Grievance Debate – Cost of Living

21 Sep 2022

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I rise to speak on the grievance debate today, and I want to grieve for those Victorians who are struggling with the cost of living—Victorians who are being pushed to the margins and Victorians who are being pushed, essentially, off the metaphorical cliff. There are rising costs, flatlining wages. There is a real risk of declining living standards. It is a generation for whom quality of life is worse than that of the previous generation. The response from government must be systemic change—not just short-term relief for the cost of living but something in the long term that is going to bring costs down for people as well as create secure jobs with increased wages. There are no increased costs and challenges for people more pressing than those from the housing crisis, where rents are rising four times faster than wages. Housing is just not affordable, especially for people on welfare, when there are virtually no affordable rentals in our city for people on welfare.

I want to make this point about welfare as well, and this goes to the federal government: raising the rate of welfare, particularly during the pandemic, really was shown to have a demonstrated positive effect on people and their housing security. It is something that the new federal government, despite making the right noises about it in opposition, is so far refusing to do. So I would urge the federal government to raise the rate—raise welfare payments—to a level that people can actually live on and where people can get out of poverty and are not locked into it, which is what the current rate does.

Homelessness is a problem that I have raised continually in this place throughout this term and the last, and it is what Prahran residents continually tell me is a priority for our community. A wealthy society like ours should not have people living on the streets and should not have people living in unsafe, insecure accommodation. I thought that during the lockdown—and in fact the minister alluded to this—that the From Homelessness to a Home program, using hotels to put people in accommodation and then find long-term accommodation, was actually a first step towards ending homelessness. It was a successful program, but it was subsequently cut by the government with the excuse that, ‘We can’t expect the same level of spending during the pandemic as when it’s over’. But I would just say this: if we can give people a roof over their head during the pandemic, we can do it all the time. No-one should walk into a homelessness service and get turned away, and that is exactly what is happening with our underfunded homelessness services. We can solve homelessness. We just need the resolve to do so.

Going hand in hand with homelessness services is of course building more public and affordable housing. The public housing waiting list has skyrocketed to more than 100 000 people. People are spending years, if not decades, on the waiting list, and the conditions in many estates are just appalling. We need to go back to that idea that it is the government’s job to make sure that everyone has a safe and secure place to call home. The Greens have consistently raised this issue in here. Earlier this term we held a matter of public importance debate on homelessness, where many homelessness advocates and organisations attended. We called there for a big build in public housing to end homelessness, and we certainly welcome the government recognising that this is something that it should be doing.

But there are two issues for improvement that need to be taken in with the government’s approach: one, of course, is we need more. It is not enough just keeping up with the rate of social housing dwellings, let alone building enough for everyone who needs one. There needs to be far more investment. The government recognised this when they announced their social housing levy on developers. Unfortunately they caved in to the developers and the fear campaign and axed it. It needs to be restored. Two, there is far too much privatisation involved in their current plan. With building private units on public housing land—in separate towers, mind you, not mixed in—the value of the land is not what can be got from privatising it, but there is the fact that you can put public housing close to schools, close to services and close to communities that care, just like my community in Prahran. Consistent public investment in public housing for the public good can bring us back to when public housing was broadly available to people, from low-income workers to those most in need, and that is also a far more economically sustainable model that would allow for better upkeep and maintenance of people’s homes.

Half of the Prahran electorate are renters. They are not only telling me that rents are rising but also that the conditions in some of the rental homes are really poor. Just like other governments are doing around the world, we need rent caps here in Victoria to stop excessive rent rises and make sure that rents do not rise faster than wages. We need higher standards for rental properties. Energy efficiency, insulation and getting homes off gas—not forcing them to connect—will improve living standards and bring down bills. As I said, ultimately with housing, just like with public health and public education, governments have a responsibility to make sure that everyone has a safe and secure place to call home. We also need to embrace stamp duty reform here in Victoria. Everyone from advocates to economists are saying this is the way to go—to replace stamp duty with an annual land tax. They are doing it in other states as well. It is something that we need to embrace here in Victoria.

I want to touch also on another area where rising costs are hurting families, again particularly those on low incomes, and that is the cost of what should be a free education. The reality is that public education is not free. Books, uniforms, technology, camps, materials and of course voluntary school fees—for disadvantaged families, for those on low incomes and single parents, it is just impossible to afford them. I make this point about voluntary school fees, and I said this at the AEU conference recently: families cannot pay them, schools cannot rely on them. It is a model that just cannot work any more. Fully funding schools will mean they will no longer need so-called voluntary school fees to help them pay for basic things like school buildings or libraries or maintenance. Parents are paying thousands for essentials. Teachers are dipping into their own pockets. State Schools Relief cannot keep up with demand. These costs need to be fully funded by the government. Our public schools here in Victoria are some of the lowest funded in the country. They are underfunded by more than a billion dollars a year. The state and federal governments need to come together and make sure that in the next school funding agreement Victorian schools are fully funded to 100 per cent of the Gonski-recommended school funding levels.

I want to particularly mention something else that should be covered by the state, and that is digital devices. This is something that I raised particularly in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and our role of oversight of the inquiry into the pandemic. During the pandemic a real digital divide was exposed, with thousands of students not having access to computers, devices or the internet at home. This really is an essential part of education, whether you are having to learn from home or learn from school. Something I advocated to the Minister for Education was for students who were provided with devices to be able to keep those devices. I am really pleased that he did that. There were some really good stories of students who were provided with devices now actually coming to school. They had previously been school refusers, but now they were coming to school because they did have access to the internet and devices. The challenge now is to include the digital devices and the internet as part of the essential for schools and ensure that all students have access so there is no divide.

One element that could help this that I would like to see in Prahran—and in fact all Greens would like to see in our public housing estates—is free wi-fi installed in our public housing towers so everyone can have access to the internet there. We got them costed up by the Parliamentary Budget Office. I think it only costs a few hundred thousand dollars per tower, so that is something we would really like to see.

When it comes to transport, those costs have already risen, particularly petrol prices. The answer really is to support people to make that shift to cleaner, cheaper, climate-friendly transport. Earlier this year the Greens proposed temporary free public transport to reduce the cost of living and encourage people back onto public transport. However, there definitely is a case for a permanent reduction in fares. It is happening now in other countries—again, it would have benefits to cost of living and our climate as well, supporting people to get around with cheaper public transport tickets.

When it comes to jobs and wages, low wage growth, particularly now with high inflation, is reducing living standards. That means people are getting a real wage cut. This is particularly the case with the government public sector wage cut. It means that hardworking, essential public sector workers are not getting the pay increases they deserve. Not only that, it is putting downward pressure on wages across the entire economy. The best way that we can say thankyou to our essential public sector workers, like our nurses, our teachers, our mental health workers, is through better pay and conditions and more jobs, and you cannot do that with a 1.5 per cent cap on wage rises in future enterprise bargaining agreements, particularly at a time of high inflation. Policies like rate capping and the billion dollars of cuts to the public sector through the government’s efficiency dividend are putting downward pressure on wages, conditions and the government’s ability to deliver the services it needs.

I make a final point on jobs, and I think this point has been made a few times over the last couple of days. The future of work is in the care sector—health care, education, community services—people helping people. There probably is not a community service organisation in the state that is not stretched and could do so much more if they could employ more people. More funding for well-paid, secure jobs in community service organisations is not only a very good bang for the buck in terms of job creation as most of the funding goes into wages, but it will make sure that people in need can get the help they need. Investment in the care sector to create jobs is the future of work, and that is how we can create more jobs, better paid jobs and help people in need.

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