Thoughts on Public Housing from the 1940s
Max Solling *
Affordable housing is a basic right for all Australians and an obligation of the Commonwealth Government to provide public housing to Australians who cannot afford to buy a home. The impressive inclusive housing policy developed in the 1940s has been hijacked, and completely betrayed by the rise of neo-liberal ideologies and practices from the 1980s.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to adequate housing, and Australia in 2014 is the 10th richest country in the world based on GDP per capita. The right of every Australian citizen to decent shelter has fallen by the wayside in a much less caring society in the 21st century.
States take the lead in provision of public housing but the Commonwealth, which has no constitutional power for housing, makes direct payments to them for affordable housing. However, federal funds for public housing have dwindled during the last 30 years.
Responding to widespread misery of the Great Depression, social commentators and the broad community endorsed a national obligation to meet the general housing needs of low income earners on a priority basis. The Commonwealth grasped the opportunity during the war to assume a strategic financial role in housing and urban policy.
The Curtin Labor Government established the Department of Post-War Reconstruction (DPWR) in 1942 with its Director General H.C. “Nugget” Coombs (1906-1997) who pronounced a commitment “to a better life after the war, especially for those who had been denied it by unemployment and poverty, would make it important to ensure a physical and social environment in which an adequate and fulfilling life would be possible”.
One of the early actions of the DPWR was to appoint a Commonwealth Housing Commission (CHC), which inquired into all aspects of post-war planning and set in train a joint agreement with the states to fund public housing through low interest grants (actually loans).
The challenge was seen as more than just building houses. The national obligation was to develop real communities, establishing a close nexus between housing and the then fledgling profession of town planning. The Commission’s imaginative final report in 1944 was a milestone in urban planning theory, with a vision for transforming inner city areas and “one of the most admired chapters in the history of Australian social welfare policy.”
The CHC proclaimed “that a dwelling of a good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen. Whether such a dwelling was to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited by excessive rent”.
Labor governments dominated the federal parliament in the 1940s, an enlightened time under Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley of universal provision of social services, and egalitarianism.
The NSW Housing Commission formulated plans for massive development during the war, and the proposed radial expressway networks through neighbourhoods close to the city to complement its urban scheme. Construction was to be the role of the NSW Housing Commission, but war intervened and the program did not begin till 1947. Over 200,000 low-cost rental homes for those who could not afford to buy a house were built by state governments with funds supplied by the Commonwealth.
The high-level commitment to high quality public housing in the broadest sense was set by John Curtin and Ben Chifley’s Federal Labor governments between 1941 and 1949, but the Liberal-Country Party Coalition government of RG Menzies, elected in December 1949, blind to the needs of low income earners, started the rot, falling a long way below Labor’s high standards.
In his appeals to the “forgotten people”, Prime Minister R G Menzies, placed “homes material, homes human and homes spiritual” at the centre of his vision for the nation, but in power Menzies used public finance mainly to assist individuals to acquire homes of their own, through subsidised home finance and grants for first home buyers, rather than providing public housing for poor families, and in NSW since 1924 conservative parties resisted and frustrated attempts at public housing, arguing that housing should be left to the market.
Federal financial support for public housing peaked during 1972-75 – the Whitlam Labor years – the first such government to produce explicit urban policies with a team of progressive bureaucrats. The Department of Urban & Regional Development (DURD) was established under Minister Tom Uren, and among its many initiatives, DURD funded three urban rehabilitation projects at Glebe and Woolloomooloo, and Emerald Hill in Melbourne. In 1978, the Fraser Coalition government sought to target public housing more effectively to those in most need by imposing a market rent policy. It meant household paid rents similar to those in the private market.
The defeat of the Fraser government in 1983 initiated a revolution in which both major parties were accused of the betrayal of core values. The neo-liberal agenda involved dismantling the Keynesian welfare state and the system of regulated capitalism and state supplied services that prevailed in the generation from 1945 to 1980. Its agenda meant privileging managers, deregulating capital and labour markets, opening the economy comprehensively to international capital, privatising or starving the public sector, and bloating private wealth.
The neo-liberal model of global capitalism serves to enrich powerful corporations at the expense of workers and ordinary citizens. Globalisation, the world as a single unit of interconnected activities unhampered by local boundaries, and an uncontrolled global free market, has contributed to a dramatic growth in economic and social inequalities, both within Australia and internationally.
In the past three decades, there have been profound shifts in the geographical distribution of wealth and income in Australia. In NSW the five highest incomes postcodes in 1996/7 were in Sydney while the 12 lowest were in country areas.
Neo-liberalism is linked with Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the USA, in Latin America with the names of Pinochet and the International Monetary Fund.
In Australia and New Zealand labour parties made that turn, meekly surrendering a commitment to even a moderate social democratic tradition in their shift to neo-liberalism.
The ALP reversed its commitment to state ownership and became a party of privatisation under its architect Paul Keating, federal Treasurer from 1983 to 1991, riding the surf of market-driven change, selling off heavyweight public assets such as the national airline, Qantas, and the Commonwealth Bank.
Privatisation takes many forms, including the sale of public assets, deregulation, cutbacks in public services, and the contracting out of those services to for-profit and non-profit agencies. The privatisation of utilities (water, telecommunications, electricity, energy, transportation), the selling off of any publicly owned companies, represents a massive transference of wealth, a redistribution of assets that increasingly favours the wealthy.
For much of the 20th Century economic inequality fell in Australia, yet now it is returning to levels that prevailed in the 1920s. Distribution of wealth today is strikingly uneven, and yet prominent Labor leaders, both state and federal, have begun to reincarnate as millionaire businessmen, media moguls and financiers.
Today in true Orwellian doublespeak, privatisation is called “asset recycling”.
The trend to shorter working hours through the 19th and 20th Centuries in industrialised economies has come to an abrupt halt under neo-liberalism.
In Australia neo-liberal globalisation has unleashed a “race to the bottom”, resulting in the unravelling of union and state protection of workers and their conditions, together with a trend towards longer working days, erosion of leave entitlements and declining security of employment, making it more difficult for workers to organise in a variety of national contexts.
An emphasis on labour market flexibility produces a growing workforce of part-time and casual and contract labour at the bottom of the organisations. The new world of neo-liberalism has meant for an increasing number short-term contracts and systemic insecurity.
Neo-liberals have been inventive, also, in finding ways to commodify public services. For instance, elite private schools are subsidised while the federal Abbott government is currently seeking to deregulate the fees of public universities to extraordinary levels. Public housing is being privatised and, until the neo-liberal agenda is rolled back, the right of every citizen in our country to decent affordable housing will remain a distant memory.
What is the prospect of neo-liberalism, which imposes market rule on all aspects of social life, being rolled back?
Since 2000 it has been Latin America where the most powerful contestation of neo-liberalism has emerged. At the beginning of the 21st Century, a collection of diverse social movements arose in Latin America, culminating in massive anti-free market demonstrations. These events ushered in governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that advocated socialisation and planning, challenging the consensus over neo-liberal hegemony.
Eduardo Silva in his book, Challenging Neo-liberalism, chronicles people developing practical alternatives to the global devastations of neo-liberalism on the local scale in Latin America, and predicts the dawning of an era more supportive of government intervention in the economy and society.
The future of public housing looks bleak. Most of the 304,000 public housing stock in Australia at the 2006 census was constructed between 1945 and 1980. This is out of a total housing stock of more than 7.1 million dwellings.
There are over 105,000 homeless people in Australia, which includes 16,000 children. What can you say about an affluent country that cannot house its own people?
In such a prosperous country this is inexcusable and a national disgrace, prompting the St Vincent de Paul Society to call for a housing guarantee for all Australians.
From 1996 to 2007, the number of affordable public properties in Australia shrank by 32,000 while the population grew by 2.8 million people, and in 2011 there were 173,000 people on public housing waiting lists.
Since adoption of neo-liberal doctrines, governments have been less willing to build public housing. There is no longer a federal bipartisan constituency to significantly enhance the low income stock nationally. There is no prospect of the Liberals seeing the light; they have been ideologically antagonistic beyond living memory. The chief architect of the right to every citizen to affordable housing in Australia was H C Coombs, but a sense of national obligation to meet general housing needs of its low income citizens seems to have been lost by the Labor Party.
Former Prime Minister and merchant banker with Lazards, Paul Keating, who led the Labor neo-liberal crusade, recently congratulated Premier Baird on his pledge to privatise half the electricity assets of NSW, described as “asset recycling” by Treasurer Hockey.
In plain English, privatisation is essentially the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies, a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history. What a sad commentary. It seems clear the light on the hill was turned off years ago as Labor Party ideology has moved further to the right. The time has come for an alternative voice to re-ignite the light on the hill and roll back the blight of the neo-liberal model of global capitalism.