Friday, July 25, 2008

The Housing Affordability Puzzle

EDITORIAL FRIDAY 25.07.08. The housing market is in a right pickle. The report compiled by Fujitsu Consulting for Wizard Homeloans predicts that a million Australian households will be experiencing mortgage stress by the end of the year, amounting to a less than merry Christmas. The recent series of increases to interest rates have pushed many people across the line, and t looks as if there is more to come. While the Reserve Bank is not expected to increase rates again, there is the real prospect that the retail banks will do so of their own accord anyway.

If more people can no longer afford to buy a home, then more will be pushed into the rental market. The trouble is that we are already running out of rental properties. In fact there is a dramatic shortage of housing across the board. It is this shortage which has in part been keeping prices higher than they should be in relation to people’s capacity to pay for them. So here’s the bottom line: there are not enough houses, the houses we have cost too much to buy, and they cost too much to rent. At the same time, they cost too much to develop and build, so there is not enough investment to meet the shortfall. It is a catch 22.

It’s hard to see this dilemma being resolved without in some way deflating the price of housing, both to purchase and to rent. That means it will be a bumpy ride for investors who have bought into the market at the peak of the boom. To some extent that is already happening as house sales are slowing because they are priced beyond the reach of the people who need them.

Despite this, the simple fact is that people need a place to live. Somehow, we need to build more houses, as quickly as we can. Increased supply will make housing more affordable.

In order to do that it is essential that the ridiculous burden of developer charges is wound back. The total tax take on a new house and land package can be well over $100 000. That’s an outrageous amount of money, especially when it is supposed to pay for infrastructure and services that the consumer ALREADY PAYS FOR through taxes and rates. It is nothing more than government greed, and removing these charges will also make housing more affordable, while at the same time encouraging more investment.

If this doesn’t happen, and housing is not made more affordable, the upward pressure on wages will become irresistible and ultimately increase inflation even further, and that will only serve to undermine the value of everything.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Inflation Destroys Income Growth

EDITORIAL THURSDAY 24.07.08. It’s not really so surprising that the official inflation figures have come in as high as they have. Although reported in some outlets as being “higher than expected’, ordinary everyday Australians already know that prices are out of control. The release of the inflation figures has coincided with a report from the National Centre For Social And Economic Modeling which has shown that while income growth over the last five years was very strong, most of it was eaten up by increasing prices, especially in the cost of housing. Put the two reports together and it’s easy to see why so many people are finding it hard to see the prosperity we have been told is all around us.

The NATSEM report, compiled for the AMP, shows that it has been middle income families who have been worst hit over the last five years, with some of them actually going backwards after increased costs are balanced against increased incomes. It is those same families who are now struggling with an inflation rate which has come in at 4.5% for the financial year. The figure for the June quarter alone is 1.5%, so it’s easy to see that it’s getting worse, not better.

Everybody can see the impact of high petrol prices, but here are the figures: In the past year petrol has increased in price by 18.4%, milk 12.1%, bread 6.8%, cheese 14.2%. On the housing front, bank charges have increased and rents have continued to climb with Sydney house rentals increasing by 15%.

The final quarter of the 2007-08 financial year had the steepest increases, with petrol rising 8.7% in just three months while at the same time Sydney house rentals rose 8%. The only good news is that it would appear that the Reserve Bank is confident that a slowdown is beginning to occur and that further interest rate increases will not be necessary.

It is no surprise that people are finding it tough. Most of us already knew that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Will He Or Won’t He?

EDITORIAL WEDNESDAY 23.07.08. Pressure is mounting for Peter Costello to come clean on whether or not he intends to retire from the parliament. Some say that if he intends to leave he should do so immediately so that the by-election for his electorate can be held at the same time as those for the seats of retiring former ministers Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile in order to save money. Some say the people of Higgins deserve a member who is devoted to representing their interests, not spending his time on preparing his memoirs. Others are concerned about the shadow hanging over the leadership of Brendan Nelson. But really, why should Peter Costello be pushed into making a decision in anything other than his own good time?

It’s just not true that having by-elections concurrently will save any significant amount of money. The only way to save the expense of a by election is to not have one and for Mr. Costello to either stay on or schedule his retirement at the end of the term. There is no doubt that Peter Costello is perfectly capable of serving his electorate while he remains in parliament, even if he is writing a book. After all he doesn’t have to worry about being the treasurer anymore. And as for the leadership question, while he remains in the Parliament it is others who are feeling uncomfortable, not Mr. Costello.

The fact is that it is not only some of the Liberals who are unsettled by having Mr. Costello around. The government too has an interest in whether Peter Costello stays or goes. They are well aware of the fact that if he stays he would be a significant adversary. The Liberal party is currently led by politicians without anything even remotely resembling the experience of Peter Costello, and both sides know it.

If Peter Costello should be persuaded to remain in the Parliament, the leadership is his for the asking. He has the experience and the capability to make the Liberal Party a truly viable alternative. He also has a very good prospect of being elected Prime Minister by those Australians who feel that he has done the hard yards and deserves his opportunity. There are no guarantees of course, as there are others who feel that if he had what it takes he would have taken on the role of opposition leader immediately after the election instead of dropping the bottom lip and retreating. Despite this I believe he is still electable, and at present represents the Liberal Party’s best chance of being returned to office after just one term in opposition.

Of course, that all depends on one important thing. What does Peter Costello want to do? I suspect that Peter Costello will choose to depart the stage as the could-have-been prime minister who never faced an election as the leader. After all, if he lost an election fair and square he could no longer be seen as the tragic victim of political treachery denying him his opportunity. No longer would he be able to tell himself, “It’s not my fault.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Equal Does Not Mean Identical

EDITORIAL TUESDAY 22.07.08. Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has launched her “Agenda For Action” following extensive community consultations on gender equality issues. She has found that there remains systemic discrimination against women in the workplace, as well as obstacles for fathers who are seeking more family friendly workplace arrangements. In fact, it appears that it is more difficult for fathers to get flexible arrangements than it is for mothers.

The Commissioner’s report highlights the phenomenon of men being assigned to the “Daddy Track”. This is the situation where a man is seen as being a less than devoted worker because of his family commitments, and therefore passed over for promotion and advancement. He hasn’t been sacked so it’s not illegal, but it effectively sidelines the man into a position that goes nowhere. Of course, not all workplaces are able to offer such flexibility, due to the nature of the work. But those circumstances should apply equally to both men and women.

Now, it would be well to remember that not all inequality is the result of discrimination. It is a fact that average wages for women are lower than for men. But to some extent that is a reflection of the differences in the work that men and women do. Where they do the same job they should be entitled to the same treatment. Not all women want to be in leadership roles. Not all men want time off to be with the family. You simply can’t take a one size fits all approach. Equal does not mean identical.

The Agenda For Action includes a public education campaign on sexual harassment, boosting women’s retirement savings, encouraging family friendly workplaces, a review of discrimination laws, and promoting women in leadership roles. This covers a wide range of issues. In truth, it is not just about making changes in the workplace. It is about making changes in community attitudes to provide greater opportunities for everyone.

Ultimately, that will only be achieved when gender is not an issue at all. That’s fine, just so long as we realize that there will always be differences between men and women and that those differences are a good thing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Substance Must Follow Symbolism

EDITORIAL MONDAY 21.07.08. I cannot begin to understand the pain of Anthony Foster, the man who flew back from Scotland to seek a meeting with the Pope. Both of his daughters were raped by a Catholic priest when they were children. One of them has more recently committed suicide, while the other has become permanently disabled after being hit by a car. The darkness that has overwhelmed this family is enormous, and beyond the understanding of most of us who have been more fortunate.

For that reason, it is no surprise that Mr. Foster is disappointed at not being included at the private meeting with representatives of abuse victims before the Pope left the country. He has described that meeting as a “sneaky, underhanded and disappointing” PR stunt. He said "I'm happy for the people who did meet him, if it helped them. But I think [the church] has lost an opportunity to speak to people like us and Broken Rites who truly represent the needs of all victims."

As disappointing as it might be, I have to wonder how much more could have been expected from the Pope. An apology was expected, it was delivered. A meeting with victims was suggested, it was arranged. It would be impossible for the Pope to meet with every victim of abuse, there are so many of them. Whether Mr. Foster should have been singled out above others is not for me to say, but if it had been my decision, I would have included him.

Of course, the meeting is a symbolic gesture, not a practical one. Ultimately, it isn’t how many abuse victims the Pope chooses to meet that will be important. What is important is how the Church chooses to deal with these difficult issues into the future. What is important is the acceptance of responsibilty, the willingness to embrace transparency, and the preparedness to pursue justice. This means no more silence, no more secrecy, no more sheltering the guilty as has happened in the past. This means taking every step possible to prevent clergy abusing their positions of trust in such a way ever again.

Of course the steps taken by the Pope have been a PR exercise. But they still carry great significance from an institution which has had difficulty confronting these issues. What remains is for the words of the Pope to be followed by the actions of the clergy.