I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay respect to elders past and present. 


My deep respects for the stewardship of this land for 65,000 plus years.


And I know Aunty Violet has headed off, she’s got those 29 grandchildren she pays a lot of attention to. But I do want to say Aunty Violet is so right, one of the many reasons I am a Member of Parliament is because I seek to represent the community at its most fundamental level, as we try to shape the policies that we need to respond to rural and regional Australia.


And I’ve lived in regional Australia pretty much all of my life. As Matt said, I come from a dairy farm, live on a farm now, classic country kid, left home, became a nurse, my career went in various directions from there and I find myself now in the Federal Parliament. 


I would like my parliamentary colleagues who came before me this morning. The Honourable Julie Collins, Minister for Housing with whom I spend quite a bit of time wearing out the carpet to her office. And the Shadow Minister for Housing, the Honourable Michael Sukkar. 


I want to thank the regional Australia Institute for putting this day on. How absolutely timely and important it is. And the number of people who’ve come here today with lived experiences, with professional expertise and with solutions is really exciting for me. 


There are many reasons why I am so pleased to be speaking to you today – firstly of course, is what brings us all here today is a major issue facing my electorate of Indi: the affordability and availability of housing in regional and rural Australia.


Secondly, it’s clear this room shares values that are important to me and that my team uphold – collaboration, impact, enthusiasm, respect and ambition.


And thirdly, I know all of us here today are committed to finding real, tangible and deliverable solutions. In politics, it is very easy to identify problems. What is hard is finding solutions. As an independent member of parliament, I have always made it my mission not to just listen to and learn about the problem, but to work with my communities to come up with ideas to solve the problem, and work with Government, whoever they are, to achieve these solutions.


So, I really do thank Liz and the Regional Australia Institute for hosting this summit, bringing us all together to tackle what is seemingly a truly wicked problem, but as I said, more importantly to come together and go forward with will increase our effectiveness.  


I think it is fair to say that outside of the Voice to Parliament referendum, housing was the number one national political issue of 2023. Interest rates went up five times, rental affordability soared while availability plummeted, and it became clear to lawmakers and the media just how urgent and dire the situation was.


The Government, to its credit, has acknowledged the severity of the issue. They made many housing announcements over the last year and while they were were doing that, they were negotiating the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill, which finally passed the Parliament after many, many difficult months of negotiation.


The HAFF was heralded as a significant political victory, and in many ways it now feels like the media circus has moved on from housing. Cost of living is now the buzzword on the front page and at the top of every news article. 


But the housing crisis isn’t over, is it? We wouldn’t be here if it was. 


 The housing crisis is fundamental to the cost of living crisis. 


If we drill down, we know that housing is the major problem we need to solve. Housing is a critical component of this umbrella term Cost of Living crisis.


Recent polling by Freshwater Strategy asked respondents who listed cost of living as their biggest issue what they mean by that. The poll found 23% of respondents mean cost of housing and rent when they mean cost of living – the second highest definition after cost of groceries.


So what we can see is that if we don’t truly address the cost of living crisis without also addressing the housing crisis, then we’re not fixing any problem. 


Of course, we are not just here to talk about the housing crisis, we’re specifically here to talk about the issues we face in regional, rural and remote Australia, when it comes to housing. Where the housing needs, and the barriers to achieving those needs, are different to the major cities.


We’ve that this morning. It’s so true. 


In May last year I spoke at the National Rural Press Club about regional Australia’s housing crisis, alongside Anna Neelagama from the Real Estate Institute of Australia, who we’ve heard from this morning and Kasy Chambers from Anglicare, who I believe is here today as well.


The housing problems in regional and rural Australia that I described in that speech last year persist today.


And the heart of our problem is a desperate lack of housing supply and in so many cases a desperate lack of infrastructure to enable a build to even begin.


Again, we’re hearing that consistently. 


Data shows that there are not enough houses for regional Australians to rent or buy.


The most up to date waitlist for social housing in Wodonga, the largest regional city in my electorate of Indi, is close to 1,500 people. In my hometown of Wangaratta, more than 1,000 people are on the waitlist.


Vacancy rates for private rentals remain persistently low, again drawing from my community, the three biggest towns in the electorate of Indi – Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla – all have vacancy rates less than 1%.


Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows the number of houses approved to be built in Indi has crashed by almost half in the past two years.


So, this is what I know from my community. This is what we’ve heard today.


Besides the official data though, I frequently hear, in fact I hear everyday from my constituents about how worried they are about the local housing options. How worried they are about the availability of rentals. How worried they are at the affordability to buy and how worried they are about young people ever getting into the market.


And I think it’s a little bit like that old nursery rhyme, there were 10 in the bed and the little one said, do you remember that? 


Well, right now a person who may have been looking at a flat can’t find one, they end up in the caravan park, the person who is in the caravan park ends up in a tent by the river. 


I know people in my electorate are experiencing homelessness at record levels.


I’ve lived in my community for over 30 years and in the last few years I’ve seen these people by the river and I have never seen them before. 


Businesses in regional towns are struggling to find accommodation for new workers. Hospitality staff, factory workers, health professionals, childcare employees, teachers, truckies, they can’t afford the high rental prices, they’re lucky enough to find a rental at all of course. 


Large employers, who are so integral to the local economies of regional communities, are scaling back operations because of staff shortages associated with the lack of housing. We’re seeing this in our tourist towns, where our restaurants are not opening to their full capacity.


So, as well as being key to addressing cost of living, addressing housing is key to improving productivity and powering our regional communities.


In October 2023, Jobs and Skills Australia released a report on workforce needs as we transition to a net zero economy by rolling out new renewable energy projects. They found that Australia will likely need 32,000 more electricians in the next seven years and close to 2 million workers in the construction and engineering trades by 2050. They are big, big numbers. It found that growth in these occupations is likely to be concentrated where? Rural and regional Australia.


Now this is an incredible opportunity. But it won’t be realised if we can’t accommodate these workers.


While we are here today to find more solutions, it is important to acknowledge what has changed in the housing policy landscape in the last year.


In addition to the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill, the Parliament also passed the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council Bill, to provide independent expert advice to Government about what Australia’s housing needs are. I successfully secured amendments to this legislation to ensure that Council would have a regional focus when undertaking its work. Because astoundingly, when I saw that legislation there was not a mention of rural and regional Australia. If you can’t see us, you can’t be working with us. 


The Government made many more funding announcements throughout 2023 – billions of dollars across a Housing Support Program, which I’ll talk more about later, a Social Housing Accelerator, a National Housing Accord, and the National Housing Infrastructure Facility to name a few.


The Federal Government have been busy. 


But not one of these multi billion announcements for housing supply specifically mentions regional, rural and remote Australia. Not one.


We need to make sure that we are seen.


It’s abundantly clear that regional housing problems and therefore solutions, it’s abundantly clear to us, are different to the problems that are in the cities. So we must make sure that at every step of policy, rural, regional and remote Australia is named. 


And I can tell you, as a regional Independent MP, I have worked very hard to improve that understanding, with both the Prime Minister and the Housing Minister.


And I’m sure at times they maybe get a bit tired of me wearing out that carpet, as I said, perhaps see me as a bit of a thorn in their side, or fly in their ointment. But that’s my job as a rural and regional MP, and I really see it as my job as an Independent to push government on this. And I’m going to advocate strongly for regional and rural Australians by presenting the government with the challenges and solutions to the issues that affect 30 per cent of Australia. The 30 per cent of people that do not live in metropolitan Australia.


I worked with the Housing Minister to try and amend the Housing Australia Future Fund Bill, to ensure that a portion of the $10 billion goes to regional, rural and remote Australia.


A dedicated, targeted portion goes to rural and regional Australia. And RAI are calling for that today. 


When the Government did not accept those amendments, I thought, ok what else can I do? So I introduced a Private Member’s Bill, and I was very pleased to hear the Shadow Minister making noises about these issues and I’m very keen that he might read my Unlocking Regional Housing Bill, which would require housing funding to be directed to regional, rural and remote Australia.


Straight up.


I then wrote to the Housing Minister outlining, in detail, how to amend the Investment Mandate for the Housing Australia Future Fund. The Investment Mandate is the Minister’s direction about how housing money is invested and it says what money should go to social and affordable housing; what gets spent where.


I urged the Minister to commit to one-third of the Housing Australia Future Fund, and I know that’s a bit lower than what RAI have proposed but I’m willing to go up, Liz, got to start somewhere. So I urged Minister Collins to commit one-third to projects in regional, rural and remote areas; a fair share, as I said, when almost a third of us live in those areas. 


In my view, the Government has missed the contextual challenges of regional Australia’s housing shortage by putting it alongside urban shortages experienced by our city cousins, when we know that our challenges are different ones. Doesn’t mean we don’t think our city cousins don’t need assistance, they do, but the assistance we need is different. 


I don’t think it is willful neglect actually, but I think there is a blindness in the line of sight and we really need to sharpen the focus of the Federal Government. 


I believe that one of the reasons the Government keeps missing the critical need to target policy to the desperate lack of housing in regional Australia, is because we have limited data on what housing funding has been delivered to regional, rural and remote Australia.


During the COVID-19 lockdowns, when migration to the regions from the cities really ramped up and I began hearing stories, constant stories about the lack of houses to buy or rent, I said this morning, I’ve it many times, policy from successive governments over many many decades have been trying to get people to come to rural and regional Australia. Build it and they will come, they say, well they’ve come and didn’t build it, I say. I wanted to know what does the data say from government sources. 


I wanted to know what the Government was doing to respond about this, so at that time, during those lockdowns all that was available was the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, which the Shadow Minister talked about that was set up in 2018. And the facilities’ mandate was to provide loans and grants to fund critical enabling infrastructure to unlock new housing supply, good, but as the Minister conceded, very little of that money got out the door. And in fact local governments didn’t know. All of us knew nothing about it. 


I brought the CEO of NHIFIC to Wangaratta actually and I want to acknowledge that the Mayor of Wangaratta Dean Rees and the CEO of the Rural City of Wangaratta Brendan McGrath are here. We brought the CEO of NHIFIC to meet our nine local government and try to explain what the purpose of NHIFIC was and how to access funds.


But has any of this funding gone to regional and rural Australia? The answer I found is we simply don’t know.


I put Questions in Writing to the Government in June last year asking what share of the facilities’ funding has been provided to regional and remote areas, and cities. I was told to look at the annual report.


So I did. And it does not provide any of that information. The information does publicly exist.


It’s why I requested amendments to the Investment Mandate for Housing Australia to require quarterly reporting to the Minister about how many houses the HAFF is building in regional, rural and remote areas.


And I’m really pleased that the Minister accepted this amendment. Now, again it’s a small win, but it’s a really important win.


Just as we need to correctly define and diagnose the problem, we need to be able to measure what action has been taken, in order to judge whether it’s  working. We really do.


We need to know what’s working and what isn’t so this is a really important step.


When the first report is made on how the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund is addressing Australia’s housing needs, we will now find out whether or not it is delivering for regional Australia.


So keep your eyes open for that one. And I really hope it is. I want the Government to succeed in this. It’s critical.


But if it is not, we will have a mighty case to take up with the Government to get on and dedicate housing funding to regional, rural and remote Australia.


We can make the case very strongly. 


In fairness to the Government, seeing the results of last year’s legislative work will take time.


We know that.


But that doesn’t mean we let them off the hook and just “wait and see”. Like I have been doing since 2022, I will keep campaigning for a $2 billion Regional Housing Infrastructure Fund – so money for critical enabling infrastructure, the kind of things we’ve talked about today will go to where it’s needed in regional and rural areas.


Funding is needed to connect essential services before homes can be built – powerlines and pipes, sewerage and drainage, you know I’m another one that likes talking drainage, infrastructure, these things are absolutely key to unlocking regional housing supply.


In addition to that, we need to build neighbourhoods, not just houses. So local government need this support to create these places we want to live in regional Australia. 


And when I think about this, and I hope the Mayor of Wangaratta mind me using this example, but it’s the one closest to home, and as Aunty Violet says “unless you’re coming from the community, you really don’t know what’s going on”. So in my home town Wangaratta, we can’t build more homes because we’ve run out of sewage infrastructure. 


Now it’s hard to believe for a person in the city when you tell them that. 


So I went in August and met with the Prime Minister, had a cup of tea in his office, after I had asked him a Question in the House about critical enabling infrastructure. And he said “Helen, you better come and talk to me about this”. So, I presented the Prime Minister with my proposals for a Regional Housing Infrastructure Fund.


He listened very carefully, we had a really good conversation and just one week later following a National Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister announced the Housing Support Program for, and I quote, “targeted activation payments for things like connecting essential services and amenities to support new housing development”.


Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So, I think that’s a really important win.


And it’s why it is so important to have a strong regional Independent voice in the Parliament. I listened to my community about the problems they face, and I listen so frequently to my local governments and there’s nine of them that I meet regularly with across Indi. They’re the ones that come forward with solutions for me to take to Government.


But, while I was happy that the Prime Minister was listening, $500 million for the Housing Support Program is simply nowhere near enough. It doesn’t touch the sides. 


So, I don’t think in any way my ambered claim for $2 billion is an underestimation at all because we know that 30,000 new homes to meet the demand in regional Australia, costs about $75,000 to build the infrastructure needed to unlock just one of those homes. This means that we need over $2 billion to meet the demand. At a minimum.


So again – the Housing Support Program is for local councils in both the cities and the country. So it’s therefore not a  dedicated fund for rural and regional Australia and again we’ve just heard about the real challenges we have with planning with the key workers that our local governments need, so how are they going to compete with metropolitan councils for that fund.


So I am really concerned about that, I’m really concerned that our voices will be crowded out by louder ones from the city. 


I have focused a lot on what is needed at a Government level to address the regional housing crisis, because that’s my job, I’m a Federal MP. But Government of course is not the only source of ideas and solutions. I know, here today, there are many people and organisations right across regional Australia who are working to address housing issues with their own ideas in their own areas. Because that’s the gold isn’t it. It’s contextual. 


I will now turn to some of the innovative ideas coming from my own patch, my own region in North East Victoria, to highlight the progress we are making, and the ways in which governments must still step in.


In Wangaratta, a not-for-profit social enterprise Nestd – and right here, they’re here with us today, and I want to give a big shout out to Greg Muller and Alan Tackle from Nestd and I would like to just to stand up if you wouldn’t mind because I want people to talk to you later. Thank you. 


So Nestd are a not-for-profit social enterprise ready to deliver 200 safe, quality, energy-efficient homes for young people, pensioners, women at risk of homelessness and essential workers, like doctors, nurses, SES and fire fighters. 


Nestd were chosen by the Rural City of Wangaratta to develop a community on the site of a former technical school, and I think we heard from one of the people here earlier about these places, these redundant pieces of land right in the centre of towns in regional Australia that could be put to great use. 


It’s a perfect spot close to the city centre and on a public transport route. The council own this site, and have earmarked it to deliver a social, affordable and key worker housing precinct, and to work with Nestd for this critical demand in the regional city of Wangaratta.


To succeed, this project needs a nudge, it needs collaboration and support from all tiers of government, buy-in from the local community and the private sector.


And in Wangaratta, we are passionate and determined about this project, we really want this to succeed and Nestd have come with me to meet the Housing Minister along with our Mayor to describe exact;ly what it is we need to make this succeed. 


I’ll give you another solution put forward by local councils from Indi, to house seasonal workers that are common in regional and rural areas.


Seven local government areas, the Hume Regional Development Authority, and Alpine Resort Management Boards, led by Tourism North East, have come together, collaborated and proposed to establish the North East Workforce Management and Appropriate Housing Project, or the NEWMAH Project.


This innovative project seeks to address the lack of appropriate and affordable housing in the high country ski fields, tourist towns, and in agricultural spaces. And it seeks to do this by securing government loans to construct on-farm and on-mountain workplace accommodation.


It’s a model, like the Nestd model at the technical school site that could be scaled up, worked and rolled out right across Australia in places like the Mallee, where the seasonal workers are right now desperately trying to find somewhere to live. 


These are just two ideas – this room is filled with many more and I’m so grateful for this fantastic report by RAI which is filled with case studies as well.


We do need to collaborate, we need cooperative housing, we need medium-density housing, possibly there’s many other models that will come forward today.


But many of these models, while not asking for all out big handouts, will need leg-ups and there’s a difference between a handout and a leg-up, and they need it from the Federal Government.


In 2024, no one will be watching in the Parliament closer than me to see where the Housing Support Program money goes and where the Housing Australia Future Fund money goes. And I call on all of you here, my call to action for you is to speak to your local Federal MP, ask them to back Helen Haines’ housing infrastructure fund, ask them to really get behind this to put a laser focus on housing in rural and regional Australia. Because, together in the Parliament we can make things happen by putting a lot of pressure on the Federal Government. 


Until we see that funding flow to the regions, I will not be backing down on my calls and I say to you, don’t back down on yours.


Thank you very much for your time today.

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