Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [12.49 p.m.]: I support the proposed Opposition amendments to the Residential Tenancies and Housing Legislation Amendment (Public Housing—Antisocial Behaviour) Bill 2015. The Government is introducing a bill that significantly alters the tribunal process in regard to social housing tenancy and limits the discretion available to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. If this bill is passed in its present form, the tribunal will be mandated to evict social housing tenants if they are found to have committed an offence from a prescribed list.

The Opposition understands that reform is needed to improve the safety of social housing tenants and neighbouring communities. Tenants have the right to clean, safe and affordable housing, and ought not to be endangered by the actions of their neighbours. However, the Opposition, unlike the Baird Government, understands that there are shades of grey when it comes to the tribunal process. The Opposition also understands that the issues surrounding problem tenants is often rooted in social disadvantage, mental illness, drug abuse and lack of education.

The Opposition agrees that a social housing tenant who manufactures, sells or supplies drugs, stores a firearm without a licence, commits an act of violence that results in grievous bodily harm, uses social housing as an illegal brothel, or produces or disseminates child abuse material or rebirths cars or boats should be penalised appropriately. In many cases, that will involve eviction. It is important to understand the distinction between criminal law and tenancy law when dealing with those matters. The offences I have mentioned are very serious and are already punishable under the existing criminal justice system, as they should be. I have no hesitation in supporting the punishment of those who store illegal firearms, manufacture illicit drugs or commit the other mentioned offences, and I especially have no hesitation in punishing those who abuse children.

But that is an issue of criminal law, not social housing policy. The unsightly reality of social housing is that often it is the only housing available to convicted criminals who have served their court-mandated sentences. Much of the purpose of social housing is to reduce crime in the long term by keeping those with criminal histories off the streets and reducing the number of motives they have to continue to commit serious crimes. As unsightly as it is, the State Government must be prepared to accept that reality and understand that it is its job to strike the appropriate balance between effectively managing problem tenants and protecting society's most vulnerable people.

That is exactly the alternative offered by the Opposition. The Opposition proposes that the tribunal maintain its discretion in a range of circumstances. The first is protecting the innocent. The Opposition does not believe that an entire household should be evicted if only one member of that household has committed an offence. Secondly, orders for possession should take no effect later than 28 days for one- or three-strike terminations for criminal or antisocial behaviour, and no later than 60 days for all other terminations, including rent arrears. Thirdly, the tribunal needs to have regard to the remedies of breaches. The whole purpose of the tribunal is to seek fair and effective justice at low cost. It is not necessarily an adversarial system. Tenants ought to have their existing efforts to remedy a problem taken into account.

Fourthly, out-of-time submissions should be allowed in some circumstances, especially as many of the tenants who are at risk of termination often have issues with low literacy, may be the victims of domestic violence and/or have medical issues that prevent them from responding quickly. Finally, for the purposes of safety, neighbourhood impact statements should not identify complainants. Essentially, the Opposition is calling on the Baird Government not to view social housing tenancy in black and white, especially when it comes to tribunal hearings. Effective policy requires the precision of a surgeon's knife, not a baseball bat.

The issue of social housing across New South Wales, and particularly in Western Sydney, is a very important one. Every day our electorate offices in Western Sydney deal with a raft of social housing issues raised by constituents who fear they have nowhere else to go. Due to a range of poor decisions in the past, which were often made with the best of intentions, we have been left with entire social housing estates that are seen as the bad part of town. It is not uncommon in some areas, particularly in Western Sydney, to see houses with boarded windows and graffiti, children without good role models and the harsh effects of the ice epidemic. The structural problems are deep.

As a Labor member of Parliament, I believe in social equality. It is our core belief as a party. As the New South Wales Opposition, we believe in a robust and sensible approach to social housing and that we must care for our society's most vulnerable people. The Baird Government does not seem to understand those facts. Already it has evicted all but seven community members of a Sydney icon, the Sirius Building, and has sold off the historic Millers Point neighbourhood. To quote the member for Sydney, this is an act of social cleansing.

Herein lies the main problem with the Baird Government—and possibly every future Liberal government—money comes first. Historical communities are being demolished to build shiny buildings to sell to society's wealthiest, or at least to the most savvy foreign property investors. Herein lies the key distinction that separates the Opposition from the Baird Government: Labor puts people first; the Baird Government puts money first. It is as simple as that.

TEMPORARY SPEAKER (Mr Bruce Notley-Smith): Order! Members on both sides of the House will come to order. The member for Prospect will be heard in silence.

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT: The Baird Government's policy in relation to social housing has been to demolish whole streets and start again without regard to generations-old communities or the history of our State and without compassion towards the disadvantaged members of our society. This Government wiped out the Millers Point community for a quick buck. And where do the profits go? The answer lies in a case study in the electorate of Prospect. Recently the Baird Government announced that the proceeds from the sale of the Millers Point community would go towards 11 new single-bedroom apartments in Smithfield—just 11 apartments.

Despite 56,000 families being on the waiting list for social housing across New South Wales, a dire shortage of three- and four-bedroom dwellings and a 20-year waiting list for social housing in the Prospect electorate, the Government has committed to building only 11 new one-bedroom units. Surely the Government can do better than that. The Baird Government is continuing to seriously neglect the social housing needs of New South Wales. It is willing to use the proceeds of electricity grid privatisation to fund tax cuts for the biggest corporations and slap a bedroom tax on society's poorest. As I said earlier, the Baird Government cares about money, not people.

Sadly, every time I get a call from a constituent who has been on the waiting list for social housing for 10 years or longer, I know they are only halfway through the process of obtaining social housing. If the Baird Government was serious about improving the lives of social housing tenants in New South Wales, it would not accept a 20-year waiting list for social housing. The severe shortage of social housing is one of the biggest crises facing our State, if not the biggest crisis. The disadvantage that is perpetuated over generations must be stopped. There is no simple solution, such as the Government's attempt with this bill.

Threatening social housing tenants with eviction by changing rules for lawyers does little to solve underlying problems. They can be solved only with increased efforts on improving education; accessing health care, jobs and opportunity; improving transport; implementing a culture of equality; working to end discrimination; and effectively managing and preventing the effects of domestic violence and child abuse. That is another difference between the Opposition and the Baird Liberal Government: We understand the need for long-term structural solutions to end disadvantage.

What the Government has offered is not even a bandaid solution. It is better than nothing but it will prove to be extremely ineffective in the long term. The Opposition will support this bill with the necessary amendments. The disadvantaged people in our society should not be forced to live near those who are committing very serious and dangerous offences. The Opposition's amendments better articulate this objective. For many of the serious offences that lead to termination of tenancy, there are existing provisions under criminal law to deal with them. Neighbours of tenants who have committed a dangerous offence will be safe as in most cases the guilty party will be sent to jail.

Prior to the 2015 State election, many of my volunteers and I heard the same story when we doorknocked in disadvantaged areas. Often a household would be occupied by an elderly person, a refugee family or a disabled person who faced the issue of antisocial behaviour by their neighbour. "Antisocial" is a broad description. Some of the complaints I heard included a window being broken on a weekly basis by a neighbour who kept throwing bricks over the fence. Very common were stories about the enormous impact of drug abuse that plagues our community.

Ultimately, the Opposition's argument to amend some elements of the bill is that social housing and the issues that surround these tenants are individualised and complex. There is no blanket solution. The Government is already failing a vulnerable portion of our society—hundreds of thousands of people. Governance is not about shiny new buildings and catchy slogans funded by the taxpayer; it is about ensuring we have a cohesive and fair society. Shamefully, the Baird Government is failing on this important concept. Introducing provisions to protect the community by removing dangerous tenants from social housing is essential, and the Opposition supports this motive. However, the tribunal must retain some discretion in practically dealing with cases in the future. The State Government needs to acknowledge the disadvantage faced by many social housing tenants. I commend the amendments to the House. [Time expired.]

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