PM locks horns over key election promise

PERTH , AUSTRALIA - NewsWire Photos  MAY 8 , 2023 Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addresses a press conference in Kings Park.Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sharon Smith
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is trying to get the Housing Australia Future Fund through parliament this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sharon Smith

Labor is facing a looming self-imposed deadline to get its signature housing package through parliament as it continues to lock horns with the Greens over the policy.

The left-wing minor party is attempting to use its balance of power position in the Senate to secure amendments to the legislation that would set up the government’s Housing Australia Future Fund.

The government has upped the ante in the stalemate by seeking to bring on a vote on the HAFF in the upper house by Thursday evening, at the end of a three-day sitting week to deal with the federal budget.

Labor says it will spend up to $500m worth of returns from the $10bn HAFF on social and affordable housing each year, with a promise of 30,000 new dwellings in the first five years.

But the Greens have been arguing the policy doesn’t go far enough and have called on the Albanese government to guarantee a proportion of the investment vehicle returns will be spent on housing each year.

Greens leader Adam Bandt laid down the gauntlet again on the eve of the federal budget, saying his party was willing to negotiate further but “the ball is in the government’s court”.

“At the moment in (the Bill’s) current form, which doesn’t have our support, there is not a guaranteed dollar amount that will be spent on housing,” he told reporters at Parliament House on Monday.

“If the fund loses money like it did last year, then there is no money spent on public housing.

“Even if the fund comes into effect, you won’t see a single house built before the next federal election and at the end of the fund, the waiting list is going to be longer than it is now.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is trying to get the HAFF through parliament as soon as possible. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sharon Smith
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is trying to get the HAFF through parliament as soon as possible. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sharon Smith

The Senate will begin debating the HAFF legislation as early as Tuesday. The upper house isn’t due to sit again until mid-June.

Mr Bandt said it would be a “terrible idea” if the government were to “force” a vote on the Bill this week.

“It would be much better for the government to put their efforts into negotiating improvements to the Bill so that it can pass because that is something the Greens are willing to do,” he said.

The Greens also want the government to do more to help Australian tenants through the rental crisis and have suggested imposing a national rent freeze.

Labor has been staring down the Greens’ demands, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese blasting the party’s opposition to the HAFF as “completely illogical”.

Independent ACT-based senator David Pocock, who holds one of two crucial crossbench votes, is expected to vote for the HAFF legislation so as not to block its passage through parliament.

However, Senator Pocock has also raised concerns about the HAFF legislation not setting a funding floor from the returns it generates.

“I’m not going to stand in the way of a $10bn fund,” he told ABC Radio last week.

“But I do expect a government to take on board advice from experts around indexing a fund or allowing it to disperse more when it returns more. And that isn’t the case in this instance.”

Community housing providers would need reliable funding each year in order to maintain social and affordable homes constructed as a result of the HAFF, he said.

ADAM BANDT / Greens Presser
Greens leader Adam Bandt says his party is willing to negotiate. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Senator Pocock said the HAFF should be allowed to dispense more when it generates higher returns and that it should be indexed, noting that “$500m now is not the same as $500m in 10 years’ time”.

Crossbenchers Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell are also expected to vote for the Bill after securing a social housing guarantee for Tasmania in exchange for their support.

The government can easily get legislation through the House of Representatives but it needs the support of the Coalition or the Greens and at least two crossbenchers in the upper house, where it doesn’t hold a majority.

The Liberals and Nationals have said they will not support the HAFF, citing concerns about the use of commonwealth bonds to raise funds at a time when interest rates and loan repayment costs are increasing.

Opposition housing spokesman Michael Sukkar took this criticism a step further last week, claiming Labor had reneged on its commitment to build 30,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years.

He claimed Labor had instead signalled it would make 1,200 properties available in each state and territory in the same period, delivering just 9,600 dwellings altogether.

At the same time, all eight state and territory housing ministers have written to every federal senator urging them to support the HAFF.

The ministers — which include sole Liberal Guy Barnett from Tasmania — warned delaying the legislation would jeopardise the delivery of vital new housing projects.

Housing Minister Julie Collins took aim at the Greens and federal Coalition on Monday.

“Senators can’t say they support more social and affordable housing but oppose this fund,” she said.

“The fund is backed by housing experts, crossbench MPs and senators, community housing providers and housing ministers from across the country.”