Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Whitlam and housing

Sunday was the fortieth anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Federal Labor Government.

Like us at the Brown Couch, Gough Whitlam himself has always enjoyed pondering the significance of anniversaries. On the commencement of the 1972 campaign he observed, characteristically:

December the second is a memorable day; it is the anniversary of Austerlitz. Far be it from me to wish, or to appear to wish, to assume the mantle of Napoleon, but I cannot forget that the second of December was the date on which a crushing defeat was administered to a coalition – a ramshackle, reactionary coalition.

In a previous post we mentioned briefly how housing and urban policy had, late in the long period of Coalition government, fallen into a state of disrepair, notwithstanding the efforts of Housing Minister Annabelle Rankin. Over the three short years of the Whitlam Government, housing and urban policy enjoyed a much higher priority.

Whitlam's most ambitious initiative was the creation of a new Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), conceived of as 'virtually co-equal with the Treasury', to coordinate the  allocation of urban resources by all levels of government. Under Minister Tom Uren, DURD programs included the establishment of the State land banks (Landcom in New South Wales) to better manage suburban development; funding for suburban sewerage; and the development of Area Improvement Plans that brought together and directly funded local governments to plan and work on local and regional infrastructure.

Early in its first term, the Whitlam Government also negotiated a new Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA), which made a few notable changes to public housing policy. Whitlam had gone to the election critical of the recent decline in building activity by State public housing authorities, and promising instead to 'request each State authority to estimate the funds it will require to reduce the waiting period for houses to twelve months.' The 1973 CSHA didn't quite do that (fastforward to the present and see how far waiting lists have run out here), but it increased funding, reigned in sales of public housing dwellings, and stabilised the level of construction for a time.

The new CSHA also slightly shifted the target of public housing policy. Traditionally directed at working class households, and exclusive of very poor and vulnerable persons (you could be knocked back by the Housing Commission's allocations committees if you didn't keep your current house well, or had too many children), State housing authorities were henceforth required to make not less than 80 per cent of public housing allocations to households whose incomes were not more than 80 per cent of the average. This attempted to balance responsiveness to households in need with the system's need for higher income households.

Apart from the CSHA, DURD purchased and rehabilitated old dwellings at Glebe and Woolloomooloo for public housing, and demonstrated an alternative approach to redevelopment at a time when the NSW Housing Commission was at the height of its enthusiasm for 'slum clearance' and high-rise construction. The first programs for Aboriginal housing on principles of self-determination were commenced. And under its Australian Assistance Plan, the Whitlam Government established Regional Councils for Social Development and funded other local, non-profit organisations to employ community development workers and improve the social fabric of public housing estates and other disadvantaged areas.

Finally, the Whitlam Government initiated the first steps towards tenancy law reform, by expanding the scope of the Inquiry into Poverty (originally commissioned by the McMahon Government) to include a report, by Adrian Bradbrook, into the landlord-tenant relationship, which set out the basic model of residential tenancies legislation subsequently enacted by (with considerable differences in the details, and delays in the commencement) by the State and Territory Governments.

No subsequent Federal Government has been so active in housing and urban policy. If you live in or visit a place like Claymore (which we visited recently with IUT Secretary -General Magnus Hammar), where residents and community workers meet around a table in a community laundry to connive at ways of getting and keeping basic facilities and resources like decent houses, footpaths, parks and playgrounds, and the occasional bus-run to shops that don't rip you off, you'll see the continuing relevance of Whitlam's agenda. Both sides of politics should see that it's time for a strong and just housing and urban policy again.

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