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Sacred Cow: are politicians’ many houses an impediment to property, rental reform?

by Michael West and Kim Wingerei | Oct 3, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Our elected representatives own a lot of property. Not counting their homes, 126 of Canberra’s 232 MPs and Senators own 297 properties between them, at least those that are declared. Nothing wrong with that, but does it affect their decisions? Michael West and Kim Wingerei.

In the race of life, always back self-interest — at least you know it’s trying.

Jack Lang, former NSW Premier

Were you to peruse the politicians’ register of interests, you would find that most of our cherished leaders own investment properties, and many have many investment properties.

Many of these will be let out via Airbnb and assorted other short-term holiday rental operators. That is not disclosed. For the sake of accountability, as well as pure prurience, we are publishing available data. It is thanks to Sean Johnson’s website You will find more detail there.

Shortly, we will get to what you can’t see (hint: what is hidden by trusts).

But to get to the guts of this story; our elected representatives can hardly recuse themselves from a vote in which they are conflicted, as that would leave the Chamber very bare; a vote that is on anything to do with property reform: negative gearing, housing affordability measures of substance or rental tax reform – as they are likely to back the horse of self-interest.

They benefit if prices are high, both rental and sale prices. (They will all win too from impending Stage 3 tax cuts legislation, to the tune of 9k apiece, but that is another story).

Bi-partisan support

As you can see from the disclosure data, this is not a Coalition thing, or Labor; the Teals and the Greens are doing as swimmingly on the investment property front as the Liberals and the Nats.

The 297 properties declared by MPs and senators do not include their principal homes, but it does include 25 holiday homes. The rest, we can assume, are investment properties*.

Karen Andrews, LNP member for McPherson (QLD) tops the list with 12 investment properties. Eleven of our elected representatives own five or more properties.

Top Parliamentary Property Owners

MP/Senator NamePartyNo. of investment properties
Karen AndrewsLNP11
Michelle Ananda-RajahALP7
Tony BurkeALP7
Louise Miller-Frost ALP7
Garth HamiltonLNP6
David GillespieNationals5
Sussan LeyLiberals5
Kristy McBainALP5
Michelle RowlandALP5
Sophie ScampsIndependent5
Dan TehanLiberals5

You can find the complete list below.*

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Rental crisis

Meanwhile, there is a rental crisis across the nation, and very little is being done to address it.

Yet the ‘Airbnb mafia’ is cleaning up. In holiday towns, resident workers struggle to find a place to rent because landlords are often better off letting their property for two days of the week to Sydneysiders or Melbourne folk looking for a weekend getaway than they are letting it to a local worker or local working family.

Not only is there often more money in short-stay rentals but landlords can use the property too when they are keen for a weekend away. And, here’s the icing, they can claim tax deductions for a whole year if the property is advertised. This is a rort. You can only claim for the use of your car or home office for the time it is used for work.

Yet the Tax Office, despite changing its guidelines since we first published Tim Evan’s excellent analysis on the Airbnb tax rort, remains ambiguous in its guidelines. Property, which commands more reverence than religion in Australia, enjoys special exemptions. Hence the prices. Hence the obfuscation and epic delays over money-laundering laws (AML-CTF Tranche II) which were supposed to be introduced 16 years ago yet remain in the “stakeholder engagement” process.

Airbnb tax rort: why is the government subsidising holiday landlords?

Disclosure failures

You would think it was good public policy to address this failure to allow deductions for only the time a property was to let for holiday rental, but we haven’t heard boo from one politician since raising the subject. To be fair, the ATO has responded.

Now the disclosures lurk. It is fair to assume that the property holdings of Australia’s politicians are actually larger than what is disclosed in the Register of Pecuniary Interests.

That is because most of them have trusts which are great ways to hide assets. Arguably, if a trust is set up to hide things, even the  very existence of the trust itself does not have to be disclosed. If, for instance, a lawyer sets up a company for you as Trustee of the Trust, and your niece or nephew (not your dependent) is recorded as the Beneficiary of the Trust (it doesn’t matter if they are two years old and can’t spell trust yet) then you don’t have to disclose that the trust exists – as long as you don’t legally control it.

Here’s a fix for the housing crisis — end the great Airbnb tax rort

It is fair to say that some politicians may only bother to disclose a trust because their peers and the public would simply not believe that they didn’t have a trust, such are the benefits from owning a trust, both in minimising tax and in hiding things. So it is likely that some politicians don’t disclose their trusts; they don’t have to.

So, there you have it. We’ve given the game away. All that awaits now are the sounds of deafening silence.

In fairness, having dealt with politicians for years, many are hard-working and well intended. Many will vote for the things which are in the public interest, although it may cost them a few pennies.

When it comes to the sacred cow of property, however, it is hard to see real reform because more than 60% of Australians own their own home. So, there is no money in it, and there are no votes in it, and voting against the interests of most of one’s peers makes the whole damn thing harder, as does the reality of voting with the party line. Imagine a politician taking a policy to the party which would affect the personal finances of so many of their peers.

* Some properties owned jointly with spouses or partners may appear twice on the register.

Mansion flipping the family home? A tax haven for millions

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.

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