Saturday, March 02, 2019
Saturday Morning Musings - Mr Dutton doubles down: refugees, social housing and health services
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has used the departure of the last refugee children off Nauru to increase the pressure on Labor over the medical transfers legislation and claim Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for healthcare and public housing. Source
I was going to write something on the environment this morning looking back at some of the things that I had previously written. Then in conversation with a friend, I realised that I couldn't go past the latest spray from Australia's Home Affairs' Minister Peter Dutton.
This as been well covered in the Australian media, I tried to find a release or transcript of Mr Dutton's remarks because I like to check the original material but without success so am relying on the press reports.
The idea that Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for social housing or health care is factually incorrect. Waiting lists will not be affected. What will be affected is allocations. For example, if I am on the social housing wait list I will remain on the wait list but may drop down a little in terms of the allocation of social housing, thus delaying my access. The same holds for the public health system.
Social housing is in short supply because of previous underinvestment. In NSW, for example, there are more than 50,000 people on the housing wait-list. Housing is allocated first to priority applicants, which means that those on the general wait list can wait a very long time for a house. This wait varies from place to place, but is highest in the cities.
Assume that every person on Nauru or Manus Island ended up in Australia as a consequence of medical transfers and was given NSW social housing. At present, there are something like 150,000 social housing properties in NSW. As I said, there are around 50,000 on the wait-list. As housing has become tighter and more expensive in general, as the proportion of very low income or welfare households has risen, families are staying longer in social housing.
Herein lies the rub, for it means that the number of properties becoming vacant each year has been falling. I don't have the numbers here, but I'm guessing that the number of properties becoming vacant each year may now be as low as 5%,
So if every refugee household, household includes single men, was evacuated to Australia and given social housing in NSW it would be a tiny proportion of the total housing stock, but might amount to a reasonably significant proportion of social housing becoming vacant. This would push out wait-lists. However, the final impact would depend upon the actual number of properties required and their distribution,
The position in the public health system is a little different because of scale differences. I haven't had time to check numbers, but I suspect the effect would not be statistically significant.
In a way, all my analysis to this point misses the point, but I wanted to provide a minimal statistical base. You see, Mr Dutton's remarks are misleading, playing to concerns in the Australian community for political effect.
If this were a serious public policy issue, Minister Dutton, and the PM who later echoed Mr Dutton's remarks. would need to provide information. How many might actually end up In Australia and how much might this cost? They do not want to do this.
Consider social housing where the impact may be greatest. Here we have one problem, underinvestment in social housing, conflated with a second one, the impact of new demand on constrained social housing supply. Even if every detainee ended up in Australia, and that won't happen , we could fix this with a one-off total spend of perhaps $500 million. That may sound a lot of money, but it's a relatively small spend compared with the current recurrent costs of offshore detention. It would also create a government asset available for later use.
The Government does not want to engage in this type of discussion for fairly obvious reasons, it distracts from its primary narrative, the need to protect Australia's borders, stop the boats, they shall not come. While I have previously expressed reservations about the Government's approach, I think it reasonably clear that it has majority Australian support. It is also one of the small number of things that actually favour the Government.
The Parliament's decision to facilitate certain medical transfers was vehemently opposed by the Government. The amendments made by Labor addressed some of the Government's core concerns. The Government was not prepared to accept this and basically doubled down. Mr Dutton's remarks are part of this process.
I have said before that I follow a range of social media and news feeds despite my sometimes discomfort. One thread is the constant repetition that refugees receive unwarranted preference in housing and welfare benefits, that the ordinary citizen loses access,is disadvantaged, and bears the costs. The Australian threads also constantly recirculate similar material from other countries and especially Europe,
Mr Dutton is, I think, well aware of these views. His latest comments play to them. They also reinforce the underlying theme that if the floodgates are opened through things such as medical transfers then welfare access and costs will blow out to the disadvantage of ordinary Australians. There is a problem here.
It is possible to argue against the preference issue on the facts. To the degree preference does exist, and it does in rationed social housing, it is also possible to argue on the basis of values and judgements. It is also possible to argue on the basis of alternative solutions such as the successful placements of refugees in certain country areas. It's possible to argue, too, that Australia as a wealthy and successful country has certain responsibilities. But once an issue or conclusion becomes a matter of belief, of faith, argument is no longer possible in a world of simplistic black and whites.
To my mind, Mr Dutton's double-down response plays to emotion, reinforces divisions, is designed to stop discussion. I think Australia is the worse for it.