Residential Tenancies And Other Consumer Acts Amendment Bill 2012

Mr WYNNE (Richmond) – I rise to make a contribution to debate on the Residential Tenancies and Other Consumer Acts Amendment Bill 2012 following my colleague the member for Mill Park, who in her usual thorough way has used her time to fully expose all aspects of the bill and to indicate where the opposition still has some serious concerns and where we believe there are challenges that it is not too late for this government to take up if it has the will.

I commend to the house, and to those who intend to contribute to the debate, the research brief that has been provided to us by the library staff. It is an excellent base document.

In particular I want to refer to the excellent work of Chris Chamberlain from RMIT, who is part of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, a research organisation, who in his research into rooming houses, of which he has extensive knowledge, gives us some idea of how we have had such an explosion in the number of such establishments in the last 8 to 10 years. He estimated that in 2006 there were somewhere between 2946 and 3739 people living in rooming houses and that that figure had blown out to 12 568 by 2011, with quite a different cohort of people now living in rooming houses. As he indicated, there is a greater diversity of welfare recipients, including single parents, students, the unemployed and aged beneficiaries.

As the member for Mill Park indicated also, we had the dreadful deaths of two young people in an illegal rooming house in Sydney Road, Brunswick, which was extensively dealt with by the coroner.

I met the mother of one of those victims, and not surprisingly she was utterly devastated by the death of her child in such circumstances, but indeed I think hoped that governments would enact both a regulatory regime and a licensing regime that would seek to ensure that in the future we did not have these tragic deaths. I will not forget that conversation with her for a very long time. She was a very brave person. She was trying to draw out from this extraordinary devastation that she and her family have had to ensure something positive in terms of trying to make a difference in the rooming house area.

Recommendation 3 of the coroner’s report specifically goes to the question that the member for Mill Park has raised, and that is the whole issue of the licensing system. It is again reflected in the excellent report which, as the then minister, I asked the member for Albert Park to convene. The member for Prahran is with us today listening to this debate and also the member for Albert Park.

In my own area we host a very significant number of rooming houses, but not exclusively. They are also in Footscray and various other places, but a very large component of them have traditionally been in the inner city.

The member for Albert Park did an extraordinary job. He brought together all of the key players. He had at the table the Real Estate Institute of Victoria, the welfare organisations, a private rooming house operators group, Consumer Affairs Victoria and representatives of the various consumer groups. The report he put together contained 32 recommendations. Reflecting back on that report of September 2009, when he brought it before the government, you realise it is substantial and very robust and not surprisingly was adopted by the government in full. We thought not only that all those recommendations were worthy of being fully implemented but also that we ought to get on with it.

Obviously we had the election after that and the new government came to power, but over that interregnum of the last 20-odd months, whilst we have had some incremental change and incremental improvements in the circumstances, it has been incredibly slow. Whilst we have now seen some minimum standards established, which have gone through a regulatory — —

Mr Mulder interjected.

Mr WYNNE — I thought you were ill. Settle down.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr Languiller) — Order! The member for Richmond and the minister at the table will come to order.
Mr WYNNE — I am trying to protect him; he says he is ill. We have now seen some minimum standards established which have gone through a regulatory impact statement process, and it is appropriate that they do so. These minimum standards will not be implemented before March of next year, so that will be getting close to two and a half years since the government came to power. These minimum standards are absolutely minimum standards. We are talking about a lock on a door. We are talking about a blind on the window. We are talking about being able to have locking bathroom doors. We are talking about minimum standards for fire safety; how you evacuate the place. We are talking about safety switches. These are the sorts of things that we all enjoy in our own homes, so why should not rooming house tenants have at least these minimum standards. They ought to have been implemented earlier.

I know the department will say, ‘We are always concerned about issues of supply: that if you regulate the market so heavily, rooming house operators will simply leave the marketplace’.

The alternative position that I simply put is that if you do not put minimum standards in place and if you do not have a regulatory environment in place that is strong and robust, as were recommended by the Foley task force, then you leave yourself vulnerable to potential disastrous outcomes, such as the course we saw in the tragic circumstances of the coroner’s report in relation to the Sydney Road fires.

None of us wants to go back to that tragedy and the terrible burden that was inflicted upon those families.

However, the real issue is that of licensing.

The licensing issue was fundamental to the coroner and fundamental to the chairperson’s report of the Rooming House Standards Taskforce. The government has simply ducked this question. I do not understand why it has ducked this question, because the Business Licensing Authority is the right regulatory framework from within which the issue — as was so eloquently put by the member for Mill Park — of rogue operators who seek to exploit the most vulnerable people in our community can be addressed.

There was an article in the Age a couple of years ago which talked about a man who died of natural causes in a rooming house. I knew that man. He used to sell newspapers. He died in a rooming house, and he was not found for a number of days. The only reason he was found was because of the foul smell emanating from his room. His room was no bigger than a cupboard. He could literally just open a door wide enough to crawl into the bed, which consumed the whole of his space. That was his life.

What a terrible death — to die in an unregistered and unregulated rooming house with nobody around you, in a space no bigger than a cupboard. That was that man’s life, and tragically that was that man’s death as well.

We, as a Parliament, have to do better than that. I believe through fully implementing all of the recommendations of the Rooming House Standards Taskforce we will ensure that those two young people in Sydney Road, Brunswick, did not die in vain and that that poor man who died and was left for days unfound did not die in vain. He had been living in a space no bigger than a cupboard, and he should not have died in those circumstances.

We implore the government to come back to us in a bipartisan way. Let us get the business licensing aspect of this sorted out for the dignity of people living in rooming houses.