If politicians can’t fix the housing crisis, can the people do it for them?

Peter Hartcher, Sydney Morning Herald – June 10, 2023

Australia is an entire continent that is failing to build enough homes for the population of a mere city, but the federal government’s plan to fix the crisis has hit a brick wall. That wall is political intransigence. Specifically, it’s the Coalition and the Greens. They’ve combined to block the Albanese government’s housing fund bill in the Senate.

It’s the only one of the government’s major legislative initiatives that has been frustrated by the parliament. As usual, the Coalition objects that the government is doing too much. And as usual, the Greens complain that the government is doing too little.

So why is this bill meeting a different fate from the government’s other big bills? Because the Greens have proved to be pragmatic on the others – carbon emissions targets, workplace relations, the manufacturing investment fund. The housing bill is unique in the life of this parliament because the Greens have proved inflexible.

What happens when an urgent government priority meets a brick wall in the Senate? Usually, absolutely nothing. The wall wins.

The government will try once more next week. When the bill fails a second time, as seems likely, the government will set it aside as a potential trigger for a double dissolution election in case it wants one in future. And that’s it.

So a group of independent MPs is proposing a new way. One of the teals elected last year, Allegra Spender, wants to break the impasse by holding a citizens’ assembly.

“This is actually an opportunity to strengthen our democracy,” says Spender, the member for Sydney’s eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth. “The political parties are playing games at the expense of the community’s lives.

“I trust that the Australian people can come together, listen to each other, and come up with solutions that balance the different interests – mortgage holders, renters, homeowners. My challenge to the prime minister is that he talked about doing politics differently, and this is a way to do politics differently.”

Curiously, Spender is agitating on affordability, but her electorate has the highest incomes in the country. Why? “I talk to many people who own their homes, but they’re afraid their kids will never be able to afford their own homes.” One way or another, housing affordability is a problem for everyone.

Other independent MPs are rallying around the idea, such as Dai Le, representing the western Sydney seat of Fowler: “Bickering back and forth, politicising back and forth, is not going to address the housing shortage and the 12 interest rate rises. How do people deal with this?”

Le points out that there are 5000 people in her electorate who are on the waiting list for social housing. The government’s proposed Housing Australia Future Fund would aim to build 30,000 social and affordable homes over five years, and that’s for the entire country.

Le says 30,000 is inadequate now, but worries that delays will make it even more inadequate as the population grows and pressure builds. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe suggested that one solution would be for more people to share a home.

Says Le: “I don’t know whether Philip Lowe has experienced 10 people sharing a three-bedroom house, but we have that here. A citizens’ assembly is a good start to get the conversation going on how to provide affordable housing, rather than complaining.”

Australia has an experienced convenor of people’s assemblies, the non-partisan, not-for-profit research group New Democracy Foundation. It’s conducted 31 for state governments and others over the last dozen years, but none at a national level. It has written a proposal for a citizens’ assembly on housing affordability.

“I’ve heard politicians call for a ‘national conversation’ more times than I can count,” says its head, Iain Walker. “Their next thought should be: ‘And a citizens’ assembly is the way to do it.′ Because it starts with regular people getting the best democratic opportunity; it shouldn’t start with polarised positions.”

Peoples’ assemblies have been used by many countries to tackle big problems. Especially ones that politicians won’t touch or can’t agree on. The standout is the case of Ireland. It used citizens’ assemblies to deal with the white-hot questions of same-sex marriage and abortion. Both were illegal a decade ago. Both are now legal, and it happened with a minimum of rancour. This year, Ireland has commissioned another on drug use.

A citizens’ assembly doesn’t displace a country’s parliament. It doesn’t have the power to make laws or allocate budgets. But it does seek to guide a legislature. Some, like the one that New Democracy convened on South Australia’s potential as a site for global nuclear waste, failed. Others, like the one on how the City of Melbourne could cut its chronic deficits, succeeded.

How does it work? A representative sample of about 100 citizens is chosen to meet on weekends, over a number of months, supported by a secretariat, to study an issue closely. They are given objective briefings on the subject and then presented with the arguments from advocates on all sides of an issue. The group then discusses the problem and reports its recommendations.

The attraction? This approach removes the political partisanship, entrenched positions and vested-interest lobbying from the deliberative process. It turns out that a well-run citizens’ assembly can not only add to public understanding of an issue but also to public trust in any eventual government action.

“Critically,” says the New Democracy brief, “a citizens’ assembly asks people to confront trade-offs, and it puts homeowners and renters in the same room and gives them the task of finding agreement.”

Iain Walker anticipates a stock criticism – that “I would never fly in a plane designed by a random sample of the public”. His rejoinder: “Neither would I. But if you got a citizens’ assembly to weigh the trade-offs between an aircraft’s speed versus safety versus cost versus carbon emissions, and pass that information to professional designers, you’d probably end up with a better product.”

And he dismisses the comparison with opinion polls. “Newspoll measures people’s five-second opinions; we measure people’s 40-hour views.”

When Spender’s group of crossbench MPs proposes the idea, which they currently plan to do on Wednesday, they will call on the Albanese government to pay for the citizens’ assembly. But the prime minister’s first response is likely to be “no”. The government has a range of housing policies already in place. The Housing Australia Future Fund was the big one it took to the election, and the only one that needs to be legislated – it would invest $10 billion into an account and the annual earnings of up to $500 million would be used to build new social and affordable homes.

But even with the plan blocked in the Senate, the government could find ways to achieve the same outcome. It could allocate an extra $500 million to the Commonwealth-State housing accord, for instance. And, in the meantime, it would derive some political pleasure in blaming the Coalition and the Greens for their political intransigence – with the bonus of having the bill as a possible double dissolution trigger, an option that every prime minister likes to have, just in case.

Besides, Julia Gillard gave citizens’ assemblies a bad name. In her retreat from Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, she threw up the idea of a citizens’ assembly on climate change as a fig leaf for her government’s policy vacuum. It became a laughingstock and Gillard canned the idea.

It would take a great deal of political maturity for Albanese to agree to a citizens’ assembly. Why? Because it would grant the independents a moment of relevance. And because it would challenge the traditional bravado and machismo of the two-party political culture. But, as Walker points out, “the government would not be bound or constrained by this, it would simply have more options”.

If the government won’t fund a citizens’ assembly, Spender says she’ll look for other ways to find the $1.7 million. Which is, incidentally, only as much as the cost of two Australian houses at the current median price.

“Listening to the people doesn’t diminish the government,” says Spender. “I think it adds to the conversation we should be having.” Yet this is the ultimate vulnerability of the idea. Even if Spender finds the money to pay for a citizens’ assembly, it’s impotent so long as the government pays no heed.

The independents want a conversation, but what if the government prefers a monologue?
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