March 18, 2016  |  Second reading speech

Rooming House Operators Bill 2015

Mr CARROLL (Niddrie) — It is my pleasure to rise and speak on the Rooming House Operators Bill 2015. I actually want to firstly congratulate the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation for bringing this very important legislation into the
Parliament. This is really about government intervention to ensure we protect our most disadvantaged and our most vulnerable. To be very frank, we had four years of inaction on the issue of rooming houses. I want to congratulate the parliamentary library, and I urge all opposition members to get a copy of the parliamentary library’s rooming house research brief, because they will see in that a time line beginning with very tragic circumstances in 2006 when there was a fire in Brunswick where residents, sadly, died. That led then to Peter White, a Victorian coroner, releasing his investigation shortly after and detailing the deaths of Leigh Sinclair and Christopher Giorgi.

I want to thank Minister Foley, the Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing, whom I
know was integral during that preceding period. The coroner did note that Mr Maatouk testified that he was not aware of his statutory responsibilities under the building code, the Health (Prescribed Accommodation) Regulations 2001 or the Residential Tenancies Act 1997. That is the name of the gentleman who was running the rooming house. That was in 2008–09, and then essentially we have a blank space until Labor returned to office to implement this important legislation to ensure our rooming house sector, which is very much accommodation often for older, single men or people from disadvantaged backgrounds, gives people the assistance they need.

We also know that there has been incredible market growth in the housing sector and the rental market. Houses are very expensive. It is very difficult to get short‑term cheaper accommodation, and Fairfax Media, I think, has done a lot of work in putting this issue on the agenda. The Sunday Age of 5 July featured a Farrah Tomazin article headed ‘Shonky rooming houses targeted’. The Sunday Age of 21 June 2015 ran an article headed ‘High‑rise “slums”‘ written by Aisha Dow, and Aisha Dow appears again on 29 June 2015 with an article headed ‘Council crackdown on illegal housing’.

When I worked in the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office at the then Department of Justice back in the Brumby government’s time I got to do a little bit of work on rooming houses. In particular I got to work on doing some advice for the government of the time to
ensure that our local councils at the local government level were key partners in the rooming house sector. If you wanted to operate a rooming house, it had to be registered. The owner had to be transparent, and the local council needed to have all the details of the rooming house.

For lawyers that are around, we all have to go through a fit and proper person test if we want to have our practising certificates, and we are introducing a fit and proper person test if you want to own and operate a rooming house. I think this is a fantastic reform that Minister Garrett is bringing in. It will go to the heart of making sure that the rooming house sector is very much governed but is also run and operated by people of a fit and proper nature. Also, it is very important that once you get your licence it is not transferable; it is not a licence that you can transfer. You must satisfy the requirements and the definition of a fit and proper person.

I just want to go to the heart of how the fit and proper person test is outlined in the legislation. A fit and proper person test within the meaning of the bill means a person who
does not meet any of the licence disqualification criteria, which are set out in clause 17 for new licences or clause 18 for licence renewals. The criteria, under clause 17(1)(a), include that the relevant person not be convicted or found guilty within the preceding 10 years of:

(i)    an offence involving fraud, dishonesty, drug cultivation or trafficking, sexual slavery or servitude, child pornography or violence that was punishable by a term of  imprisonment of 3 months or more at the time of the conviction or finding of guilt or a sexual offence or an offence connected with sex work that was punishable by a term of imprisonment of 3 months or more at the time of the conviction … or

(ii)   an offence that, if committed in Victoria, would constitute an offence referred to in subparagraph (i) …

It is very important that this test, which has very wide support from stakeholders, actually follows the recommendations of the coroner, Mr White, in relation to the tragic circumstances back in 2006.

Consumer Affairs Victoria, for the work it has been doing with the Salvation Army, should be congratulated on bringing this important legislation through. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is really about ensuring that our most vulnerable Victorians, particularly people who might be single, homeless and not have much family, have the support they need.

I think it is very interesting that the parliamentary library briefing note highlights who often might be found to be in a rooming house. Historically rooming houses were common choices amongst men who had social disadvantage issues and sometimes mental health issues, and housing affordability was a key driver of the growth in rooming houses. We have seen a proliferation of student accommodation across Melbourne. Fairfax Media highlights the issue where apartments essentially are becoming rooming houses, with accommodation for rooming houses in Melbourne being advertised in Shanghai. Again, no‑one knows who the operator is or how the rooming house is being conducted. The operator is certainly not passing the critical fit and proper person test that Minister Garrett is introducing with this reform.

I think that what we are passing today is very much a Labor Party reform. After four years of nothing being done, we are now bringing this reform in, and it delivers on our commitment at the election to introduce a fit and proper person test for operators of rooming houses. More importantly and more broadly it reinforces the Labor Party’s commitment to social justice and to safeguarding the needs of our most vulnerable. It is incredibly crucial and important that people’s accommodation rights are protected, and that is why these measures are going to pass this Parliament very shortly. This government is very much one of action, as is the minister. We have immediately commenced delivery on our promises, and the fit and proper person test for operators of rooming houses is one.

The member for Bayswater highlighted that she was very worried about appeal mechanisms if operators could not get a licence. I have got to say that from my reading of the legislation, if an application has been refused, it can be appealed. It is very open. If it has been refused by the Business Licensing Authority, you go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. If the member for Bayswater is worried about people not getting licences, there are appeal mechanisms available so that they can go through a natural justice course to get their licence. If you are a fit and proper person, you are working with your local council, you are transparent and you have got a good history, so you should
have nothing to worry about. But it is very important that we do introduce this test, because it will be very timely and critical for this sector.

I have highlighted the previous government’s inaction, but I think it is very important to say that following the election the Andrews Labor government really worked hard with our
stakeholders. It is very important to note that the Tenants Union of Victoria has come out as a strong advocate for this rooming house legislation. The tenants union is fully aware that for too long a criminal element sometimes has been operating amongst our rooming house sector. With this legislation, if you are doing the right thing by your tenants, then you have got nothing to fear. This is really about making sure that we have the vital protections for our most vulnerable members in the community. I think that the minister and Consumer Affairs Victoria, working with key stakeholders, whether it be the
Salvation Army or the Tenants Union of Victoria, are to be congratulated.

This is a reform that has been needed for too long. The introduction of a fit and proper person test for the operation of a rooming house is a reform that has waited too long, indeed since the coroner’s recommendation all the way back in 2008–09. After four years of nothing being done on this issue, the Andrews Labor government, through Minister Garrett, is delivering on this important reform. It is going to go a long way to ensuring that our rooming house sector is brought up to speed, that rooming house operators cannot escape the law, that they be people of high repute and that they do the right thing by our most vulnerable Victorians. I commend the bill to the house.