Last week’s news that the Territory’s $100-million housing debt wouldn’t be waived in the upcoming Federal Budget drew only “disappointment” from Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
But it’s drawn more than a heaping of criticism from the Opposition, who accused Mr Barr and his government of hypocrisy for not condemning the decision.
On Wednesday (19 October), Opposition spokesperson for housing Mark Parton moved a motion in the ACT Legislative Assembly which would have forced each party leader to write to Finance Minister and ACT Senator Katy Gallagher to condemn this decision and her perceived “backflip”.
That did not succeed.
Senator Gallagher last week said forgiving the loan was “not that easy” and the government was “not currently in the position to do so”.
This is despite the fact she had previously criticised the former Coalition government, including former ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, for not having worked on a loan waiver while in power.
Mr Barr has also previously advocated for the ACT’s debt to be waived in the wake of a 2019 deal struck with Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie when that state’s housing debt was waived in return for her support on another matter.
A fired-up Mr Parton said the government could not have it both ways.
“The $100 million housing debt was so important when Scott Morrison was the prime minister … it was the Federal Liberals who were stopping the ACT from reaching its full potential in the housing space,” he told the Assembly.
“Now, all of a sudden, it’s not so important.”
Mr Parton said this “reeked of the most extreme political hypocrisy” and must be called out.
“Despite all of the rhetoric about the utopia Canberra would become once we got rid of Senator Seselja, nothing has changed. This is unacceptable,” he said.
Mr Barr rebuffed the Opposition’s rhetoric.
He said the government was still advocating for the historic housing debt to be waived and, if that occurred, remained committed to directing money it would otherwise have spent on servicing the loan on social housing.
“We’re not the only jurisdiction with a historic housing debt and what we are trying to do is work with the Commonwealth,” Mr Barr explained.
“What shouldn’t happen is what happened with Tasmania – where it was only about Tasmania and not the other states and territories.”
Mr Barr then went on to sing the praises of the current Federal Labor government’s commitment to action on social housing, saying the former Coalition government had not even believed it had to play a role in the provision of social housing across the country.
“What we are seeking to do is work collectively with [the Commonwealth government] … we will work in partnership … to deliver more diverse and affordable housing options,” Mr Barr told the Assembly.
“What’s different now is that we have a partner; we didn’t have that before.”
Mr Barr amended Mr Parton’s motion to instead call on the government to continue working with the Commonwealth and progressing these discussions.
Independent Senator David Pocock remains optimistic about using his powerful position on the Senate crossbench to force the Federal Government’s hand into waiving the Territory’s housing debt.
This is despite Senator Gallagher suggesting a Tasmanian-style deal was not on the table.
Senator Pocock has pointed out the government does not have a majority in the Senate.
Greens cross-bencher Johnathan Davis questioned why the Opposition had not made any comments on this issue in the last nine years.
He said the real issue was the ongoing housing affordability crisis and it was time for the “piddling contest on debt and who owns it and owes it” to end.
Mr Davis said it was disappointing that neither party in the Assembly could influence federal government decisions, but he welcomed Senator Pocock’s ongoing commitment to working on a solution to the debt waiver, whether or not that meant political deals.