Renovating the Great Australian Dream

Our narrow view of housing is dated and it’s time to put an extension on. We must replace the Great Australian Dream with a new reality that creates opportunities for all Australians.

4 May 2022

By Brugh O’Brien, Principal: Future Of Home, TACSI

For more than 75 years, the idea of ‘The Great Australian Dream’ has captured the nation’s imagination and played a leading role in the construction of our national identity, value systems, how we define success and what it means to be Australian.

Traditionally valued as a symbol of hard work and self-discipline, a force for economic stability and a by-product of an equal society, the so-called dream actually represents a very narrow view.

The “dream” focuses almost solely on the ownership of property as the dominant vehicle for how Australians access their home, at the expense of more innovative and effective alternatives. Increasingly obsolete and exclusionary, it effectively locks marginalised Australians out, while investors, among others, increasingly corner the market.

It’s time for the dream to change

For more than a generation, the government has proven astonishingly effective at not only managing the tension between Australia’s property haves and have-nots, but exploiting it for political gain. This is evident through the implementation of self-serving policy initiatives dominated by blunt fiscal instruments, such as the First Home Owners Grant, which governments – both federal and state – have employed in various forms since the 60s.

The reductionist nature of such a simplistic approach is a win-win for governments, because it’s easily communicable to voters,  and pleases and appeases both actual and aspirational homeowners. On one hand, it maintains the status quo of steady price growth for those already with a foothold in the market and placates those looking to enter the market, by recognising and affirming their exceptional plight and offering a false sense of support.

While many regard these schemes as politically brilliant, there’s a growing chorus of economists and industry pointing to their ineffectiveness in achieving their stated objectives, namely in increasing home ownership, affordability and accessibility more broadly. 

As the government money floods the market, prices become inflated. Of course, this renders the initiative redundant, pointless and often counterproductive.

Australia has navigated the pandemic with limited economic damage compared to other nations, having weathered the disastrous effects of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to ensure the ’economic miracle’ that was 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth for the Australian economy.

It’s clear Australia has outgrown its approach to housing accessibility. It’s run down and dated, has become too limited and is no longer fit for purpose. It’s not quite a knock down-rebuild job, but it is time put on an extension, not to mention an upstairs area for the kids, and a big deck out back.

Illustration of a person looking out the window

We have the resources to implement change – but we’re not innovating fast enough

Our responses to the pandemic and GFC are evidence we have the ingenuity and resources to more efficiently and effectively tackle issues of housing accessibility through the considered development of comprehensive, inclusive and innovative social policy that values and facilitates the ‘Greater Good’, ensures better outcomes for people and maximises the return on our public investment.

The ability of the Australian government to think outside the box when dealing with the social issues that are exacerbated and exposed during these times of crisis is encouraging. However, during ‘peacetime’, we have a history of falling asleep at the wheel of prosperity. We repeatedly miss our chance to develop and implement innovative long-term policy visions that meet the increasingly diverse needs of modern Australian society, especially in relation to how we access our homes and how this affects the nature of the lives we are able to live. 

Of course, alternative financial instruments, project funding and delivery models that prioritise housing accessibility and/ or extend opportunities for home ownership – such as Build-to-Rent and Rent-to-Own schemes – have emerged in recent years.

While these ‘newer’ models show promise, we also need to make sure the nuances in how they are developed and implemented keep their integrity and capability in supporting better futures for those who will come to live in them. This needs to be the outcome by which we judge their success and the accountability of those involved in their development and delivery.

At TACSI, we work with Australians whose lives continue to be limited by the circumstances under which they access their home

Invariably, they are society’s most marginalised people, from homeless Australians sleeping rough, to single mothers struggling to afford that extra bedroom for the kids.

They include the underemployed struggling with rental stress, those living with disability who can’t access a home capable of supporting their best life, middle aged and older women, former-stay at home mums (some who’ve escaped abusive relationships), many of who have no or little superannuation, savings or investments.

In order to confront these challenges, we must broaden our definition of the Great Australian Dream, from a narrow ideal that assumes home ownership is the best option for everyone, to a more inclusive approach that covers the larger issue of accessibility of a ‘good home’ for all: a home that provides the foundation for people to get ahead in life. We will only achieve this by placing greater value on the development of alternative accessibility initiatives, such as ‘build to rent’ and shared equity finance models, among many other possibilities.

We must replace the Great Australian Dream with a new reality that extends our definition of how Australians access their home to include the relatively modest dreams of marginalised Australians. 

If you’d like to talk to TACSI about the Future of Home, we’d love to have a chat.

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