26 August 2015
Ms TRISH DOYLE (Blue Mountains): I speak in debate on the Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015. As a new member in this place, I am often asked by fellow members, by colleagues in the upper House and by people throughout my community, what it is like to be a local member of Parliament and the sort of work that I deal with in my electorate office. Overwhelmingly—and I am sure this would be the case for a significant proportion of members in this place—the single biggest issue which my staff and I deal with through the electorate office relates to public housing services.
Before I address the substance of the bill today, I want to outline the experience of a constituent of mine in the Blue Mountains; and it is not unusual. This woman came to my office very soon after the election. She is living in accommodation in Katoomba, in the upper Blue Mountains, which is managed by Wentworth Housing on behalf of the New South Wales Government. When this young woman moved in, towards the beginning of the year, many repairs were required to her accommodation, and the heating system was broken. She had been assured at that time that it would be fixed in time for winter. Fast forward to April and early May, once she had been in touch with my office. The heating was still not fixed. Winter was fast approaching and there had still been no action on the broken heater.
Throughout this period, my office had been back and forth with the housing provider on behalf of this constituent, trying to get the provider to act on this plainly inadequate situation. As all members would know, in July it snowed throughout the upper mountains, and throughout winter it is regularly three or four degrees below zero with the wind chill factor around Katoomba. In my view, this Government failed in its duty of care to this family. It failed to provide basic services to a young mum and her children, in an area in which it knew they would experience extremely low temperatures. Rather than the Minister for Social Housing coming into this Chamber with punitive legislation that is designed to demonise vulnerable people living in social housing, my feedback to him would be to get out of this place in the city, come to the Blue Mountains and meet a few of the housing tenants in my electorate who have to tolerate the department's inadequate and tardy delivery of basic services.
Members in this place would likely have read the combined briefing paper provided by Eastern Area Tenants Service, the Marrickville Legal Centre, the Redfern Legal Centre and the Kingsford Legal Centre. This briefing paper analyses the impact of the proposed legislation on the communities to which these vital services provide assistance. Community legal centres—experts in the impact of this sort of legislation—provide tenancy advocacy services and caseworkers for social housing tenants as well as vulnerable citizens. They have expressed concern at the erosion of the rule of law for public housing tenants. They hold grave concerns for the impacts of proposed mandatory terminations, and they view the three-strikes provision as being ripe for abuse by vexatious landlords.
This bill will allow for anonymous evidence to be considered by the tribunal in determining whether a termination of a tenancy should go ahead. This flies in the face of the basic, universal legal principle that people are entitled to face their accusers and to know and understand the full extent or nature of the allegations against them. Given the prejudices which we know to exist against public housing tenants, this opens the door to the abuse of the tribunal by vexatious neighbours who may seek to settle inter-personal disputes with anonymous and specious claims.
Another basic legal principle that the Liberals' policy will undermine is the assumption that we are all equal before the law. By reducing the rights of public housing tenants and leaving alone the rights of private tenants, we are creating a two-tiered system, one which runs along stark class lines and which exclusively targets the disadvantaged and the poor. There is antisocial and criminal behaviour throughout society. It is as prevalent in the homes of the poor as it is in the homes of the wealthy, though the reporting and handling of it can often be quite different. Evidence of antisocial and criminal behaviour is to be gathered by police and tested by the courts. The problem with this legislation is that, for the poor and vulnerable people who occupy public housing accommodation, these basic principles of law are turned on their heads.
Finally, the proposed changes to the Act will dramatically increase the demand on already struggling community legal centres, as vulnerable citizens are forced to engage with a legal system that is beyond their means and beyond their experience. The Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre in the Blue Mountains operates the Blue Mountains Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service from its office in Katoomba. It has one full-time equivalent tenancy advocate position, and is responsible for providing legal assistance in tenancy disputes from Lapstone in the east, to Mt Victoria in the west. Because of the service's proximity to Lithgow, it also picks up a substantial amount of spillover work from the Lithgow-Oberon region. The service is already flat out providing a complete service to vulnerable citizens who are facing difficulty under the current system. Jo Hibbert and Ben Connor from Blue Mountains Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service explain that one of their biggest concerns with the Government's proposals is the implication of vicarious liability—wherein a tenant would be held responsible for the actions of a third party.
What does this mean for the single mum whose adult or adolescent son is found to be guilty of drug possession? What about the women in abusive relationships who are not in a position to throw out a violent partner who may be engaged in criminal activity? These vulnerable people will be rendered homeless, likely in a way that makes it impossible to find a private rental, for the actions of a third party. This is an appalling outcome. Just as the Minister appears to have been too busy to ensure his department is providing basic services to all of its tenants in the mountains, I note that he has been too busy to find money in this year's budget to adequately fund tenancy advocates to assist people with the punitive legislation he has proposed.
This is dog-whistle legislation. Just like their conservative mates in Canberra, the Liberals in New South Wales know that the best way to rally support from their base is to go out and find a vulnerable group in society and demonise them. Since immigration is beyond their remit, the conservatives in State Government must settle for demonising public housing tenants. The public housing system run by this Government is bad enough already, so I do not come to this place seeking to demonise the poor—I am fighting to see a fairer, more equitable and supportive program in place for public housing tenants. I will fight for holistic, wraparound services with affordable housing at the core. I am fighting to see affordable housing built in key regions so that working-class people can live near their jobs and not spend 50 per cent to 60 per cent of their income on rent. These are the housing reforms that this Government should be examining. Instead, the New South Wales Liberals are addicted to stamp duty from ever-increasing house prices and they are addicted to dog whistle.
On this side of the House we know that the only way you break through the cycle of disadvantage and marginalisation that exists throughout our community is to give people secure, affordable housing as well as access to decent, proactive healthcare systems and lifelong education. This Government is failing conspicuously on these measures. It is selling off public housing, demonising whoever is left and hammering the TAFE sector to make it harder for people to get the skills they need for a good job. Labor will be moving amendments to the bill to protect innocent parties from termination orders and to ensure that people who do receive a termination order are given enough time to make arrangements before possession is taken of their home. We will also be moving amendments to ensure procedural fairness for vulnerable tenants to protect them from being steamrolled by landlords or the department, and we will be moving to ensure that anonymous evidence is provided to tenants so they can actually respond to the allegations against them.
I concur with the combined Community Legal Centres NSW recommendations. The most vulnerable people in society must not be disproportionately affected by changes to this legislation. Labor's amendments will take the harsh edge off this Government's legislation. I encourage everyone to give those amendments serious consideration. By all means, deal with antisocial behaviour or illegal activity in society—deal with it wherever it occurs—but tying action on criminal behaviour to legislation that sits within the public housing domain is unfair and does nothing to improve the lives of vulnerable public housing tenants. It will make their lives even more difficult.