Housing Affordability: Frontline Workers

Mr CLARE (Blaxland) (16:50): Not all heroes wear their undies on the outside. The last 12 months have reminded us who the real heroes in our local communities are. In Sydney, as the prospect of a potential lockdown creeps ever closer, those heroes are out there doing the job they do for us each and every day. I’m talking about nurses, cleaners, aged-care workers, fireys, ambulance officers and a lot more. They’re people who don’t get to work from home. They’re people who get up early every morning—more often than not they put a uniform on—and then they hit the road. More often than not, they don’t get paid a lot. And all too often, they have to travel a really long way to get to work, simply because they can’t afford to live any closer.

Here is just one story that I heard recently. When the Northern Beaches Hospital opened in Sydney a couple of years ago, some of the nurses who worked there but lived in Penrith 90 kilometres away had to make the following sort of journey just to get to work. They’d all get together as a group at the train station in Penrith before five o’clock in the morning, before the sun came up. When they got on the train, everybody would go to sleep except one person. That person would stay awake to make sure everybody got off when the train got to Central. And then, when they got on a bus, the same routine would happen again—everyone would go to sleep except one person—all to make sure they got off the bus when they got to the hospital in time for their seven o’clock shift to start.

It gets worse than that. A couple of weeks ago, I read a story in the Newcastle Herald about a young woman named Chloe. Chloe is a nurse. She’s 24. She’s a nursing assistant who works at the local hospital. A year ago, the place she was renting with her boyfriend had the lease terminated. She got kicked out. It was not because they weren’t paying the rent—they were good tenants—but because the landlord wanted to do renovations. Because the rental vacancy rates are so low there in Newcastle, they’ve struggled to find another place to rent. She is now sleeping in her car, on her own. These are the people that we rely upon to help us when we get sick, and they’re sleeping in cars and sleeping in shifts on trains. It’s hard to believe, but these are nurses in modern Australia. It’s not healthy for them to be doing this; it’s certainly not healthy for us either.

The fact is that frontline workers, like Chloe, like the nurses I’m talking about here, are more likely than other workers to have to travel long distances to work. That’s a fact. It’s confirmed by this report that came out a few weeks ago. It was commissioned by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and was done by the University of Sydney. It paints a picture of our big cities, where some of the most important workers and some of the most important people in our community, are being forced to the fringe. It shows in Melbourne that about 38,000 frontline workers travel more than 30 kilometres a day just to get to work, and more than 10,000 will travel more than 50 kilometres to make that one journey—that’s not counting the 50 kilometres to get home. In Sydney, it’s even worse. About 44,000 frontline workers are travelling more than 30 kilometres to get to work, and more than 16,000 frontline workers are travelling more than 50 kilometres.

This is a problem that’s getting worse, not better. In the last decade, the number of frontline workers who live in our inner suburbs and our middle suburbs has gone down significantly, and the number living in our outer suburbs has gone up. None of this should be a surprise. It’s harder to rent than ever before. It’s harder to buy a house than ever before. The report says that if you are an early-career registered nurse, there isn’t one local government area in Sydney, Newcastle or Wollongong where the median house price is affordable. There are other countries that have the same problem—the US and the UK are good examples of this—but where they have this problem, they’re putting in place policies to try to do something about it.

Here in Australia there are some councils doing some good things in super funds. But if we’re really going to fix this, it’s going to require a bit of leadership from the people in this building. That’s why we’ve announced that if we win the next election we’ll set up the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund. In the first five years it will build 30,000 social and affordable homes, and 10,000 of them will be prioritised for these frontline workers. It’s the sort of thing this government should be doing. When I ask them to do it, they say it’s not their job. That’s the wrong answer. It is their job. It’s the job of all of us and it’s in the interest of all of us to make sure the jobs of these Aussies that do this work for us is made a bit easier. We want to make it a little bit easier for them to live closer to where they work. If we win the next election, that’s exactly what we’ll do.