Public housing on the agenda in Canberra election


For those of you who missed it, there was an election in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly on Saturday, 15 October 2016. The Labor Party won 12 seats, in the 25 seat Assembly and will continue to govern with the support of the Greens, who won 2 seats.

From a public housing perspective, Canberra is interesting, because the governing party actually released a housing policy during the election campaign, and that policy directly addressed public housing issues.

This is exactly what has been lacking in recent Commonwealth and Victorian elections, where public housing issues haven’t been on the radar.

So, why is the Canberra election important and what lessons can we take from it?

Canberra is important because it has more public housing, per head of population, than the rest of the country.   They have around 30 dwellings per 1,000 people against a national average of 17 per 1,000. In Victoria we have around 14 dwellings per 1,000, less than half the rate of Canberra.

Before the election Labor promised to:

  • build a second ‘Common Ground’ in Dickson at a cost of $16 million, close to services, job opportunities and the Northbourne Avenue corridor. The original Common Ground in Gungahlin was established to provide long term housing options for people on low incomes; and a solution for people who experience chronic homelessness.
  • assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community with a second dedicated, culturally appropriate older persons housing complex. Costed at around $4.4 million it will follow the recently completed complex in Kambah.
  • continue the renewal of public housing – a $550 million program replacing 1,288 dwellings home-for-home and creating 2,500 jobs in the process.
  • develop a housing strategy in conjunction with key stakeholders from the housing, homelessness and property sectors.

Minister for Housing Yvette Berry said:

“We have provided homes for more than 22,000 people – we have kept them in public hands for the public good.”

The lessons for housing advocates around the country are threefold. Firstly, Canberra shows us that it is possible for a major party to address public housing issues in an election context, and still get elected.

Secondly, housing was treated as a stand-alone issue, on a par with transport, health and education. By doing this, Labor resisted the urge to consider housing purely from a welfare perspective. Labor also released a ‘Community’ policy that touched on housing issues but recognised that housing was vital infrastructure, and recognised that housing policy could help drive growth and employment.

The third lesson it that encouraging major parties to adopt housing policies creates a baseline for ongoing advocacy. Not only does the party who is elected have to be kept to their promises, but we then have the opportunity to ask the opposition party what they would do differently. Suddenly there is some contestability over ideas for housing policies.