Having mocked Labor’s penchant for summits as a stunt-based approach to government, it is important to acknowledge where summits have actually yielded something worthwhile.

Except, in this case, it wasn’t actually a Labor summit.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme announced by the Prime Minister and Tanya Plibersek on Monday is, by virtually all accounts, a significant first step in addressing rental housing affordability. In particular, it avoids the now-traditional approach of subsidising those targeted for assistance, which simply stimulates demand. Glenn Dyer yesterday questioned whether it would add to inflation by increasing demand in the construction industry. Well, if you’re going to increase inflation, building houses for low income earners is probably about as good a reason as you can get.

Nevertheless, the scheme has drawn support from everyone from Julian Disney to property developers.

Which is not entirely coincidental, because Julian Disney and property developers had a hand in its origins, at the National Summit on Housing Affordability in 2006, organised by ACOSS, ACTU, Housing Industry Association and National Housing Alliance. That summit wasn’t a one-off – they’d already held one in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the issue started to show up on Federal politicians’ radar.

In July 2007, Labor held its own summit, which featured many of the same participants and echoed many of its themes. Shortly thereafter, Labor embraced the rental affordability scheme, as part of a clutch of measures to increase and accelerate housing supply.

This is not to bag Labor. In Opposition, you take good ideas from wherever you can find them, and ideas developed in detail and via an extensive process of cross-sectoral consultation are likely to be as good as anything devised by bureaucrats.

Indeed, given that the Howard Government had little interest in housing until near the very end – after all, who needs to worry about bricks and mortar when you’re creating the Great Shareholder Democracy – the Public Service is likely to have been the last place to look for sensible housing policy. The relevant agency, FACSIA, only had a branch of “housing support” until the election.

Though since then, in line with the new Government’s priorities, an Office of Housing appeared in the FACSIA org chart quick smart.

And with the latest increase in interest rates, watch out for increasing calls for re-regulation of “greedy banks” and their “irresponsible lending”. With mortgage stress – the new black in economic indicators – on the rise, journalists are already beginning to echo the calls of some welfare groups that the banks should somehow be reined in. Presumably, that means less lending for housing.

Both the Prime Minister and Lindsay Tanner have rejected this in the last couple of days. But it won’t be the last time they’ll have to do so. The urge for governments to Do Something runs deep within the Australian electorate.

Peter Fray

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