Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tenancy culture studies: Andy Capp

After a long break, welcome back to the Brown Couch's Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies. The subject of today's study is the most famous cartoon tenant in Hartlepool, if not the world – Andy Capp.

(Andy Capp, by Reg Smythe)

Since Reg Smythe launched his comic strip in the Daily Mirror in August 1957, Andy Capp and his wife Flo have been the tenants of the premises at 37 Durham Street, Hartlepool, in the north of England. Andy's tenancy has been mined repeatedly for jokes about crumby housing, noisy neighbours and, especially, about paying the rent – or rather, not paying.

(Daily Mirror, 25 June 1958)

(Daily Mirror, 29 December 1961)

(Daily Mirror, 6 November 1961)

One might think that because of Andy's rent-dodging antics he would be fondly regarded here at the Brown Couch. Unfortunately, no. I say 'unfortunately' because I like the idea of Andy Capp: the twisted logic of that third gag is okay, and the whole idea of millions of newspaper-reading households meeting over their breakfasts each morning a chronically unemployed man and his cleaning-lady wife seems kind of radical... but there's no getting past the domestic violence.

The abuse and violence inflicted by Andy Capp upon Flo is a big part of the comic strip and, horribly, its humour (running 'Andy Capp domestic violence' through the British Cartoon Archive's database turns up no less than 73 strips from the period 1957-1962 alone – half as many again as the tenancy-related strips).

(Daily Mirror, 20 August 1957

(Daily Mirror, 24 September 1962)

One gets a bit of chill to think that fifty years ago these hateful little works were presented by newspapers the world over for the amusement of their readers.

Perhaps this is unfair on Smythe, who is said to have later regretted all the DV gags... but I don't think so, and instead think of how many beaten women would have read the papers and got the message loud and clear that they should expect to be beaten and for no-one to help stop it because sometimes it's the right thing for a man to do and sometimes it's just funny. Perhaps we're being unfair to Andy, who after all got given violence and alcoholism by Smythe along with unemployment, soccer, pigeon-racing and tenancy to make him the complete stereotype of the marginal working class Northern English male. But still too many women suffer from the compounded effects of domestic violence and insecure housing to make dismantling the stereotype the first order of business.

Let's consider Flo. If she and Andy lived in New South Wales, Flo could apply to the Local Court for an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order against Andy, which 'may impose such prohibitions or restrictions on the behaviour of the defendant as appear necessary or desirable to the court' (s 35(1) Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007) – including prohibiting access by Andy to any premises occupied by Flo, 'whether or not the defendant has a legal or equitable interest in the premises or place' (s 35(2)(b)). In other words, Flo could get Andy excluded from the premises of which he is a tenant, if the court was satisfied that this was necessary to her safety.

As the law presently stands, however, Andy's tenancy would not be terminated, so Andy would still be in a position to make life difficult for Flo. The difficulty depends on Flo's own tenancy status: if she and Andy are co-tenants, the difficulty is that there is no straightforward way for Flo to change the tenancy agreement so that she alone is the tenant; if she is merely an occupant under licence, Andy could terminate her licence and have her evicted.

The draft Residential Tenancies Bill would fix these problems. In particular, a final ADVO that excludes a co-tenant from the premises would terminate that co-tenant's tenancy, while leaving the rights of the remaining co-tenant unaffected (so, Andy would legally be out of the picture, and Flo would have the tenancy in her name only). And in the case of an occupant in premises from which a tenant has been excluded by ADVO, the draft Bill would allow the occupant to apply to the Tribunal for an order vesting a tenancy in the occupant on such terms as the Tribunal thinks appropriate (so, Andy would be out of the picture and Flo could get an order for a tenancy in her name only).

Two good practical ways of helping survivors of domestic violence take the steps they need to get safe and get on with their lives, and two good reasons for passing the Bill.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Service or speculate?

Last week ABC's Radio National breakfast show did a neat report on the cost of housing, giving an overview from a number of different perspectives. Your correspondent offered one of them, but I'll draw your attention particularly to another.

Mr Saul Eslake, previously chief economist of ANZ, stated clearly one aspect of the madness of how we tax housing – but if Eslake wasn't clear enough, see the front page of today's Herald for an illustration. This is the story of a house in the inner Sydney suburb of Annandale, purchased for $1.3 million in December 2008, and 15 months later for $1.8 million. And what did the owner do to get this cool $500 000 profit? Says the agent:

''They just repainted, recarpeted, tidied up the garden and made a slight improvement to the kitchen area. That's pretty much it.''

Alternatively, they might have actually done something useful and rented the place out. Doing so might have generated an income for the owner of, I don't know, $50 000 for the fifteen months (it's a pretty schmick house).

And as Eslake says, this income would be taxed at the owner's top marginal tax rate. But the owner's profit from doing nothing productive and simply on-selling will be taxed at half that rate, thanks to the capital gains discounting provisions introduced by Treasurer Costello in 2000... and now retained by Treasurer Swan in the face of alternatives suggested in the report of the Henry Review.

What to do: provide a valuable service, or speculate? The tax system says, resoundingly: speculate.