07 August 2023

I thank the member for Higgins for this motion. But, while members of the government like to list the ways in which they’re addressing the housing crisis across Australia, I want to draw attention to what is largely missing from this debate: housing for regional, rural and remote Australians. The member for Higgins’s only mention of regional Australia is the Regional First Home Buyer Guarantee, but what the member fails to mention is what the take-up of the guarantee’s 10,000 places actually is. People in the electorate of Indi don’t talk to me about this guarantee, and I wonder if one of the reasons is that there simply aren’t many homes to purchase.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in rural and regional Australia we were told, ‘Build it and they will come.’ Well, they’ve come and we haven’t built it. Regional Australia grew by 70,000 people in the first year of the pandemic. The combination of increased regional migration, rising rental prices, a decline in affordable housing supply and a rise in living costs is having devastating effects. According to the national campaign Everybody’s Home, 61.4 per cent of mortgage holders in my electorate of Indi are experiencing mortgage stress. On top of that, 40.6 per cent of renters in Indi are experiencing rental stress. Homelessness rates are deeply concerning. According to the 2021 census, homelessness in our region has increased by 19 per cent since the 2016 census. This housing crisis is happening not just in the cities but in the country areas too, and the government must not forget this.

I’m the first to acknowledge that there is no silver bullet to this problem, but I’ve been consulting widely on what solutions there could be, and what I’ve heard is that we need funding for critical enabling infrastructure. I’m talking about poles and pavement, drainage, sewerage. It’s not sexy, there’s no ribbon to cut, but to build homes in rural and regional Australia we need this kind of infrastructure. Regional areas struggle to attract developer investment to build this infrastructure, and, with big geography and a small ratepayer base, local councils don’t have the money to build it on their own.

In Wangaratta there’s a perfect example of this challenge. The local council have earmarked a former technical school site to deliver social and affordable and key worker housing in a specialised precinct—to deliver the vision of 200 safe, quality, energy-efficient and beautiful houses for young people, pensioners and essential workers. But they need funding to clear the site, including asbestos removal. They also need to build water and sewerage infrastructure. They then can get going with the building.

That’s why I’ve put forward a proposal for government to set up a dedicated regional housing infrastructure fund. This fund would unlock investment in new houses by building the basic infrastructure needed for new multitype developments—private housing, built-to-rent social housing and essential worker housing. It would have the flexibility to fund social infrastructure and provide local government assistance to fast planning approvals.

I’ve also called on the government to ensure their proposed Housing Australia Future Fund, the HAFF, delivers for regional, rural and remote Australians. I successfully secured amendments to ensure the Housing Supply and Affordability Council could have a regional focus when undertaking its work. So much more could be done to improve this bill for regional Australia, and, with negotiations on foot, we have the chance to do that. I introduced further amendments that would ensure an object of the HAFF is to deliver funding in regional, rural and remote Australia, including funding for the critical enabling infrastructure that I’ve described.

I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take up these amendments. Rural Australia makes up 30 per cent of our population, provides 90 per cent of the food we eat and brings in 50 per cent of Australia’s tourism income. Rural Councils Victoria estimates that, if we don’t build the extra homes we need, we could lose up to $1 billion in gross regional product over the next 15 years. That’s a call to action if ever I heard one. I know the government is focused on delivering bricks and mortar housing, but funding for the roads, footpaths and streetlights is a key part of this discussion. It’s a key part of the solution for regional Australia.

I call on the government, the Minister for Housing and the Prime Minister: help us on this fundamental piece of work that needs to be done in order to unlock housing in rural, regional and remote Australia.

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