Sub Standard

5 November 2015 Alan Attwood

Sub Standard

Illustration by Michel Streich

In the 1960s, amid the angst and anger swirling around the Vietnam War, there was a slogan often used on posters, protest banners and even tea towels: It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a cake-stall to buy a bomber. The time is now right to resuscitate that slogan, tweak a few words and adapt it to contemporary Australia: It will be a great day when we have all the housing people need and the Navy has to hold a cake-stall to buy a submarine.

Homelessness is a blight. We know that. We also know the solution is simple: more housing. More affordable housing. People with homes are no longer homeless. They are also less likely to need a raft of services, ranging from counselling to emergency accommodation and hospital visits. There are savings to be made here. These are significant, but less than the cost of building and providing the necessary number of homes, which one reckoning puts at 170,000. That’s a large number. But it is a number. It suggests the problem is quantifiable. So you can come up with a cost.

How much? You need people more numerate than me to arrive at a realistic sum. But even desktop calculations result in some figures. A recent Financial Review report on the ‘Homes for Homes’ project quoted advisory board member Sally Herman as saying that $1.8b (accrued over 20 years) could fund the construction of 2500 dwellings. Extrapolating from that suggests the cost of 170,00 dwellings would be $122.4b.

That’s a lot of money. But a very different figure is reached when you look at the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), introduced as part of the federal 2008–09 budget. The initial plan was for the NRAS to provide $622.6m over four years for the development of up to 50,000 affordable rental properties across Australia by 2012. That target was later reduced: 35,000 new dwellings by 2014–15. Government figures state that by mid-2013, 14,575 dwellings had been tenanted or were available for rental. Keeping things simple, let’s argue that the original $622.6m created 14,000 places. For 170,000, call it $7.56b.

So, there are two divergent figures. Both exceptionally rubbery. The NRAS is redundant, anyway, as the government has hit the ‘Pause’ button. But whatever the figure, it will not be funded. The money (and political will) isn’t there. In the most recent budget, the National Affordable Housing Agreement, which “commits the Commonwealth and the states to the objective that all Australians have access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing”, was allocated $1.32b for this financial year. The Department of Defence, meanwhile, gets $31.9b.

The disparity is dramatic. And perplexing. As a percentage of GDP, Australia spends much more on defence (1.92%) than New Zealand (1.13%) or Switzerland (0.76%). The US, not surprisingly, spends the most – 3.3% of GDP. The figures are eye-glazing. But defence can be sexy because – until the recent appointment of Australia’s first female defence minister, Marise Payne – defence often meant Boys with Toys. Even urbane PM Turnbull recently felt obliged to take the wheel of a new, armoured 4WD vehicle: 1100 will be built for $1.3b. A lot of money. Also the equivalent of a lot of homes.

But vehicles are chickenfeed compared to other types of military hardware. Last year, the government announced the purchase of an additional 58 F-35 fighter jets for $12b. Yet even this is dwarfed by the Navy’s shopping list. In September The Australian reported a “new defence blueprint” would commit more than $70b for eight new submarines and 12 new warships, among other things. Anything to do with subs is costly: one account suggests $20b to build them and $40b for maintenance; others estimate billions more. They are supposedly required to replace the Navy’s six Collins class subs, introduced in 2000.

But do we need six subs? Or, given the price, eight new ones? New Zealand gets by without any. Fewer subs could mean money for a lot more houses. Speaking of which: a Collins sub has a crew of around 58 people, who have some of the priciest accommodation of any Australians.

In the end, facts and figures matter less than priorities. Affordable housing is deemed to be less pressing than military hardware. And it’s not only Defence budgets that could be trimmed to house the homeless. While so many lack shelter, can we still justify bread-and-circus sporting events? The 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast has a $2b price tag. Melbourne’s annual Formula One Grand Prix, which has just had its contract extended to 2023, costs taxpayers around $60m annually. Another eight loss-making events adds up to almost half a billion dollars. Almost enough for, say, a sub’s conning tower. Or many, many homes.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.