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Lee on the Foreign Buyers Vacancy Levies

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 15 Nov 2017

On Tuesday, 14 November 2017 Senator Rhiannon gave the following speech in response to Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Fees Imposition Amendment (Vacancy Fees) Bill 2017 .

Tonight about 100,000 people across Australia have no home to go to. But, meanwhile, across Australia there are many more than 100,000 homes that are vacant. That's clearly a scandal. It's a scandal that's one of the many housing scandals that's been dominating headlines for the past year. We know how serious it is. We know how hard it is for people to buy their first home. Young people, and particularly older women, are really finding it tough to stay in the housing market. So many people are close to being in a very serious situation. It's estimated that 2.3 million people are in housing stress. That means that they're one disaster away from being on the slippery slope to joining the more than 100,000 people who are homeless. If their kids get sick, if they lose their job or if they have an accident at work and their income stops, then their ability to pay their rent or their mortgage can suffer, and it's all part of this housing crisis that's been dominating the news. The issue relating to vacant houses really has scandalised people. We see more and more people sleeping on our streets—literally on our streets—and there are so many vacant houses.

So, we have this legislation before us. What does the government come up with? The vacancy fees bill. It sounds good—fees on vacant houses. Who can argue with that? But we need to look at it more closely, because the fees only apply to foreign investors. Now, you really have to ask, when you get to this point and you realise what the government is up to: what's the difference between an investor from China and one from Point Piper, Double Bay, North Sydney, or you name it? What's the difference with who owns this vacant property? What's going on here?

The government knows exactly what it's doing. There are a few reasons it has come up with this vacancy fees bill. It has come up with it because it needs to appear to be doing something, because the housing issue has been dominating the headlines so much for so long. But it's not just working-class families; many middle-class families are really worried about what the future holds for their children and for their loved ones, so the government had to come up with a position that gives the appearance they are doing something. And they need to deliver for their constituency: the big end of town, the property developers, the investment speculators, the real estate agencies.

But there's also a racist aspect to this, because this is dog whistling. You can get out there and do your grabs and say: 'We're doing something. We're pursuing the foreign owners.' Why do that? There's absolutely no difference at all, but the Liberal-National Party government under Prime Minister Turnbull is doing the classic dog whistling: getting out there at every turn and talking about foreign ownership of houses. People do raise it with me. They're certainly hearing that, and they're picking up on the fear. There's no need to be fearful. We need action—we certainly need action on vacant houses—but what the government is doing here is totally minimalist.

I said another reason that they're doing this is to deliver for their constituency. The constituency is very generous to the Liberal and National parties and also at times to the Labor Party. Over the past 10 years, property developers, property speculators and the real estate industry have donated more than $21 million to the Labor, Liberal and National parties. I'm not saying it's Labor's constant constituency, but there have been some years when Labor have picked up more donations from the developers than they have from unions. That's a pretty worrying state of affairs, because this is a powerful industry.

If you look at what goes on in our respective states, you'll see planning laws being weakened for the benefit of those companies, because, when the planning laws are weakened, they can make more profits. That's what's going on here. Again, what's the job of the Liberals and Nationals when they get into government? Deliver for their constituency. At the moment that means not going hard on the housing crisis that is making life so difficult for so many people, where they don't have certainty about their future and where many people are in insecure housing.

The government might pay lip service to addressing the housing crisis, but for their constituency a housing crisis works for them. What I mean by that is that they make more profits, which is what their donors, the property sector, need to do. They do it very handsomely—the profits they pull in. When you look at Meriton, Mirvac and many of those other big companies, they're making millions and millions of dollars profit every year. They're pulling in big money. That, again, is why the bill before us is so absolutely minimal.

There's the destructive side of the bill, but, even if you look at the foreign ownership side, they're not handling the issue of vacant properties in the way it needs to be. It's not a tough one. What we need to be doing when it comes to housing is recognising that we need universal housing. Housing is a human right. It's something that's recognised along with other human rights, but we barely hear about it in Australia. We have arrived at a shocking situation in this first part of the 21st century. As I said, about 100,000 people will be on the streets tonight. If 100,000 children couldn't get a place in our public schools, there'd be an outcry. It would be on the front page of the paper. If 100,000 sick people—people who had had accidents or had some worry with their health—arrived at hospitals and they couldn't be admitted, that would be scandalous. It's just not possible that it would happen. It's widely recognised, even by people who have their kids in private schools and who have private health insurance, that we need a strong public sector. When it comes to public housing, what's happened around the country, helped by successive federal governments, is that public housing has been smashed, totally discredited. The people who live there are presented as losers, people who are really just not functioning in life. The whole dignity of housing, which should be absolutely the foundation of our approach, has just been decimated in this country.

It was excellent to hear the Greens' new senator Senator Andrew Bartlett speaking about the fantastic plans that the Queensland Greens are taking to this election. This is precisely the approach that we need, where we have governments committed to public and social housing in such a way that it becomes much more mainstream. I'm not talking about ending the private housing market—there is still a role for that—but we need to resurrect public housing, restore respect for it and restore its dignity so it can get back to the form that it has been in the past. The plan in Queensland, for the Queensland housing trust, is very exciting. They'll start building a million affordable homes. One of the fantastic spin-offs is that, as well as the homes, this will also provide jobs—16,000 jobs a year, over 10 years, to deliver those million affordable homes. These will be homes for life, providing people with certainty because they will be able to afford their home. They will be able to gain support from this trust according to their needs and make repayments according to what they can afford.

This might sound pie-in-the-sky in Australia at the moment, when you consider what the housing market has become. Housing effectively has become another form of money, because it is a way for those who have got two, three, four or five investment properties to be able to use the tax breaks that this government won't do anything about. People who have already got money can make more money out of the way housing works in this country. Yes, we've got to get rid of those tax breaks, but we also need to rebuild the public and the social housing system in this country. Much of Europe already has this. It is not dominated by housing which is stuck in the marketplace, with people really battling and very uncertain about what their future holds because of the price of housing and the price of rents. This really is the healthy way to go; it's the responsible way to go.

If this government, the Liberal-National government, under Prime Minister Turnbull, were serious about housing, what we would be debating tonight would be the winding-down of negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts, because that's a rort for those who already have money, because of the way it works. It is literally robbing billions of dollars from the public purse—money that could go into something similar to the Queensland housing trust that the Queensland Greens are taking to this election. We need something at the federal level like that. We need something like that in all states. This is the responsible way for any government to be taking Australia. Housing is going to become more of a crisis if we do not deal with it. Housing is a human right. Universal housing should be the foundation policy of all parties that are really serious about addressing people's needs.

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