Address to Master Builders Australia Leader’s Summit



This is going to be a big year.

The Prime Minister has already said there won’t be an election this year, which means there probably will be.

The contest of ideas is about to quicken and housing is going to be a big part of that contest.

It always is. Because it is so important.

The last 12 months have reminded us just how important. Housing became part of health policy.

We sometimes talk about our homes as our castle. Last year they were fortresses.

They helped shield us from the virus. Having a roof was more important than having a mask.

It’s why in a flash suddenly people who had been homeless for years, sleeping rough in parks and under bridges, forgotten by many of us, were given a hotel room and a bed.

That was one of the most remarkable things that happened in a remarkable year.

It showed if we really want to, if there is enough political will, we can put a roof over the head of people who don’t have one.

Forty thousand people were helped.

The disappointing news is many of the people we found a bed for last year are now back on the street.

If housing helped keep us healthy last year, in the next few years it will be a big part of the economic medicine the country needs.

I am not going to rattle off all the statistics that explain how important your industry is. You know it.

When the number of homes built across the country drops, a lot of people lose their jobs and a lot of oxygen is sucked out of the economy.

That’s why the forecasts you put out last year were so terrifying. Why I called for the government to act back in April. If this industry goes off a cliff a lot of Australia goes with it.

Thankfully the worst of those forecasts haven’t materialised. Not yet.

If everyone who has applied for a HomeBuilder grant gets it, it should make this a busy year for home builders. That’s a good thing.

But what happens after HomeBuilder ends?

This morning, the HIA put out their latest forecasts. It shows a massive drop off in work when the effects of HomeBuilder dry up. They predict about 180,000 homes will be built this year and that will drop to about 145,000 next year, then 143,000 in 2023 and then jumping back to 160,000 in 2024.

A gap in work between the end of the HomeBuilder and the return of immigration.

Given all the pressure on timber prices – and even getting timber – one obvious thing the government could do now is extend the timeframe under the HomeBuilder Scheme for construction to commence.

That will help to even out demand and provide more work next year when work is expected to dry up.

That’s just one problem.

What we need is a National Housing and Homelessness Plan which is more ambitious than just a response to the pandemic and lasts longer than just the next 12 months.

A real plan for housing Australia.

One that:

• helps more Australians to buy a home
• helps Australians who rent, and
• helps put a roof over the head of more homeless Australians

And I hope this year we can have a real debate about all these things and what a bit of national leadership can do here.

It’s not good enough just to say – well this is all just the job of the State Governments, and that they need to fix this.

That’s like saying, “I don’t hold a hose”. It’s not my job to put out the fire.

State Governments are cracking on. The Stamp Duty changes in NSW are big and important. So are the land tax cuts for Build to Rent. The Victorian Government has just announced the biggest investment in social housing by any State Government ever.

The States are doing some good things, but if we really want to shift the dial, we need a coordinated plan that works right across the nation.

And that requires a bit of leadership from the people in this building.

Helping more Australians buy a home

First let’s talk about what we can do to help more Australians buy a home.

HomeBuilder has pumped up the number of young first home buyers in the last few months.

But it’s a short-term stimulus. The long-term trend is in the wrong direction.

And with property prices still rising (even in the middle of a pandemic) and wages flat this is unlikely to change.

What the Federal Government does to kickstart wage growth has got to be part of the housing affordability debate.

What it does on immigration also has a big impact. Our population is actually shrinking at the moment.

But what happens when the borders open again? This industry gets a kick along. But housing prices will as well.

When immigration ramps up again, you can bet the same conversations will also be back. The roads are clogged. The trains are full. House prices are through the roof.

Some politicians in past have called for a “pause” in immigration so our infrastructure can catch up. Well we have got a pause. Are we using all this time now to fix these problems? If not people will be right to say – why the hell not?

They might also ask what are we doing now about planning log jams and the release of land? As you know, changes here can also have a big impact on the price of a home. This isn’t just the job of State Governments.

Four years ago, the government committed to releasing Commonwealth land suitable for housing to help increase supply. As far as I can tell so far, not much has happened.

Some in the Government say the solution to all this is to tell people to take out their super to buy a home.

I know the MBA has suggested this as well. I have got to say I think this is the wrong approach.

For a start, not a lot of young people have a lot of super – certainly not now. In the last year, hundreds of thousands of young people have drained their super dry. A scheme like this wouldn’t help them at all.

The bigger problem though is what it would do to prices.

People like Mathias Cormann looked at this when he was Finance Minister. His conclusion was this would just increase prices and make it harder to get into the market.

It’s hard to argue with that. Think about it, two young couples turn up to an auction, both with their super.

The auction starts, both couples use their super trying to outbid the other, driving up the price.

Superannuation supercharges the bidding war.

When the gavel falls, the real winner is the person selling the home. They end up with more money.

The young couple who win the auction end up paying more, have less super and probably a bigger mortgage.

A better idea could be what the NSW Government is talking about – getting rid of Stamp Duty.

If they get that right it will make it cheaper to buy a home. It will also reduce the cost of moving or downsizing.

The ACT Government is doing something similar.

A bit of leadership from the Federal Government could encourage and coordinate this sort of action right across the country.

Helping Australians who rent

If you think the cost of buying a place has jumped a lot in the last decade – it’s even harder if you’re renting.

Average housing costs for people with a mortgage have gone up by 36 per cent in the last 20 years.

Over the same time average housing costs for renters have increased by 56 per cent.

In the last few months rents have dropped in places like Sydney and Melbourne CBD. But not elsewhere. In others they are going up.

And while if you had a mortgage last year the banks gave you a six-month holiday on paying what you owe, not many landlords did that.

In every State and Territory last year there was a freeze on evictions.

I called for it and I am glad it happened.

In a year marked by States often doing their own thing and criticising each other, this is an example where they all did the same thing – and it worked. It stopped people getting thrown out on the street in the middle of a pandemic.

But they also did something that didn’t work. Most of them set up schemes to help people who were struggling to pay the rent by giving tax cuts to landlords who cut the rent.

All up these schemes had more than $1.2 billion in them. A lot of money. And most of the money is still there in government coffers.

They failed. Very few people struggling to pay the rent last year got a rent cut. A lot were too afraid to ask their landlord. If they were lucky they got a deferral.

What this means is states and territories are still holding on to a lot of money they planned to use to help people struggling to pay the rent.

This is important because what happens next month when JobKeeper ends and the JobSeeker goes back to $40 a day?

There are about 1.3 million people who work for companies who currently receive JobKeeper. According to Treasury, when JobKeeper ends, about 100,000 of them will lose their job.

A lot more could lose hours.

It’s hard to pay the rent if you don’t have a job or can’t get the hours you need.

Organisations like NCOSS are predicting a jump in evictions and homelessness.

We can stem that if these funds the state governments have to help renters in trouble are actually used.

National Cabinet should be looking at this right now.

Helping to put a roof over the head of more homeless Australians

We also need to do something serious about social housing.

Social housing is a safety net. We pride ourselves as a country on having safety nets like this.

But the awful truth is this safety net is too small, and there are lots of holes in it.

We have got a serious lack of social housing in this country.

Public housing is actually shrinking. Ten years ago there were 331,371 public housing homes. Now there’s only 300,403.

No wonder there are more homeless Aussies today than there has ever been.

And a lot of public housing we do have is in pretty shocking condition.

About one in four government-owned homes need urgent repairs and basic maintenance. They are full of leaks and mould and rot.

I have been to places where there is mould on the walls, on the ceiling, mould in the carpets, the mattresses, the kids’ soft toys, their clothes. It won’t surprise you the kids in the home have severe asthma. These homes are a health hazard.

And we own these homes. They are government-owned homes. If they were a politician’s office, they would be fixed in a flash. But these places are being left to rot.

That’s why I have been banging on for the last few months calling on the government to fix these homes.

If we are serious about doing something about homelessness we have also got to build more housing.

I mentioned earlier what the Victorian Government is doing on this. It’s massive. It will keep a lot of your members busy. But the need is enormous.

Last year 10,000 mums and kids fleeing domestic violence were turned away from shelters because there wasn’t a bed.

One in ten people sleeping on the streets of Sydney CBD tonight will probably be a veteran. Think about that. The people who walk along George Street on ANZAC Day shouldn’t have to sleep there that night.

We need to do more. The Federal Government needs to do more.

I know the MBA gets that. You have called for the Federal Government to do something here again in your latest Budget submission.

I also want to thank you for helping set up the National Affordable Housing Alliance – along with the HIA and the Property Council.

This is really important. If we are going to get some of the people in this building to do something about homelessness you can’t just rely on charities and homelessness organisations to do the heavy lifting.

The voice of this organisation matters. It echoes through the corridors of this place. People listen to you. So what you say and do can make a real difference.

It can make it easier to buy a home.

Make it easier to rent.

And help putting a roof over the head of more homeless Australians.