ADDRESS TO MASTER BUILDERS ASSOCIATION ELECTION FORUM
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, 1 MARCH 2022
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It is a pleasure to be speaking today at one of the first pre-election debates that I’ve done. Congratulations to the organisers for delivering it well before deadline, and under Budget. I’d expect no less from the Master Builders.
Since we’re talking about housing today, let me start with the story of my maternal grandfather, Roly Stebbins.
Roly was born in a tent in 1922. His childhood was marked by the Depression and what we would now call the PTSD that his father suffered in World War I. Roly left school at age fourteen, and found work to help his parents get by. During World War II, he worked as a boilermaker.
It was a tough upbringing, but Roly’s eyes used to twinkle as he spoke with me about the bright days that came at the end of World War II - the sense of possibility and hope.
That wasn’t an accident. Even as war raged in the Pacific, the Curtin Government was laying out an ambitious plan for reconstruction, partly set out in its White Paper on Full Employment.
After the war, Roly bought a cheap block of land in Seaholme near Williamstown in Melbourne, and built his own house. He used a mate’s kiln to fire the bricks. It wasn't the warmest home - my mother talks about feeling the sea winds coming in during winter - but for a boy who had been born in a tent, it was a home of his own, where he and my grandmother Jean raised four children.
My grandfather's story is very much the story of that post-war era. A plan developed by the Curtin Government, then followed by Chiefly Government and continued by the Menzies Government, saw the homeownership rate in Australia increase 10 percentage points in seven years. Incomes went up, and prosperity was broadly shared.
There’s many lessons in that for us right now.
We have to be honest - the Australian economy before the pandemic was not in good shape. Productivity was going backwards. Australia had experienced the worst decade of income growth in the post-war era. Wage growth was sluggish.
And we have a crisis in housing, which has seen the homeownership rate now fall to the lowest in half a century. It used to be that low-income households had the same homeownership rate as high-income households, but now a massive gulf has opened up.
As my colleague Jason Clare points out, one in ten people sleeping rough in NSW is a veteran. Nationwide, nearly 6000 veterans are homeless each year.
For young Australians, there are now huge challenges for anyone wanting to raise a family and to own their own home.
That's why Labor has announced a Housing Australia Future Fund, a $10 billion fund. This will directly support 21,500 full-time jobs across the construction industry and broader economy, per year, over 5 years, nationwide. One in 10 direct workers on site will be apprentices.
Now, of course, I think this is good. I would, I'm part of the Labor team. But I want to read you a very prescient comment from Master Builders Association CEO Denita Wawn, speaking about our fund: “Last year when the country was in the grip of the pandemic and the economy was locked down, Master Builders in conjunction with the CFMEU, called for a $10 billion social housing stimulus fund… The Opposition Leader and the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness have listened. We applaud the Opposition’s $10 billion social and affordable housing fund”
Denita's support for Labor’s announcement mirrors endorsements from the Property Council, the Real Estate Institute, Reverend Bill Crews, Homelessness Australia and ACOSS. It is a recognition that we need a united effort in order to build more homes in Australia. We need to do that through tapping new sources of energy and activism.
That rebuilding effort needs to also see Australian productivity improve, which is why Labor has announced hundreds of thousands of free TAFE places and tens of thousands of additional university places. It's why we've announced that we're going to turn around the collapse that we've seen in apprenticeships and traineeships, halving since 2013 when the Coalition came to office.
Labor wants to ensure that we’ve got infrastructure being built according to economic cost benefit analysis, not political pork barrelling. That kind of misuse of public money that we’ve seen through sports rorts, car park rorts, through the purchase of a block of land for the Western Sydney Airport which was ten times the estimated value. All of that undercuts the sense of confidence in the Australian Government. We need to restore the basic principles of good government, the integrity and the processes that go along with that.
Now you can expect that there will be in this election, as there were in the last election, a series of scare campaigns. They might be ‘reds under the beds’ campaigns. They might be suggestions of taxes that haven't existed in Australia since the 1970s. They might be scare campaigns about the political power of a party that holds one seat in the House of Representatives.
But you should recognise that this is coming from a government that – as many commentators have noted – is in a desperate phase, lacking moral courage and without a sense of long-term vision for the nation.
Labor is ready to govern. We want to work with you. We are keen to tackle the skills shortages and address the supply chain issues that you face.
We want to build back better, and to build a better Australia.
We're ready for government and we're keen to work with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.