Citizens' Assemblies and renting policy: an avenue for fair rental reform?

Riley Brooke • 12/09/2022

Robert Mowbray, Advocacy Officer - Older Renters

Citizens' Assemblies are being increasingly explored in other jurisdictions as an avenue to achieve fair and sensible legislative reform across a wide range of issues - including renting.

But what are they, and how could they be applied to improve renting here in NSW? Let’s start by looking at how the majority of decisions around renting policy are made right now, and what some of the problems there are with that. 

Decision making and renting policy Robert Mowbray

Right now, most laws that relate to renting are made by State and Territory governments. The complete legislative process in NSW is set out here, but in sum, a law is made when a Bill is introduced, read, debated, and potentially amended - sometimes several times - by the Upper and Lower Houses of NSW Parliament. Where there is disagreement, some Bills are referred for inquiry. This can involve the solicitation of public submissions - including from the community sector, academics, specialists, or any interested member of the public. Ultimately, however, it is the members of the NSW Upper and Lower House that make the decisions as to which Bills become law (and any amendments that are made to them before they become law) with relatively little input from the broader community. 

But do we really think the current process has delivered fair and effective renting policy so far?  

Maybe we need to reconsider the process and who and how community is able to participate in this. At the moment those with the greatest input are Members of Parliament. Members of Parliament are supposed to represent the broader community, and have a good understanding of the experience of their electorates. It's worth considering more closely this cross-section of the population. We have written in the past on the question: 'Do politicians vote with their property interests?'.

The Registers of Disclosures by Members of the Legislative Council (Upper House) and Legislative Assembly (Lower House) are intended to ensure transparency as to the assets, income and interests of elected representatives. Anyone particularly interested and with time to spare can read through these registers on the NSW Parliamentary website. We have checked them for information on property holdings of our politicians current at 31 December 2021. They show:

  • 128 Members of the NSW Parliament own 273 properties. 
  • The average number of properties owned is 2.0.
  • The highest number of properties disclosed is 12.
  • 50 Members of the NSW Parliament (39%) are landlords of residential properties.
  • A further 11 (9%) are possible landlords of residential properties.
  • Seven (7) new Members are yet to complete a return.

This means that up to 48% of MPs  across the political spectrum are landlords of residential premises, a proportion far in excess of the proportion in the general community. Based on Australian Taxation Office data released in April 2022, 15.1% of people in the income-taxable population of Australia own one or more investment property. The Australian Taxation Office released Taxation statistics 2019-20 in early August 2022 and the figures shows a small decrease to 14.9%.   

The real number of properties that might bring some financial benefit to elected representatives is likely to be even higher than the figures above suggest. Some Members may have undisclosed properties that are held by companies, trusts, and self-managed super funds, or are owned by their spouse. The ownership of such properties may still impact politicians’ voting habits, but these properties are not generally disclosed.

At the Federal level, the numbers are even more stark. A 2021 Sydney Morning Herald article reports 57% of the members of then Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet owned at least one investment property. Meanwhile just 2% of those Members rent their home, as compared to the one in three in the general population. A more recent article in The Guardian reports that Federal MPs and senators have impressive property portfolios, owning or having an interest in almost two properties each on average. A survey of the register of interests reveals MPs and senators own 237 houses or apartments and have interests in 210 other properties including holiday homes, investment properties or agricultural land. These were often owned with spouses or partners.

Transparency International UK recently published a report that analysed UK parliamentarians’ financial interests in the property sector. The report found that 533 parliamentarians, or almost 40%, had a registered interest in property, ranging from owning and renting out an apartment, to being a director for a major housebuilding company in the UK. Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK, commented on the report:

“This research is further evidence of the disproportionate presence of property interests in our political system. With parliamentarians far more likely to own second homes than the general population, it’s reasonable to question how representative their experience is of the housing crisis and whether this has some bearing on the political appetite for change.”

Renters tend to have far more barriers to gaining political office (and the ability this affords to shape our housing system) than people who own at least one property. Running in elections can cost a significant amount of money and spare time - resources generally less accessible by renters, especially those on low incomes. It can also rely heavily on generating connections and profile in the local community, a process that can take many, many years. This type of stability is a luxury most renters don't have - renters move more often than owner-occupier neighbours. Over 80% of private renters have moved in the last 5 years; a third have moved between 2-3 times; and 10% have moved 5 times or more. So, it's unsurprising that renters end up being so significantly underrepresented among elected representatives.

The property ownership and renting patterns of the people who make laws that govern renting are not representative of the general population. This disparity may have an impact on the decisions that are made about what our renting system looks like, the types of reforms introduced, and who benefits from any changes that are or aren't made.

A compounding problem is that many renting issues are very complex. For instance, there’s broad and increasing recognition in the community that the quickly rising cost of rent is a big problem. However, there are a range of ways in which the problem might need to be approached, and debate about appropriate policy solutions. These ideas deserve careful deliberation - including by and with appropriate weight given to those most impacted by the housing crisis due to lived experience.

And this brings us to Citizens' Assemblies …

Citizens' Assemblies

Citizens’ Assemblies bring a mix of people together by democratic lottery and give them all the tools, information and time to properly have a say on the important issues that affect our everyday lives. These can be issues ranging from the economy, education to the environment. The idea is that a better system can be built when everyday people from all walks of life come together to actually listen, learn, and work with each other to address complex issues and agree on solutions. The solutions devised by Citizens' Assemblies can help politicians make decisions that are in the best interests of the general population and that everyone can trust.

Check out this explainer video made by Change Politics for more information on what Citizens' Assemblies are and do:

For more information, or if you prefer written information over a video, check out this Quick Guide to Citizens' Assemblies.

Overseas, Citizens' Assemblies have successfully grappled with the complex issue of rental affordability. 

The Citizens' Assembly of Scotland was launched by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2019, with the aim of being representative of the country. Its recommendations are not binding, but the Scottish Government is obliged to respond to its recommendations and reports. The Assembly is made up of 100 members, randomly selected to be representative of the people of Scotland in demography, geography and political views. In January of 2021, the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland released a report containing a number of proposals in relation to rental reform. Many of the proposals adopted by the assembly were considerably more radical than the policies of the governing Scottish National party. Among other things, the report calls for broad caps on private rents, a joint approach to the private rental sector between politicians and tenant bodies, and a points-based system of rent controls linked to the quality and amenities of a property, not market rates, and the creation of an entitlement for “all young people” to “affordable social housing”. Members of the assembly also called for a continued role for Citizens’ Assemblies in Scotland, saying they should be used to review legislation and help set parliamentary and government agendas. 

Throughout and following the deliberations of the Citizens' Assembly, an academic research team made up of researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Government Social Research, were given significant access to observe and carry out research on the proceedings. Their report, released in January of 2022, made a number of recommendations for future assemblies, including:

  • Broader public engagement so there is more understanding of what assemblies do
  • Setting a clear mandate so assemblies can interact with and influence decision making

The report also found:

  • The members of the assembly found it a rich and rewarding experience.
  • Members felt included and empowered, and it increased their enthusiasm for engaging in other political and civic activities.
  • Politicians and journalists recognised it as an important prototype for future assemblies.

Change Politics is already successfully running Citizens' Assemblies right here in Australia on complex topics across all levels of government, including on Sydney’s lock-out laws, the 10-year Financial Plan for the City of Melbourne, and Housing Choices in the ACT. From here, Change Politics will continue running more Citizens' Assemblies on complex topics that have traditionally been difficult to tackle politically, like climate change, issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, tax reform, and housing. Change Politics then plans to work towards Parliaments and Local Councils introducing permanent review bodies made up of everyday people, with a view to seeing structural changes to decision-making within Parliaments and Councils to embed Citizens' Assemblies permanently.

Citizens' Assemblies: opportunities to build a fairer NSW renting system?

In NSW, we have a renting system that is in crisis and that isn’t fair for renters. Imagine what types of reforms could be put on the table if Citizens' Assemblies came into play here? We’d be very interested in the ideas and solutions that could be generated if a mix of everyday people that genuinely represent the NSW population were brought together and given the time, information and tools to properly grapple with the issues facing our renting system. 

What can I do?

If you’d like to see more movement around Citizens' Assemblies here in Australia there are a range of things you can do: