On Thursday 2 November, as part of their Ethos 2023 series of events, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the PM Glynn Institute hosted a thought-provoking panel discussion on how to achieve ethical housing policies. The evening was also an opportunity to officially open ACU’s new Julien O’Connell Lecture Theatre and to celebrate the man in whose honour it is named.

The Ethos events, which have been held this year in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, focus on ‘the big public ethics issues of the day and what they mean for the future of Australia’.

With housing becoming more inaccessible for many Australians, especially those who are struggling, last week’s event at ACU’s Melbourne campus brought together three distinguished panellists—McAuley Community Services for Women CEO Jocelyn Bignold, former federal MP and minister Tim Wilson, and prominent Catholic philosopher Prof John Haldane—to explore the ethical aspects of this important issue, and to discuss how we might begin to navigate the many competing economic and social considerations involved.

After screening a short introductory video featuring ACU theologian Sandy Cornish and Director of the AHURI Research Centre at the University of Sydney Dr Laurence Troy, PM Glynn Institute director Dr Michael Casey moderated a lively and wide-ranging conversation, which began with Jocelyn Bignold pointing out that in Victoria less than 3 per cent of all housing stock is public or social housing.

‘And the eligibility for public housing is really based on what I would say is a deficit model—that is, you have to choose how badly off you are in order to qualify,’ she said. ‘The worse the circumstances the better. And so that really does nothing for the dignity of the human person in front of us.’

In some respects, she said, it is ‘easier to blame the individual for their circumstances than to fix the problem as a whole’.

In March this year, Bignold said, only 58 of nearly 9,800 private rental properties across metropolitan Melbourne were suitable for a household on income support.

‘So we’ve got less than 4 per cent social housing. You’ve got 0.6 per cent private rental available for anyone on income support in Melbourne now. And we’ve got around 55,000 people on our social housing waiting list. So you can see the size of the problems.’

Commenting on the gender implications of this situation, she pointed out that ‘family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women, children and young people, with an accompanying expectation that women will leave their home with their children in order to keep themselves safe. We put that burden and that onus on them to keep themselves safe.’

We’ve got less than 4 per cent social housing. You’ve got 0.6 per cent private rental available for anyone on income support ... And we’ve got around 55,000 people on our social housing waiting list.

So to ensure that access to housing is available on an ethical basis, Binold said, we need to examine the purpose of housing. ‘Once we establish the purpose of housing, then we’ve got a much better place to decide how to distribute the resources as a common good.’

According to Tim Wilson, our responses to these problems need to be informed by ‘the type of country we actually want to be’.

When Australia was founded as a modern nation, he pointed out, deliberate decisions were made ‘to make sure that Australia didn’t become the equivalent of a hereditary, privileged country like [those of] our European settlers. They actively thought about how it was they were going to build an economically democratised nation, where people had an ownership and participation in society and didn’t become the serfs to feudal lords in the way that had been done in times past. And my fear is, frankly, we’re heading back to … a kind of serfdom associated particularly with housing.’

The deprioritising of home ownership, Wilson argued, has been a ‘fundamental error’.

‘We need to refocus the conversation on how we can empower people to own their own home,’ he said. ‘But we also need to stop the economic perversion that exists where we prioritise superannuation ahead of home ownership, because the biggest leading indicator of poverty in retirement, particularly for women, is they do not own their own home.’

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Prof John Haldane began by making a couple of cultural and economic observations, drawing on both international and Australian examples.

One of the unintended consequences of governments’ efforts to maintain asset values and to keep inflation at a certain point, he said, has been to cause ‘a lot of cheap money’ to flood into the housing market, and this has meant that people have come to see property ‘not really from the point of view of homes, not to do with their self-identity and their self-worth, but simply [as] a capital asset’.

With this change in outlook, and with the ongoing depletion of housing stock, ‘people were buying anything in sight, and that’s also then led to inflation in the housing market. And that’s created the present situation.’

According to Prof Haldane, ‘One effect of the housing crisis—and certain other factors obviously that play a part, including largely economic ones—is the diminishing size of families and indeed the disappearance of families altogether. And this again is weakening people’s connection with a sense of home as a heritable space’—the idea that a family might remain connected to a place or community over many generations.

For Prof Haldane, this connection to home does not necessarily rely on home ownership. ‘I’m really pointing to certain psychological and cultural connections between the idea of house and home … I suspect, in this regard, Australia is somewhat different from, say, Southern Europe. In Southern Europe, people’s sense of identity is much more tied to community. It’s not a tie to home ownership.’

Prof Haldane also questioned how useful the concept of ‘rights’ is in discussing these issues.

‘Sometimes, when people talk about the ethical dimensions of housing and so on, they’ll talk about individual rights,’ he observed.

A better alternative, he said, would be to make ‘an argument that says we should have a social perspective, or a community perspective on this, rather than see it in terms of individual rights.’

When we think carefully about this, he explained, we can see that part of the common good is the participatory good of an individual in that good. By way of example, he invited the audience to think about the mood at a great party.

‘You benefit by being present at the party, but you can’t take away your share of that. You can’t say, “Well, it’s now time for me to go, so I want my share of that [mood].” It’s not an aggregative or collective good; it’s a participatory good.

‘Now, I think that people want to live in a society in which they know that other people are living reasonably well. Also, it’s part of their good to be in a society in which there are levels of general benefit and so on. So rather than talking about individual rights, I’d ask this question: What sort of society do we want to be? And what place does housing have in that conception?’

Rather than talking about individual rights, I’d ask this question: What sort of society do we want to be? And what place does housing have in that conception?

Bignall encouraged people to take responsibility for engaging proactively with issues of housing access and affordability. ‘We have to be actively participating in a conversation around housing to make things better,’ she said, ‘because we can’t just abrogate our responsibilities to that government; it is our government.’

Prof Haldine pointed to community-initiated housing associations, supported by government, as a potentially more effective way to provide appropriate and affordable housing, either through not-for-profits or through direct community initiatives. ‘I like the idea, as it were, of trying to do this from below … With housing, there’s a lot to be said for … empowering people to create their own communities and then find ways of supporting that [rather than] keep looking to the top.’

Wilson agreed. ‘I think that one of the biggest policy failures we’ve had in housing policy is the lack of innovation,’ he said, pointing out that the cost of housing in Melbourne was once roughly five times the average income, but is now 11 times the average income, and that the average age at which someone can buy their own home has increased from the mid-twenties (in the 1980s) to the late thirties today.

‘We’re seeing a dramatic shift [in] what people can achieve, which means they’re renting longer, they’re less likely to form a family, or certainly to have children, and so what you’re actually seeing is people not being able to progress through different stages of life.

‘It’s not a sign of a healthy society,’ he said. If the next generation are unable ‘to see their dreams and aspirations achieved through their sacrifice and effort, and if the system isn’t working to support that, then we’ve got something structurally wrong.’

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Julien O’Connell Lecture Theatre officially opened

ACU and wider Church community pays tribute to ‘a man of great hope’

Julien O’Connell AO is Chair of the PM Glynn Institute’s advisory council, has served as ACU’s Pro Chancellor and Acting Chancellor, and as chair of Senate committees. He has also played an active role in housing through his work in aged care and disability care, most notably as the current chair of VMCH. It was fitting, then, that the Ethos 2023 event concluded with an opportunity to honour Mr O’Connell and to officially open the lecture theatre named in his honour.

‘Julien O’Connell’s life is a story of extraordinary achievement and extraordinary generosity. Throughout his career, he has remained especially devoted to health care, aged care and care for the disabled,’ said ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Prof Zlatko Skrbis. Describing him as ‘a man of great hope’, Prof Skrbis said that ‘underlying this gift for hope is not only the heart of an exceptionally good man, but a deep and abiding faith in Christ the Lord. His unstinting support for various causes and endeavors is sustained not only by his boundless energy, to which I can also attest, but also his deep love for the mission of the Church.’

In the presence of his wife, children and some of his grandchildren, as well as many friends, colleagues and distinguished guests, Mr O’Connell observed that ‘Much of what takes place within the walls of the university occurs in a lecture theatre. But much also takes place with the imbuing of the spirit and richness of who we are as a Catholic university, not just a secular university.’

Paraphrasing Pope Francis, he said, ‘Educational communities play an essential role in the enrichment of civic and cultural life. It is not enough to analyse and describe reality. There is a need to shape environments of creative thinking and discussion, which helps alternatives to current problems, especially today.’

An institution like ACU, he said, is ‘uniquely different’. ‘We provide higher education to people of all faiths or no faith; we employ people of all faiths or no faith, but there is a most onerous responsibility to explain the values of who we are as a Catholic university.’

In declaring the lecture theatre open, Chancellor of ACU the Hon Martin Daubney AM KC paid tribute to ‘a man of practical and realistic wisdom born of years of service to the missions of the Catholic Church—a passion that undoubtedly lives on beyond his time at Australian Catholic University’.

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From left: Prof Virginia Bourke (Pro-Chancellor, ACU), Hon Martin Daubney AM KC (Chancellor, ACU), Maryanne O’Connell, Julien O’Connell (Chair of VCMH), Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Prof Zlatko Skrbis (Vice-Chancellor and President, ACU).

Banner image: Panellists Jocelyn Bignold (CEO, McAuley Community Services for Women), former federal MP and minister Tim Wilson, and prominent Catholic philosopher Prof John Haldane, with moderator Dr Michael Casey (Director, PM Glynn Institute).

All photos courtesy of ACU.