On Wednesday 22 April Queensland Parliament debated and passed two Bills. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020 was the second Bill. It included reforms to residential tenancies and rooming accommodation and established a Small Business Commissioner among some other urgent changes.
Below is the speech I would have given if I had been allowed to speak.
Queensland Parliament systematically sidelines cross-bench MPs, which is very undemocratic. That undemocratic system and the short sitting hours, combined with the fact that the LNP controls the speaking list for non-government MPs meant that I did not get to speak, or to move amendments to the Bill.
COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020 - Michael Berkman Second Reading Speech (never delivered)
The Bill in general
Mr Acting Speaker I’ll be supporting this Bill and I think some certainty about a number of these emergency measures is long-overdue.
Along with many people in my electorate, I’ll be especially pleased to finally see some protections for renters - although I think there are some big holes there which I’ll speak about shortly.
Many of the provisions in this bill, particularly the ones that deal with things like court proceedings, meetings and legal documents in the time of Coronavirus, are fairly common sense.
Allowing Parliament to sit
The amendments to the Parliament of Qld Act certainly are common sense.
I’ve been quite vocal about my disappointment that Parliament was called off almost a month ago - it’s a bit ridiculous that we, unlike workplaces all over the state, haven’t figured out how to get on with the job.
So I’m glad to see that we’re working towards a means for us to do our job through the COVID-19 emergency. There are now very few sitting weeks left before Parliament dissolves, and public and political scrutiny is more important than ever.
Housing (should be) a right
I’m particularly encouraged to see that this Bill does not allow for new regulations to be made that are inconsistent with Queensland’s brand new Human Rights Act.
But I can’t help but note that some of the government’s proposed regulations might have been different if they had listened to human rights advocates and experts when the Human Rights Act was introduced, and included additional basic rights such as a right to housing.
Unfortunately, rather than treating safe housing as a human right for all Queenslanders, this government is still treating it as a commodity - an opportunity for private profit.
For decades governments have stacked the tax system in favour of wealthy property investors, making it easier to buy your sixth home than your first.
That means more people are renting than ever. Renters comprise the largest proportion of Queenslanders in the housing market, at 36% of all households.
In my electorate of Maiwar on the west side, the proportion is even more significant - 47% of households are renters. In 2016, that was almost 10,000 households.
More households rent than are paying a mortgage. Certainly more households rent than own their home outright.
Meanwhile, only 9% of Australians are landlords… but the real estate industry sure has a big voice.
They’ve been able to convince the government that their ability to make money is more important than keeping Queenslanders safe and housed during this pandemic.
The REIQ’s enormous weight - backed by such significant funding that they can place a full-page ad in the Courier-Mail thanking Labor for the back down - is a stark illustration of the enduring power imbalance between tenants and landlords.
The government has backed down to the powerful real estate lobby’s scare campaign based on misinformation, and it means more people will be kicked out of their home or fall into debt.
Because, rather than providing for real rent reductions for people suffering financial hardship due to this crisis, the government is allowing them to accrue piles of debt that they’ll have to pay back once this is over.
Here’s my question: where do we expect that money to come from?
After this health crisis resolves, the economic impacts will remain. For people who’ve lost their job, these won’t all magically reappear in 6 months with a salary paid in arrears.
We are already being warned about the effect that this crisis will have on economic inequality for decades to come.
The ABC reported this week that “COVID-19 is exposing a widening gap in housing markets between those who own zero housing wealth (renters) and those with substantial housing wealth (owners)”.
Renters are more vulnerable to work insecurity, financial stress and ill-health, and according to the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission, rental affordability is a key driver of disadvantage.
This is why I will move amendments to ensure these temporary measures include clear guidelines for COVID-related rent reductions - not deferrals - that prevent tenants paying more than 30% of their income on rent.
I’d also appreciate some clarity on whether the government will provide additional resourcing to the RTA to enable them to perform the new conciliation processes the Government has foreshadowed.
And in the long term, as I’ve been saying for some time, we need legislated rent caps that stop rents rising faster than inflation, alongside other renters rights we were promised years ago but which were mysteriously delayed after another REIQ anti-reform campaign.
Now, no one is pretending that renters are the only ones impacted by this crisis.
The job losses and financial uncertainty we’re seeing are also putting mortgage-holders under serious pressure. Banks have offered a freeze on repayments with interest continuing to accrue, but there’s no real protection from the Federal government, including no compulsion for banks to offer mortgage relief, and no protection from foreclosure.
Regardless of whether you own, rent or mortgage your home, you don’t deserve to lose it because of this pandemic.
I think the Queensland government should go as far as possible to make sure everyone has a home during this crisis, but some measures, particularly protections for mortgage holders, rely on Federal government intervention.
I understood that the National Cabinet planned to come back to this question, but they’ve been entirely silent in recent weeks.
We’re still waiting.
It’s disgraceful that mortgage holders have been left in the lurch, and it’s disgraceful that Queenslanders have had to wait so long for certainty on tenancy laws during COVID-19.
This is a question of people’s homes and safety, but the government chose to put the decision off for almost a month after the National Cabinet decision.
In that time, Queenslanders have been in limbo, terrified and unsure about what’s to come.
In my electorate, locals have contacted me seriously distressed about losing their home or being forced into poverty during this pandemic.
I want to share some of their stories now. I’ve used different names, but left other details unchanged.
John, who lives in Indooroopilly with his wife and four kids, received a notice to leave without grounds a few weeks ago. They politely asked for an extension because they knew it would be difficult to find and move into a new place during lockdown.
He wanted to know if they’d be protected during the pandemic, and I had to tell him that we were still waiting to find out.
Earlier this week I delivered a box of food and other essentials to Sally and her housemate in Taringa. They are both International students who lost their income due to COVID-19. They aren’t eligible for Centrelink and, when they requested a 20% rent reduction, their landlord refused.
Lucy’s family is self-isolating because they have an immunocompromised family member with a chronic illness. Their real estate agents have insisted on continuing non-essential inspections in person despite physical distancing measures.
Katy, who lives alone and lost all her income due to COVID-19, was forced onto a periodic lease after requesting less frequent inspections. She was too scared to ask her landlord for a rent reduction, fearing she’d be kicked out despite being a good tenant for more than 6 years. She told me:
“I was hoping that Parliament would be able to offer some kind of rent freeze, or ban on evictions, or assistance to renters… I can see that Parliament has let us down and this is terrifying me.
I have nowhere to go. What should I do?”
Some of these people will finally get some clear legal protections from this bill - but some will still be left behind.
What’s missing: evictions
I’m incredibly disappointed and surprised to see that this Bill will not ensure all Queenslanders are covered by the moratorium on evictions.
The government is proposing that landlords should still be able to evict tenants unless they meet a strict set of eligibility criteria.
I thought the idea was to keep everyone safe in their home - this is the essential ingredient for people to safely keep social distance and flatten the curve.
It is unbelievable that the government is proposing a new ground for landlords to evict tenants if they want to sell the property. Under the new laws, they’d be able to do that during the pandemic even for fixed term leases, where this wasn’t previously allowed.
The government’s bill also still allows landlords to evict tenants for a range of existing reasons - including minor breaches to their agreement like keeping a pet when they’re not meant to.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think keeping a cat when you’re not meant to should mean you can get kicked out of your house during a global pandemic.
If a tenant trashes the home, or acts violently, dangerously or illegally, then sure - there needs to be recourse to give them notice.
But right now we should only be allowing evictions where they are absolutely necessary.
What’s being proposed here makes no sense, and I intend to move amendments to close these loopholes.
My amendments will:
- Ensure everyone is covered by the restrictions on inspections and evictions during COVID-19;
- Stop the creation of new grounds for eviction to sell a property;
- Give the Tribunal clear directions for rent reduction orders, to ensure no one is required to pay more than 30% of their income on rent;
- Provide for real rent reductions, not deferrals; and
- Bring the eligibility requirement reduced break lease fees in line with eligibility requirements for rent reductions.
I plan to move those amendments because I believe we need real, clear protections for everyone, including vulnerable renters, during this pandemic.
More people than ever are renting in Queensland. It’s no longer just students, young people and people looking for a temporary fix until they buy property.
For many people, renting is the only option, and they do not deserve to lose their home during this pandemic.
Notes on Amendments
Clauses 1 and 2:
The amendments modify the regulatory powers created by the government’s bill to ensure the following:
- Tenants will not be required to satisfy eligibility requirements to be covered by the moratorium on evictions and the extensions to fixed term leases expiring before 29 September
- No new ground for eviction may be created for sale the of the property with vacant possession
- Lessors or agents may only enter the premises on essential grounds and tenants are not required to prove eligibility requirements or vulnerability to COVID-19 for restrictions on lessor/agent entry to premises to apply
- Requirements for discounted break lease fees are the same as rent reduction requirements, being based on “excessive hardship” rather than a 75% income reduction and less than $5K in savings
- Clear directions that any Tribunal order about reduced rent for excessive hardship due to COVID-19 must not require the tenant to pay more than 30% of their income. It is intended that this also guide tenant-landlord negotiations and conciliation by the RTA.
- Tenants cannot accrue any debt for unpaid rent during conciliation or Tribunal proceedings about a rent reduction for excessive hardship due to COVID-19 that is greater than the total rent payable as agreed or finally determined through conciliation or a decision of the Tribunal.
- Neither a tenancy variation agreement for a rent reduction or a rent reduction order made by the Tribunal should require a tenant to defer rental payments (ie to be required to repay the difference between the usual and reduced rental amount)
These amendments prevent the creation of new loopholes for landlords to kick people out during this pandemic.
They also ensure we’re not forcing families and other people into debt just because they can’t pay the rent during this crisis.
Ultimately the amendments acknowledge that the right to housing, and the need to keep all Queenslanders safe during this pandemic, are absolutely paramount, and that the government has a responsibility to prioritise that however they can.
This clause makes direct amendments to Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act as reflected in regulation-making powers, to provide that evictions during COVID-19 would only be permitted on absolutely necessary grounds, being:
- Tenant’s noncompliance with tribunal order;
- Tenant’s noncompliance with direction to relocate, for moveable dwellings;
- If tenants trash the property, referred to in the Act as a “Notice to leave if agreement frustrated”;
- For moveable dwellings, if the moveable dwelling park closes; or
- For a serious breach
These amendments are necessary to properly implement the National Cabinet’s evictions moratorium and ensure we keep renters and all Queenslanders safe during the pandemic.