City mayors back new homelessness minister

LORD mayors of Australia’s capital cities are optimistic about Assistant Housing Minister Luke Howarth’s attitude towards addressing homelessness, despite backlash to his desire to put a “positive spin” on the issue.

Mr Howarth – recently promoted to the role – said on Tuesday Australia’s more than 116,000 homeless people make up just 0.5 per cent of the population.

“I want to put a positive spin on it as well and not just say Australia’s in a housing crisis when it affects a very, very small percentage of the population,” he told ABC Radio National on Tuesday.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers branded the comments an “absolute disgrace”, saying they set a new low in discussions on the issue.

“Scott Morrison’s message via his minister to 116,000 homeless Australians is that they should be happier and more upbeat about it,” Mr Chalmers said.

Social services groups also expressed their distaste.

“All day we’ve been bombarded with messages aghast that a minister would show such poor taste with so little real knowledge,” the housing group National Shelter wrote on Twitter.

Anglicare Australia, meanwhile, said there was no way to put a positive spin on the 300,000 additional social housing properties Australia needs.

Mr Howarth’s comments came ahead of a meeting with capital city lord mayors in Brisbane focused on tackling the issue.

Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds said it was a “positive” gathering where the representative from each city had a chance to voice their concerns.

“It was a constructive meeting and the minister seemed very willing to listen and engage with us,” she told AAP.

The group encouraged the federal government to create a national housing and homeless strategy and set an ambitious target for reducing homelessness.

Asked whether there was concern about the minister’s earlier comments, Ms Reynolds stressed the data on the issue can be challenging to navigate.

“We understand that he’s new in his portfolio and that the data around this problem is not easy to fully grapple with,” she said.

The lord mayors will meet again without the minister on Wednesday.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the Morrison government’s designation of a minister responsible for homelessness was a good sign.

“I can confidently say from our meeting this afternoon that the minister is very clear that the council of capital city lord mayors feel that there is a crisis and that it is a top priority for all of us,” she told ABC Radio National.

Mr Howarth earlier said between 2001 and 2016 the number of people living on the street or in tents and other improvised dwellings had decreased, while severely crowded accommodation had increased.

“There are a number of areas and I’ll be focusing on all of them, but I think people on the street is important because that’s what Australians see if they’re in a capital city,” Mr Howarth said.

According to the most recent census in 2016, 116,427 people were counted as being homeless, up from 102,439 in 2011.

NSW experienced the biggest increase, with a 37 per cent rise, while the number of homeless in Queensland went up 14 per cent and rose 11 per cent in Victoria.

© AAP 2019