Housing stoush could give Albanese double dissolution trigger

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Labor will bring its contentious $10 billion housing bill back to parliament next week, daring the Greens and Coalition to block the unchanged legislation a second time, which would hand the Albanese government a trigger for an early federal election.

The fight between Labor and the Greens to pass the housing package has become increasingly bitter this year as community anger mounts over soaring rents and mortgages.

The government would receive the trigger to dissolve both houses of parliament and hold an election just as the Voice to parliament referendum is tipped to be held, on October 14. If the referendum were successful, Albanese could be tempted to go to an early election in a bid to increase its numbers in the upper house.

The prime minister and his cabinet have spent some of the winter break promoting their housing fund at visits to federally funded housing developments. Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

A double dissolution can be called if a bill is rejected or fails to pass twice in the space of more than three months, according to section 57 of the Constitution.

The federal government has rejected the Greens’ demands for $5 billion annually for social and affordable housing and a rent freeze and knocked back a later offer to pass the bill for $2.5 billion in social housing.

In a surprise move in June, the states were offered an extra $2 billion collectively if they agreed to build or refurbish social housing – a clear sign Labor is aware of voter angst over housing.

While the housing bill returns to the House of Representatives when parliament resumes next week, a second vote will not be held in the House – where Labor comfortably has the numbers to pass the bill – until October.

When the Housing Australia Future Fund bill is then sent to the Senate, more than three months will have elapsed between the first vote and the potential second vote means that if the Greens and Coalition team up again to block the legislation, the opposition parties will be handing Anthony Albanese an early election trigger.

The last double dissolution election was in 2016 and was triggered by a political standoff over industrial relations reforms. It delivered a narrow coalition win.

The Housing Australia Future Fund legislation is a signature policy promise for the ALP at the last federal election but the Coalition and the Greens teamed up in June to block the policy in the Senate.

The proposed $10 billion investment fund would provide $500 million annually to build social and affordable housing. The government had said it would be used to build 30,000 social and affordable homes in the fund’s first five years.

The stoush over housing has played out against a backdrop of a 12 interest rate rises over the last 14 months, spiralling rents and an increasingly tight market.

In the most recent Resolve Political Monitor, 55 per cent of voters nominated housing and rental affordability as “very important” and 30 per cent of people said it was “important”, meaning it was one of the top three issues for voters.

The prime minister and senior ministers have visited federally funded community housing projects across the country during the winter break, repeating their message that their future fund was a solution blocked by opposition parties.

In a statement signalling the return of the bill to parliament, Albanese said reintroducing the bill “gives the Coalition and the Greens an opportunity to stop playing politics and support a $10 billion housing fund that the Australian people clearly need and support”.

“We’re not giving up on Australians who need and deserve the security of a roof over their head.”

Constitutional law expert George Williams said the move by the Greens and Coalition to team up and block the housing legislation back in June constituted a “failure to pass” the laws and if the Senate failed to pass the laws a second time, it would set up a double dissolution trigger.

“A double dissolution trigger arises not only when the Senate rejects a bill but also when it fails to pass it. That might be because it blocks or unduly delays the passage of the bill,” he said.

The housing legislation is unchanged, but amendments the government has already agreed with the senate crossbench – including a guaranteed number of homes for Tasmania, will not need to be renegotiated.

Greens leader Adam Bandt and Max Chandler-Mather, Greens housing spokesperson, have led the fight to demand more housing relief. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Housing Minister Julie Collins said community housing providers, homelessness services, state and territory housing ministers and social housing tenants were all urging parliament to stop delaying the housing fund.

“The Greens and the Liberals should get out of the way and back this secure, ongoing pipeline of funding for social and affordable housing,” she said.

Labor has been struggling to get the housing legislation passed all year.

In March, Greens Housing spokesman Max Chandler-Mather said the party would not debate the legislation in the Senate unless the government agreed to significant changes including directly spending an additional $5 billion a year on social and affordable housing and introducing a national agreement to cap rent increases for two years.

“It is on the government if they don’t want to give literally any ground and try and force on this country a plan that will literally see the housing crisis get worse,” he said at the time.

The fight came to a head when the Greens and Coalition teamed up to push the debate on the bill into the middle of October – after the next national cabinet meeting, which is due in August.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said at the time that the fight was all about renters.

“Renters are in crisis, and the Greens are pushing the government to act,” he said in June.

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