Australian housing crisis: We need a Ben Chifley

Mar 14, 2024
Real Estate With Australian Dollar (Isolated on white background)

Having a comfortable place to live is a human right. It is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Australia has signed. But it is clear from today’s housing crisis Australia has lost its way.

It is April 1943. The war in the Pacific is in its 17th month. While the allies had secured victories at Midway; Guadalcanal & in parts of Papua New Guinea, total victory against Imperial Japan was not certain. There was still a lot of fighting and suffering to be endured before the Pacific War ended in September 1945. Australia was at or nearing total war production. Despite the human & material demands of the war and not knowing when it would end (later estimated to be in 1946); Ben Chifley, the Minister of State for Post-War Construction in the Curtin Labor Government and later Prime Minister of Australia, established the Commonwealth Housing Commission.

Chifley then tasked the CHC to undertake an inquiry and report on two issues:

1. Present housing position in Australia, and

2. The housing requirements of Australia during the post-war period.

A 5 member committee set about the task which involved interviewing 948 witnesses, most in person & visiting 59 towns in all States of Australia except the Northern Territory due to time & defence reasons. The committee prepared two interim reports (21 October 1943 & 31 March 1944) with its final report released on 25 August 1944 (the war would run for just over another 12 months).

According to its final report, the CHC advised the basis on which it approached its inquiries:

“We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited by excessive profit”.

The final report is compelling reading for all Australians, especially our politicians. And given the wartime restraints and resource limitations, it was also a remarkable visionary document. The committee’s examination was wide reaching. Amongst the critical issues it examined were the quality and quantity of Australia’s housing stock where it found widespread deficiencies. It also examined housing financing, the need for surveys to determine Australia’s exact housing needs and where; future organisation of the building industry post war, labour required for post war building and their training needs, materials that will be in short supply & how to solve them including adoption of new building methods, types of dwellings needed, and community facilities. The committee even went to great length to outline and recommend the specifications for dwellings and how dwellings should be positioned, taking into consideration the impact of the sun (what the committee referred to as: “Adaptation to Climate”).

The committee determined that by January 1945 the shortage of dwellings, including sub-standard houses needing replacement, would amount to 300,000. But acknowledged that future surveys might reveal that the need would be greater. Post war the construction of 40,000 dwellings annually would be required, a figure the committee reported did not take into consideration an allowance for immigration or the replacement of obsolete buildings. The CHC report was a detailed blueprint to solve Australia’s short and long term housing needs.

Surprisingly the Federal Labor Government ignored most of the recommendations, but it did result in the development of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA) in 1945. Under that agreement, the Commonwealth government provided cheap loans to the states to establish and operate public housing. The states were also encouraged to provide low income workers with rental rebates. Sadly, in 1956 the Menzies Government renegotiated the CSHA which resulted in state governments being allowed to sell off public housing which resulted in the sale of tens of thousands of houses and Commonwealth funds were diverted from public housing and rental assistance schemes. These neo-liberal policies would later result in the sale of large swathes of public infrastructure across Australia, with some adverse consequences.

Today, legislation that would advance Labor’s $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund is stalled in the Senate. That project promises to provide sufficient funding to build 30,000 homes within its first 5 years. That proposal cannot be regarded as a serious attempt to solve today’s housing needs for a population of over 27 million, when compared to the CHC’s 1943 advice that 40,000 homes for a population of just over 7 million would be required in the first year alone. The Liberal/National Coalition is yet to announce its housing policy. While, this week, the Greens proposed that the Commonwealth Government becomes a property developer with the aim of constructing 360,000 homes over the next 5 years. The Greens have not explained how the number of homes needed was derived. And we probably won’t know if the number is adequate until Australian leaders follow in the footsteps of the CHC.

The Commonwealth Government recently announced that it intends to sell off surplus military land. Another example of permanently giving away important public assets without consideration for the future. Building on the proposal by the Greens, rather than sell the land, the Commonwealth Government should build on sites that are suitable for public housing. That housing should then be rented to people who receive government income support. It is well known that elderly single women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia. Most are widowed or divorced with no or little superannuation or savings to support them in retirement. Governments talk about helping them, but nothing effective is ever implemented. With the Commonwealth Government providing housing, women who receive an aged or invalid pension could be allocated a place to live for which they pay only nominal rent. They would be considered for subsidised housing the moment they seek Government income support. There would be no need to place them on a state/territory housing waiting list. Once they no longer need the accommodation (due to death or change in personal circumstances) it could then rented to another person/s for use. But it remains in public ownership. The Commonwealth Government for some people on income support would be a “one stop shop”. As stocks of Commonwealth housing accommodation increased, further groups of low income people would be included.

Having a comfortable place to live is a human right. It is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Australia has signed. But it is clear from today’s housing crisis Australia has lost its way. Australia’s housing crisis is largely the result of decades of poor leadership. The country needs a leader with vision, drive, and empathy for its citizens. A leader who will commission a wide ranging enquiry into Australia’s housing needs and have the courage to act on its recommendations.

Where is the Ben Chifley’s of Australian politics when we need them?

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