The Politics    Thursday, June 4, 2020

Building back better?

By Paddy Manning

Image of chair of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and former Fortescue Metals chief executive Neville Power

Chair of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and former Fortescue Metals chief executive Neville Power

The government’s pandemic response is taking a familiar shape

Nothing feels right about the Morrison government’s HomeBuilder package, which was finally announced this morning after a few days of heavy frontrunning in the media. The policy doesn’t seem to make much sense economically, socially or environmentally – the latter because the touted green criteria seem to have mysteriously disappeared in favour of a requirement that works must improve the “accessibility, safety and liveability of the dwelling”. If the aim is to stimulate the massive construction industry, the $668 million program is only a drop in the ocean. Given the odds are heavily stacked against first homeowners (courtesy of a bunch of tax incentives that favour existing owners and investors, such as negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions), it is defensible to help them with the cost of a house-and-land package or off-the-plan purchase at this difficult time. But including renovations to existing homes opens up a can of worms. While the means-testing is welcome, it is hard to see who might meet the rather odd criteria – maximum income of $125,000 and a minimum spend of $150,000 – and even if they do, it’s arguable whether they deserve the help of taxpayers. As Labor leader Anthony Albanese has indicated, there aren’t too many battlers with $150,000 lying around.  

The policy has not gone down particularly well, with The Australian’s Adam Creighton writing [$], “forcing taxpayers to renovate other people’s homes to aid some tradie, who probably earns more than the average taxpayer, is economic and political stupidity”. Here’s a quick sample of some of the anger on Twitter: “Stop handing out our money to people who can afford to spend $150K on renovating their home” (Peter Dennis); “So you’re earning less than $125,000 per year. But you’ve got $150,000 tucked away for a bathroom renovation. Yeah, nah. I call b*llshit” (Jim Pembroke); “I have friends who still haven’t bn able to rebuild their hm after a bushfire in 2014. But #ScottyFromMarketing thinks it’s better to give ppl cash to renovate theirs. How abt they help bushfire victims instead... plenty of building work to keep everyone busy” (Jenny Hallam). These are all good points. 

The worst of the HomeBuilder package, however, is that in the middle of a fast-deepening recession, it does nothing whatsoever to support social housing – despite wide consensus that this would be just the sort of stimulus measure that could help Australia build back better. As Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie said today: “We are in a recession, with more and more people struggling to pay rent, which will only lead to greater homelessness. We should be focusing on ensuring everyone has a roof overhead, not on government support for people who are relatively well off to upgrade their roofs.” 

Greens leader Adam Bandt slammed the HomeBuilder announcement today: “Public money should be used to build homes for the homeless, get people off public-housing waiting lists by building public housing, not for giving out granite benchtop grants. This money from Scott Morrison will make the housing crisis worse. Public money should go on a long-term public-housing construction build that will create 40,000 jobs and 4000 apprenticeships over the next 10–15 years … Instead, Scott Morrison is using public money for private gain, to help fund large renovations for people who could probably afford to do it anyway.” The party’s Green New Deal proposes borrowing to build half a million new social-housing units over a decade, and Bandt got stuck into suggestions the HomeBuilder grants should be extended to build pools as well: “Wrong way, Liberal and Labor, wrong way.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 committee this morning grilled the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet staff, including secretary Phil Gaetjens and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission chair Nev Power. There were some good points raised, including about the rules that will apply to national cabinet, which are going to require tightening now that COAG has been abolished. Are states and territories aware that federal cabinet could override or modify a decision of national cabinet, asked Labor’s Kristina Keneally? Gaetjens agreed it was theoretically possible although highly unlikely, but this will have to be checked. Most questions, however, were about the government’s push for a gas-led recovery from the pandemic, the management of conflicts of interest on the commission – starting with Power himself – and the leaked draft report of the manufacturing taskforce led by former Dow Chemical boss Andrew Liveris. Building back green? Not under this lot. 

“Can everyone get off the grass please? Hey guys, I’ve just re-seeded that!”

A resident of Googong, in the marginal electorate of Eden-Monaro, tells off Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the assembled media pack for standing on his front lawn.

“While the compliance failures were serious, the problems were faults of omission. There was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.”

Westpac chief executive Peter King attempts to move on, after releasing the findings of the bank’s investigations into its 23 million breaches of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act.

Like a scene from ‘The Castle’
The Queensland town of Acland has been all but swallowed by a coalmine. After decades of legal battle, there is only one resident left. Tomorrow the High Court will decide if he’ll be forced out too.

The US-dollar amount that News Corp paid out to six US food companies in 2017, in order to settle a class action over its monopolisation of the market for third-party, in-store promotions.

“The council considered there was a public interest in the public being informed about Ms Thunberg’s disabilities but that there was no public interest in the undermining the credibility of a person, her opinions or her supporters on the basis of her disabilities in circumstances where many people without disabilities share and express similar opinions. Accordingly, the council concludes that the article breached General Principle 6.”

The Australian Press Council rules that the Herald Sun breached industry standards in its publishing of three articles written by Andrew Bolt about teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The list

“Turnbull tells us that he regarded the ‘daggy dad’ demeanour of Scott Morrison, after Morrison became prime minister, as ‘cringeworthy’. Perhaps, however the parochials would prefer a daggy dad to a silvertail. We arrive here at the critical weakness of Turnbull’s political career: his tone-deafness to the anxieties of those people for whom globalisation represented not a promise but a threat; his fatal belief that ‘L’Australie, c’est moi’.”

“Australians are the biggest gamblers on earth, losing more than $24 billion a year. According to The Economist, gambling losses of $1068 per adult in 2017 were 40 per cent higher than in the next highest country, Singapore, more than twice as high as in the United States, about three times the level in the United Kingdom, more than four times that in Germany and France and 30 times as large as those in Ireland.”

“‘I think of it as a Choose Your Own Adventure book where every door is locked,’ says Diana Sayed, chief executive of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights. She describes the path offered to women in Australia on temporary visas who are seeking to leave a violent relationship. It’s a stark reality that was brought into focus last week when Kamaljeet Sidhu, a 27-year-old international student living in Sydney’s north-west, was fatally stabbed in her home.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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