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Speech: New South Wales Government and public housing

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 13 Oct 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:38): New South Wales Premier, Mike Baird, was once a very popular politician. 'Teflon Mike' and 'Mr Untouchable' were nicknames that reflected his sky-high popularity and perceived ability to dodge scandals. Many will point to the greyhound racing ban as the tipping point in Mr Baird's popularity drop. But the rot was apparent well before that announcement in July, and I am betting it will continue despite today's cowardly backflip. The reality of a neoliberal coalition government has set in, and public opinion is turning further against Mr Baird. The increasing privatisation of education, health care, energy and housing have earned the Premier a couple of new nicknames: 'Casino Mike' and 'Bulldozer Baird'.

'Stop the privatisation' is a common call heard at community meetings and rallies across the state. But in July we also heard it come from the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims. He said:

I've been a very strong advocate of privatisation for probably 30 years; I believe it enhances economic efficiency …

I'm now almost at the point of opposing privatisation because it's been done to boost proceeds … and I think it's severely damaging our economy.

He went on to say:

When you meet people in the street and they say 'I don't want privatisation because it boosts prices' and you dismiss them … recent examples suggest they're right …

      …      …      …

I think a sharp uppercut is necessary and that's why I'm saying: stop the privatisation …

They are Mr Sims's words.

What is being increasingly recognised is that privatisation is about the transfer of power and wealth from the public into a few private hands. Some get very rich but most of us get poorer. We lose control over essential services and are forced to pay higher prices for lower quality. Nowhere has the contradiction between prices and quality been more apparent in recent times than in the privatisation of vocational education. The gutting of TAFE, an institution that has given so many second chances to people, in New South Wales is a classic privatisation disaster. A recent report shows that 10 private colleges received $900 million in taxpayer funding despite those colleges graduating only 4,200 students in 2014. That equals about $237,000 per qualification. One college in Sydney, the Empower Institute, had a completion rate of just 0.12 per cent and earnt $46 million—graduating just five students at a cost of $46 million to the taxpayer. That equals about $9.2 million per qualification.

Just like in education, cold market logic has little place when it comes to our health system. Someone who is in need of health care does not go around shopping for the best discounts. Getting an urgent operation is not like buying a car. Yet the privatisation of health care is gaining pace in New South Wales. Last month the Baird government announced the partial privatisation of five major regional public hospitals: Maitland, Wyong, Goulburn, Shellharbour and Bowral. Brett Holmes, General Secretary of the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association, reacted to the announcement with a scathing indictment of the profit motive in health care:

There is a high risk of mismanagement at facilities that are out of government hands. Private operators rely on shareholders, so are more concerned with profits than standards of care. We’re extremely concerned about patient care in the long run, as no large private hospital operator has been prepared to agree to nurse to patient ratios anywhere in NSW. Without these, patient safety is dependent upon budget, and now profit, to determine staffing levels …

The sell-off of energy and electricity also continues in New South Wales. This is particularly damaging at a time when governments need to transform this sector for the sake of jobs and action on global warming. Again, the public sector is the loser. In Victoria, 17 years of privatised electricity has led to nearly a 1,000 per cent increase in complaints about service; 8,000 jobs have been lost; blackouts have increased by 32 per cent. And who are the winners? The buyers of this monopoly infrastructure. They will soak up the $1.7 billion in profit that the asset currently generates. Instead of that money going to needy schools, hospitals and public transport, it will line the pockets of investors and executives.

The onslaught of privatisation of public assets is also clear in the housing sector. Our housing market is one of the most unregulated in the world and we are now seeing the consequences of inaction. Little effort is being made to replace our public housing supply, much less to increase it to meet growing demand. In fact, state governments are selling off an unprecedented amount of public housing as waiting lists blow out to 10 years or more. Almost 200,000 people are on waiting lists across the country. As a result, homelessness is on the rise while thousands of investment properties remain vacant in capital cities around the country—one of the most sickening aspects of privatisation.

Given the state of the private housing market, selling off public housing to private developers is a deeply worrying trend. House prices have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated, making home ownership out of reach for many low- and middle-income earners. More people than ever before have been pushed into insecure renting where they face high costs and the threat of no-grounds evictions. Developers have no interest in catering to the needs of middle Australia, and they certainly cannot be trusted to cater to those most in need. Mike Baird is attempting to sell-off public housing in the inner city, including Millers Point, Waterloo and the iconic Sirius building in The Rocks. These historical working-class areas have become the target of big developers wanting to capitalise on million-dollar views.

Grassroots campaigns have been launched by affected communities, including Save Millers Point and Save Our Sirius. I congratulate the communities in these areas for standing up for their right to the city. Greens MP Jamie Parker and Sydney City mayor Clover Moore are doing great work with these communities to protect their homes. And the CFMEU has continued a 40-year tradition of social justice by placing a green ban on the demolition of the Sirius building in The Rocks where the famous green bans were put all those years ago. Green bans were a common tactic in the 1970s and the green ban on the Sirius building is an incredible show of solidarity with these communities.

It is high time that we re-evaluate housing policy in this country and acknowledge that outsourcing our responsibilities to the private market has been disastrous. In our current environment, one would be excused for thinking that, above all else, housing is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder even if the bidder already owns three homes or twenty homes or never intends for anyone to live there. How disgraceful it is that the primary purpose of housing in Australia is to act as a tax shelter for investors while, at the same time, ordinary people are in deep housing stress and face a lifetime of insecure renting. This is deeply wrong.

A house is not just a commodity or a tax haven. It is not an asset to exploit low capital gains taxes. A house should be, above all, someone's home. It situates people in their community, so crucial for work and recreation. A home links people to support from family, friends and neighbours. A home provides safety and a sense of belonging. Yet the private market's drive for profit actually works against houses becoming homes. The Greens believe it is time for governments to step in to ensure everyone has a place to call home. Privatisation is causing hardship. Things need to change. We turn a blind eye to the young family turfed out of yet another home because the landlord wants to realise a capital gain. Will we sit back when our neighbours get sick and cannot afford treatment? What about students loaded up with debt for a useless qualification? No, people in New South Wales see that this Liberal-National selfish society is no society at all. People realise that privatisation is wrong. There are more powerful motivators than individual gain and profit. It is called the public good, it is called solidarity and it is called community—and no matter how hard Premier Baird tries he cannot sell that off.

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