WEDNESDAY, 20 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: COVID in South West Sydney; HomeBuilder; Mortgage freeze ending.
JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: Thank you very much for coming along to Paul Keating Park this afternoon. Zero positive cases for COVID again today in the last 24 hours. I think that's the third day in a row we've had zero positive cases. That's great news. I want to thank everybody in the local community here who got tested over the course of the last few weeks. The effort you're making in getting tested is helping to keep our whole community, our whole state, safe. And to everybody else who lives here in our local community in South West Sydney, if you've got a headache, if you've got a sore throat, if you've got a runny nose, then please get tested. It's really important.
Can I urge the State Government to do more in getting that message out to my local community in all the different languages you hear on the streets and in the suburbs here in southwest Sydney: in Chinese, in Vietnamese, in Arabic, in Turkish and Korean, and lots more.
Two important messages that need to be part of that are that the test is free, and that you don't need a Medicare card. Here in our local community, there's a lot of people who don't have a Medicare card and a lot of people who don't have a lot of money. Over the course of the last few weeks, we've had some pretty bad examples of people being charged to get a COVID test, anything from 50 bucks up to 120 dollars. We've spoken to the Health Minister about this, and he's given us some reassurance that's been fixed, but we need to make sure that that's happened because people are still getting invoices for tests that they did last week.
We've got to make sure that people are not getting charged and not getting turned away if they don't have a Medicare card. And we've got to make sure that's part of the message that we give to the local community here, in English and in all the other languages that are spoken here, that the test is free and that you don't need a Medicare card. That'll help to make sure that we get those testing rates up and keep our local community safe.
There's a couple of stories today in the papers about housing, one in the Australian is about the jump in the number of HomeBuilder applications, and that's a good thing. The scheme kicked off late last year, and it was very slow to start off and a lot of tradies in the building game lost their jobs. We're seeing that ramp up now. That's good. That'll hopefully mean that we'll see tradies who work in building homes for other Aussies get their jobs back.
But a word of warning here, my office is already getting calls from people who applied for the $25,000, signed a contract for a new home, and are now being told by their builder that they may not get the money. And the reason for that is the builders saying they can't comply with the rules the government has set up. In particular, the builder has to start building the house within six months of signing the contract. If people sign up for the scheme, apply for the $25,000 and then miss out through no fault of their own, then I think that's unfair. I just urge the Prime Minister and the Government to apply a bit of common sense here and work with the State Governments who are involved in the scheme and make sure that people don't miss out. Because there's people that are talking to my office already that feel like the $25,000 that they applied for was part of what they were going to use to pay for the loan, and now they're going to lose that and miss out and it's just going to be harder to pay that loan back.
Finally, there's another story in the paper today in the Sydney Morning Herald about the end of the mortgage freeze. The work that banks and building societies did last year in freezing mortgages for people who lost their jobs, freezing mortgages for people who thought they couldn't repay it in the middle of the pandemic, is really important. There were hundreds of thousands of Aussies who froze their mortgages, just so they could keep their head above water and that was really important in making sure that lots of people didn't lose their home, that lots of people didn't have to sell their home because they didn't have the money to pay the bills, to pay the mortgage. It's arguable that that policy that the banks and building societies implemented helped to stop a big drop in property prices here in Sydney and right around the country.
I thank the banks for the work that they did, I thank the building societies for the work they did in that mortgage freeze, and I just urge banks and building societies to show the same understanding and the same common sense this year that they provided last year. Even though the freeze, the automatic freeze, is ending next month, please make sure that you look after people that are still struggling. There's almost a million Aussies that still don't have a job, almost a million Aussies that are still unemployed, and a lot of them have mortgages. We want to make sure that people, through no fault of their own but because of a pandemic, don't have to sell the house. I know the banks are doing some good work here in setting up schemes to provide extra help to people suffering hardship, and I just urge him to keep doing that.
JOURNALIST: I'll start with the mortgage freeze. Does that need to continue past next month?
CLARE: I think the mortgage freeze was essential when the pandemic was at its worst and it had the impact we needed it to have - stopping people losing their homes. It did a really important job; I can't overstate how important it was. It was one of the big factors in stopping people from losing their home. Now, as it comes to an end, what's important is that for the people who still need that sort of help, whether it's not paying their mortgage for another couple of months, or just paying the interest on their mortgage, that the bank show a bit of common sense, and a little bit of understanding, and help to make sure they get through until they get another job.
JOURNALIST: Banks will be banks, though. Does it need to be mandated?
CLARE: To be fair, this wasn't mandated at the height of the pandemic. This was through the decisions that banks made themselves. Not just banks, but building societies as well, big and small. It was an important thing to do, I gotta tell you, and I'm thankful that they did it. Banks cop a lot of criticism from time to time, and a lot of time for good reason. We had a royal commission because banks did some pretty awful things. But last year, they did what needed to be done and they helped to save a lot of people from losing a home that they've spent their life saving for and building up. All I'm saying now is there are still people hurting, there are still people who are going to struggle to pay the mortgage, there are still people who don't have a job. I'm urging the banks to show the same understanding and the same common sense this year that they showed last.
JOURNALIST: On HomeBuilder, do you think it has been responsible for keeping the residential construction industry afloat?
CLARE: We saw the construction industry forecasts go off a cliff last year. I'm hoping that we're going to see a turn around this year. That extra support, the $25,000 is going to help to encourage people to buy a home. We've seen that in the number of people who've taken it up so far and hopefully people will take it up in the months leading up to March. But there are still people who might miss out and still people I'm worried about that will miss out on the scheme. In particular, people who lost their homes in the bushfires. This time last year the country was still on fire. We had about 3000 people who lost their homes in the bush fires, and a lot of those people won't be able to access this scheme, they won't be able to get the $25,000, or the $15,000 that it's now been reduced to, because they won't be able to sign a contract by the end of March. Now if there's anybody in Australia that deserves a little bit of help to rebuild their lives and to rebuild their homes, I think we'd all agree it's the people who lost their homes when the bushfires hit. They saw everything they'd worked for in their lives incinerated in front of them. I've asked the Government a number of times last year to show a bit of heart, and extend the scheme for bushfire victims. It'll be good for tradies, it'll be good for the industry and it'll also be fantastic for people who desperately need a helping hand, and that's the thousands of people who had their home burn down.
JOURNALIST: At the end of March, you've also got JobKeeper and JobSeeker expiring as well as HomeBuilder. Is it smart to have all these end at the same time?
CLARE: I'm really worried about what happens after March. If the banks show the same sort of common sense they did last year and help people who don't have a job to keep their head above water and not have to sell their house, then that's a good thing. But a lot of people don't own a home, a lot of people rent. And last year while the banks did great work freezing mortgages, people still had to keep paying rent. Some good things happened last year. I called for a freeze on evictions and that happened. States implemented schemes so that you couldn't evict people at the height of the pandemic, but there were also schemes that were set up to help people reduce the amount of rent they had to pay. There were incentives that State Governments set up which were supposed to encourage landlords to cut the rent. They didn't work. They were in large part a failure. These schemes were intended to get landlords to cut the rent, and in return, give them a cut in their land tax or in their rates. Most of those schemes didn't work.
Your question is what happens after March, I'm really worried that when JobKeeper ends, and when JobSeeker goes back to 40 bucks a day, that there'll be a lot of people who are going to struggle to pay the rent. State Governments set up schemes with big buckets of money to encourage landlords and help tenants to pay the rent by providing them with financial security. A lot of that money is still there, and so can I use this opportunity again to urge the State Governments to look at those schemes make them easier to access, because I think a lot of people after March are going to need a little bit of help to keep paying the rent.
JOURNALIST: Would you support extending HomeBuilder beyond March?
CLARE: We've called for the government to extend it last year, and they finally listened to our call and extended it into March. I also called for them to raise the cap on property prices that fit under the scheme for places like Sydney, and they did that. That's a good thing. What I'm asking you to do now is to particularly help bushfire victims. Most Aussies know that scheme is there, and if they want to access it, they can. But for bushfire victims, there's some pretty good reasons why they still can't apply. Either because they've got delays with planning approvals from their local council, they've got negotiations going on with the Rural Fire Service about where they can build on their site, they've had delays with debris clearing, or they're still in dispute with their insurance company, or they're still going through the trauma of what just happened to them and trying to work out what they want to build and where. So for those 3000 Aussies in particular, I think they're a special case. They're the sort of people that I'm asking the government to show a heart, show a bit of common sense and extend the scheme for them.
JOURNALIST: So position is it's for everyone, it's fine to end at the end of March and then for bushfire victims (interrupted)
CLARE: I called on the government last year to extend it and I'm glad they did. I called on them to raise the cap for places like Sydney. I'm glad they did. I'm asking them to show a bit of heart of bushfire victims, and it's important as they look at this scheme going forward, that we don't see a dip in the housing construction industry either at the back end of this year or next year. This scheme won't last forever and when it ends, there is a real concern among some people in the housing industry that will see another dip in housing construction. If that happens, then that's not good for the hundreds of thousands of tradies who work in this sector.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there's a risk the scam is being exploited by some builders like price gouging and things like that?
CLARE: That's something that the governments always got to keep a keen eye on. I know they set up the scheme conscious that that was a risk. They wanted to make sure that that didn't happen. We've got to keep an eye on that to make sure that absolutely does not happen.
The key now is accountability, making sure that the scheme rolls out that way the government has promised that it will, making sure that people get the $25,000 they applied for and making sure that the houses they want to build are actually built.
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