The crisis colony

A nation struck down by social, economic and environmental crises deserves better solutions than Labor’s “sensible” budget

Australia, the crisis colony. Every day, we are bombarded with news of the housing crisis, the rental crisis, the crisis of men’s violence, the climate crisis, and the cost of living crisis. These are the daily realities that shape the lives of millions of Australians. Yet against this backdrop of mounting crises, our government speaks of “sensible” solutions and fiscal responsibility as if the mere absence of spending is an achievement in itself. But how can any solution be called “sensible” if it fails to match the scale and urgency of the crises befalling us? How can a budget be considered a success when it conscripts more children to homelessness, or forces families to choose between rent and food?

There is a disconnect between the language of our political class and the reality of everyday Australians. It’s the disconnect between those who view crises as cute political challenges to be managed with tricky accounting and those who are struggling to survive. In the face of mounting crises, incrementalism is not the hallmark of wise leadership, but a sign of a government failing to meet the moment.

The 2024-25 budget proclaims a $32 billion investment over 5 years to build 1.2 million homes by 2030. A closer look reveals this figure includes pre-existing commitments and double-counts some reallocated funds. The actual additional housing funding is closer to $1.4 billion per year, and none of it is earmarked specifically for public housing.

One of the headlines ahead of the budget was a “new” $11.3 billion, 5-year National Agreement on Social Housing and Homelessness (NASHH). But this simply continues the existing $1.6 billion per year funding under the previous National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA). The main thing that’s “new” about the agreement is the letter “S” in the acronym.

The government touts the 10 per cent increase in rent assistance as a win for low-income renters, despite rents having risen 11.5 per cent nationally in 2023, with the RBA predicting a further $46 rise this year. What good is an extra $9 per week if your rent has risen five times that? A vast majority of struggling renters do not qualify for rent assistance anyway. A rent cap would solve this, help all renters and not cost the budget a cent, alas.

Making matters worse for renters, public housing has been in decline for decades, plummeting from 10 per cent of all dwellings in the 1980s to a mere 3 per cent today. The focus on “social and affordable housing” gives no guarantee that any of the funding will go towards the public housing we need. Experts argue that transformative action requires investment of at least $5 billion per year in social housing, with a significant portion directed to public housing. This could be funded by redirecting the billions in tax concessions for property investors, such as negative gearing and the CGT discount.

Stunningly, the government spends more money propping up fossil fuels than it does on housing. Subsidies for fossil fuel producers have soared to $14.5 billion for the 2023/24 financial year alone, dwarfing the additional housing funding. Meanwhile, housing outcomes are deteriorating; in 2022-23, just 170,000 new homes were built nationwide, well below the government’s annual target of 240,000. But that shouldn’t come at any surprise, the private market has no incentive to oversupply – that would be deflationary. Nevermind the 122,500 Australians who were recorded homeless on census night and the many who have joined them since. A surplus of homes would be bad for business.

While the budget takes some positive steps on housing, it falls well short of the ambitious, transformative action needed to match the scale of our crises. The government, like many before it, seems content to relinquish responsibility. They seem to forget or willfully ignore that it is budgets like this one and the defection to the private market that caused the crisis in the first place. Tinkering around the edges, and worse, throwing billions to property investors and the banks, is splashing more kerosene on the already raging fire. Maybe the joke is on us for expecting better – it seems they, like the previous lot, “don’t hold a hose, mate”.

Jack Toohey is a writer and filmmaker.

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