Monday, September 10, 2012

Women in public housing history

In our commemoration of the centenary of the NSW public housing system, we've noted the roles played by John Rowland Dacey, Jack Fitzgerald, Bertie Stevens, Bill McKell, Robert Menzies* and Frank Walker... and to a man, all of them are men! This won't do, because women have played a big part in the history of public housing. Here we note three of them.

(Annabelle Rankin, Federal Minister for Housing 1966-1971)

First, a bit of background. Although the NSW public housing system got started in 1912, its operations were very stop-start and experimental, and its institutions very unsettled, until the 1940s. It really became an enduring part of the policy landscape – and the landscape of our cities and towns – after 1945, when the Commonwealth began funding State Governments to build and operate public housing under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (the CSHA).

The involvement of the Commonwealth in public housing was a core recommendation of the Commonwealth Housing Commission (the CHC), a board of inquiry appointed in 1943 by Ben Chifley, as Minister for Post-War Reconconstruction, to report on '(a) the present housing position in Austrralia, and (b) the housing requirements of Australia during the post-war period'.

The CHC's inquiry was a huge undertaking, hearing 948 witnesses, visiting 53 towns across every State, and producing in 1945 a thumping 327-page report. This report was a comprehensive statement of the state of the art of mid-twentieth century housing policy, with 95 major recommendations, including Commonwealth finance for State public housing authorities, the creation of State planning authorities and town planning legislation, Commonwealth involvement in building technology research and training, even land nationalisation. It also set out a statement of principle for housing policy that still rings true:

We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.

Two women were instrumental in the work of the CHC. Mary Ryan was a member of the Commission. An unappointed social worker, Labor Party activist and resident of Portland, in Chifley's electorate, Ryan had trained and worked as a nurse and, before that, as a domestic servant. In fact, even before going out into domestic service she had run a household: from the age of 13, she ran the house for her parents and five siblings after her mother recovered from the loss of two other children. The experience made her an advocate for improved housing conditions, particularly in relation to the services and utilities provided in them, and the community facilities provided without. This interest was reflected in the CHC's recommendations for the planning, financing and provision of community facilities in conjunction with public housing.

Mary Willmott Phillips was secretary to the CHC. In contrast to Ryan, who never attended high school, Willmott Phillips held an economics degree from Sydney University and was one of the first tertiary-educated public servants in Canberra. She was also one of the first married women in the Commonwealth public service (her husband, J G Phillips, was an economist in the public service and later Governor of the Reserve Bank). Pat Troy, in his history of the Commonwealth's involvement in housing policy, describes Willmott Phillips's work for the CHC:    

She worked closely with [Director General of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, H C 'Nugget'] Coombs undertaking, commissioning and assembling research material for the CHC, managing the often turbulent relations with some of the CHC's advisory committees, the other Commissions, government and other agencies, generally keeping the CHC on the rails. She revealed exquisite diplomatic skills in dealing with some of the more egocentric 'experts' she encountered and also drafted much of its final report. The completion of the report on issues of such complexity and magnitude in the brief time available was largely due to her organisational skills and clarity of vision.
These two women not only helped ensure that the interests and views of women in relation to housing were considered in public housing policy making, they helped ensure that public housing policy happened. The CHC's recommendations were reflected – albeit imperfectly – in the first CSHA, which built almost 100 000 dwellings for public rental – that's one in every seven dwellings built in Australia in the 10 years from 1945. (Almost 38 000 dwellings were built under the first CSHA in New South Wales, about 18 per cent of all dwellings built here.)

Our third female pioneer in public housing policy came almost a generation after the CHC and the first CSHA. Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin (pictured above) was appointed Housing Minister by Harold Holt when he became Prime Minister on the retirement of Menzies on Australia Day 1966 – making Rankin the first woman to be appointed to a federal ministerial position that administered a department.

At the time of Rankin's appointment, the CSHA was in its third version and was just about to expire. It and the second CSHA, as we've discussed previously, were quite different from the first, having diverted a large part of the Commonwealth's funds – and the State housing housing authorities' dwellings – out of public housing and into owner-occupation. Meanwhile, other tensions and challenges in housing policy were opening up. Land price inflation, driven by speculation and the Government's encouragement of owner-occupation, was accelerating, and making the business of building public housing increasingly expensive. More flats were being built, both by the private sector (spurred by land price speculation, facilitated by the advent of strata title) and by the State housing authorities (motivated in part as a defence against the rampant sale of public housing houses). On the issue of slum clearance, there were several views within the Federal Cabinet: one was that the Commonwealth should encourage and support the redevelopment of inner-city slums into high-density public housing, the better to concentrate presumably Labor-voting tenants in a relative few electorates; another view (Rankin's) was that slums should be redeveloped into housing marketed to higher-income households, and the proceeds used to build outer-suburban public housing estates; yet another view was to do nothing in particular and leave it to the States. 

Rankin approached her role as Housing Minister with the objective of developing a wider housing policy within the Commonwealth Government. In particular, she sought to give the Department of Housing, which at that stage really just administered grants, a wider research and policy advice function. This meant employing some policy officers – something Rankin sought permission to do, literally for years, against the resistance of officers of the Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Board. In Troy's history, a section titled 'the Office of Circumlocution' details the extraordinary (or sadly, perhaps not so extraordinary) lengths that senior bureaucrats went to to frustrate the development of expertise and policy advice outside the traditional centre of power in the Treasury. Troy observes:

Housing and urban issues were becoming matters of social and political interest at the time. Whitlam was beginning to make political capital out of the housing, planning and development failures that were increasing obvious int he major cities. Rankin sensed this but was unable to carry her colleagues with her.... The history of the Commonwealth's involvement in housing and urban policy issues might well have been different had Treasury not been so obdurate in its opposition to the ambitions of [Rankin].

That's just three women who have made a contribution to the history of public housing. Following Rankin there have been other female Housing Ministers; there have also been, and are increasingly, many women in executive positions in public housing bureaucracies, and in local public housing offices (where they are almost certainly a majority). Women are running the peak community organisations for the social housing system, and so many of the local organisations and residents' groups, and are generally keeping the whole thing going.

* Fans of part one of our critique of Menzies' 'The Forgotten People' – yes, both of you – will be excited to learn we haven't forgotten and will return with part 2 soon.

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