Kevin Rudd says fatcat bureaucrats and Colonel Blimps are occupying thousands of hectares of land that could be used to house young families doing it tough looking for housing. These squatters and land hogs need to be made to release land they’re not using.

John Howard’s response is that Rudd’s plan is an assault on our men and women in uniform. Rudd will sell the land from under the Army. Our SAS (he left off “elite”) won’t have anywhere to train. They’ll be getting more practice filling out forms than jumping out of helicopters.

Really, it’s a victory for terrorism, isn’t it?

All this obscures the fact that neither side wants to do anything serious about housing affordability. As commentators like Ross Gittins have argued, the housing affordability issue reflects Australia’s obsession with home ownership. And apart from a few seats in Sydney’s west, the winners from the housing affordability “crisis” far outnumber the losers.

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Labor is also missing the point about identifying surplus Commonwealth land. Since 1996, the Howard Government, via the Department of Finance, has flogged off everything it can find, including over one billion dollars’ worth of property holdings though departments and agencies.

In 2001, the ANAO reviewed John Fahey’s great land sale and found major problems. The Government had been hell-bent on putting everything it could find under the hammer, regardless of whether it would’ve been more economic to actually retain a property. The disposal program had generated a massive windfall for the private companies contracted – usually without a competitive tender – to sell the properties on behalf of the Government.

And worst of all, the leaseback arrangements entered into by the Government for properties it continued to use after sale far exceeded market value. In short, having made agencies flog the properties where they were located, it had then made them lease back them back at extortionate rates.

A 2005 audit of another disposal of half a billion dollars’ worth of property by Defence and DOFA – Howard hasn’t always been so worried about our soldiers flogging their land – similarly found that it would’ve been better off retaining its properties, because it was now paying through the nose to rent them back.

All this was done while the Government was attacking Labor over the Centenary House contract.

None of it particularly surprising. Bureaucrats are no match for developers when it comes to negotiating property deals. And the ideologues in charge regard any market outcome as automatically acceptable.

So be wary of politicians talking about selling land. History shows that it’s taxpayers who wear the cost.