters caused by neo-liberal economic and social policy in Australia is its failure to deliver safe and affordable housing for those who need it. Housing stress – where the cost of housing does not leave a person or a family enough to live on after accommodation is paid for – is on the rise. Increasingly, young people and older women are caught up in the crisis. The federal government and its state counterparts make sympathetic noises, commission some schemes and launch endless studies. This is tinkering at the edges. The problem is the system and the abandonment of the proper role of public housing.

The attack on public housing began with the rise of neo-liberalism (or “economic rationalism” as it was known) in the late 1970s and early 80s. Public housing rents were forced up towards the market level. Responsible ministers and departmental spokespersons stopped talking about “public housing” and referred instead to “welfare housing”. Public housing stopped being an option available to most working people and started to become a shrinking safety net for the needy or troubled. Housing stocks diminished as properties were sold off or redeveloped.

We now live with the consequences of this attack on public enterprise. The handbrake on private rents has been removed. The stop gap Centrelink payments for rent assistance are of some limited help to low income earners but do nothing to constrain spiralling average rents. More than ever, the overall housing market has become nothing but a vehicle for speculative investment.

Last week, Sacred Heart Mission chief executive Michael Perusco wrote a column for The Age lamenting Australian governments’ lack of decisive intervention in the widespread housing crisis. He criticised the decision by the Gillard government to cut the target number of affordable homes to be built under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Under the scheme, tax incentives were to be handed out to private landlords to let newly built homes at below market rents. The number of such homes projected for construction by 2014 has been slashed from 50,000 to 35,000. The scheme fell foul of the cuts made in response to the Queensland floods.

Mr Perusco’s exasperation comes from first-hand contact with the victims of decades of bad public policy. He has seen the impact it has had on the physical and mental health of people locked out of the housing market. He called on the federal government to give firm leadership in the matter and lock itself and its state counterparts into a 10-year plan with a target for the construction of 3,000 units of affordable housing a year in Victoria alone. “Safe and affordable housing is a key foundation of any civilised society,” he said.

He is absolutely right and the pressure for action must certainly be kept up. The demands must be expressed but realities must be kept in mind. Calling on governments dominated by the major parties to place a pro-people constraint on a capitalist market is like calling on foxes to eschew eating chickens. Property developers are major donors to the Liberal and Labor Parties. Developers make up an important part of the capitalist class who dominate strategic policy decisions in countries like Australia. They have shaped the property market, including the housing market, just the way they like it – for nice fat profits.

Charities like Sacred Heart Mission do great work helping those who might otherwise be sleeping rough tonight but the job of restoring and extending the role of public housing, of limiting the speculative market for access to this basic right will not be done by Liberal or Labor governments. The job of building the political alternative of left and progressive forces that will meet such a challenge is getting more urgent by the day.  

Next article – Obituary – Desmond (Des) Melrose Donley

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