Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait



Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 17:39 :06 ): Today I speak about an issue that is of great importance to the electorate of Ku-ring-gai because it affects the quality of our government and the character of the central business district of Sydney where many people in my electorate work. The current opposition to the sale of the Sirius building is a good example of the important ideological battle that is going on between the Labor and Liberal parties over asset recycling.

At the last State election asset recycling of the electricity poles and wires was wrongly called by the Labor Party to be a privatisation, which it opposed. Labor was wrong to call it a "privatisation" privatisation because asset recycling involves the sale or lease of a public asset with all of the proceeds to provide different and better public assets. Asset recycling is a public asset improvement policy, not privatisation. That brings me to the context in which the Government's asset recycling policy operates in relation to the Sirius building.

The number of people living rough on our streets is a barometer of our social compassion. It is a symptom of how we are dealing with important social issues like mental health disease, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other problems that homelessness reflects. I spoke about wanting to do something about homelessness and mental health issues 18 months ago in my speech asking Liberal party members to preselect me as a candidate for this Parliament. As a young man travelling to Europe, the United States of America and Canada, I saw a level of homelessness that far exceeded Australia's. At that time we were doing much better than other Western countries in the way in which we looked after our vulnerable people.

For more than 30 years  I have regularly attended the central business district of Sydney and in that time the number of people visibly living around Queens Square, Martin Place and Macquarie Street has gone from almost zero to becoming very large in number. In that 30-year period nothing significant appears to have been achieved by the local, State or Federal governments in halting the growing number of people living rough in our city. Just as the former Labor Government did nothing about improving infrastructure in its 16 years in office, it had a similar record of inaction on social disadvantage. But in many countries in Western Europe, the United States of America and Canada there has been significant improvement in the number of visible homelessness over the past 30 years.

If our homelessness has gotten worse while other Western countries have less visible homelessness, I cannot fathom why the Australian Labor Party, the union movement and Clover Moore are opposed to the proposed sale of the Sirius building. How can we, as an affluent country, allow our vulnerable citizens to be cold and uncomfortable, often needing medical treatment but not receiving it, as they live on the streets of our city? Considering that most of our homeless have previously paid taxes, or come from families that pay taxes, there is a social contract to look after our vulnerable citizens. The Government's job is to use its limited resources to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Usually that is done by the Government getting out of the way, but sometimes it has to step into the void.

The Sirius building is one of the great 1970's eyesores of Sydney located on very valuable land. This Government has a policy to sell the building and to use that money to provide up to 600 more homes for vulnerable people than will be provided if the Sirius building remains in public hands.

Instead of supporting the provision of extra housing for thousands of people, the Labor Party would prefer to protect the harbour views of a handful of people who live in public housing in the Sirius building. At its foundation the Labor Party used to be against elitism in Australia, but its policy on the Sirius building is a form of modern elitism, favouring those within the public housing system against those vulnerable people outside of it.

As all of the proceeds from the Sirius sale will go to government housing assistance, the Sirius building will do more for the vulnerable if it is recycled by the Government than if it is retained in public ownership. But for political reasons and not community benefit, the Australian Labor Party and its union masters want to oppose any recycling of this public asset, to put a green ban on the site and to run a fear campaign.

On this they are returning to familiar ground. No economist in Australia thought that there was any basis for suggesting that Medicare could be privatised. Medicare distributes massive amounts of government welfare and has no income-generating asset that could be commercially exploited through a privatisation. But because many people do not understand the ins and outs of privatisation, the Australian Labor Party misled and scared people for political gain at the recent Federal election about the possible privatisation of Medicare.

Labor is now trying to run a misleading anti-privatisation line with the Sirius Building. Not only is it misleading but it is also disingenuous because Labor has privatised many Government-owned assets, including Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and many State-owned insurance companies. Homelessness is too important for this kind of hypocritical cynical politics.

The real issue is how many more people will be helped with the sale of the Sirius building. Recycling the Sirius building is something that genuinely compassionate people should support and not oppose. It is time that Labor's actions matched its rhetoric.

The action of this compassionate Government to protect vulnerable homeless people in our city is in contrast to the hypocritical inaction of Labor.