Housing and homelessness policy in Australia is at a critical juncture. Housing stress has reached historical highs, there is a severe shortage of social housing, and a growing number of low-income households are priced out of the private rental market. Against this backdrop, the Federal Government are developing a new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA), which will replace the existing national agreements that provide funding to state and territory governments for housing and homelessness programs. 

This submission examines the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017, which gives effect to the new national agreement.

We support the development of a new agreement that provides the coordination, resources, and policy leadership that is urgently needed to tackle housing unaffordability and homelessness. However, we do not believe the current Bill provides the foundation for this coordinated and coherent national approach. The proposed legislative framework carries a number of risks and flaws, and requires significant revision. 

In particular, the Bill is not linked to a national housing and homelessness strategy and plan, nor is it supported by the necessary governance and institutional arrangements. Housing is affected by policies at all levels of government, with the Federal Government carrying responsibility for some of the key drivers (e.g. taxation, social security, infrastructure). Yet this Bill allows the Federal Government to evade its policy responsibilities, shifting the onus for achieving housing outcomes solely onto the states and territories.

The Bill also does not guarantee adequacy and certainty of funding, and there is a risk funding will cease if the narrow timeframe for negotiating agreements with state and territory governments is not met. Australia's social housing system is in crisis, and greater investment is vital. Yet the agreement does not reflect the actual costs of maintaining and operating the social housing system, let alone supporting a growth in social housing. This funding shortfall is compounded by the expanded scope of the agreement, which includes additional affordable housing objectives without any new funding.

The Bill introduces a trigger for withholding funding to state & territory governments if they do not meet loosely defined criteria. While we support greater transparency & accountability, this punitive approach undermines a collaborative cross-jurisdictional approach and risks continuous funding instability and political friction. It also threatens the viability of front-line services and housing programs. The Bill also does not provide the necessary accountability and transparency mechanisms. We believe an independent body should be established to monitor and assess performance, analyse data on housing supply & demand, and strengthen the evidence base for decision making by all levels of government.

Despite these concerns, the Society remains hopeful that a durable, comprehensive and coordinated national agreement can be developed. For too long, government action on housing and homelessness has been ad hoc and subject to continual blame-shifting between different levels of government. This cannot continue. How this new national agreement is designed is of paramount importance, and it is imperative that we resolve the problems identified in the current Bill and get the legislative underpinnings right.