Searching for an answer to the housing affordability crisis, Kylea Tink invited members of her North Sydney constituency to come up with their own solutions. It was Australia’s first one-day ‘deliberative democracy’ forum.

Is it possible for a randomly-selected group of people to come up with solutions to complex social problems?

On 29 October, 33 people from the electorate of North Sydney gathered at the Australian Catholic University to talk about how the Federal Government could help improve housing affordability. They had never met each other before and were not policy experts or academics. And while North Sydney MP Kylea Tink had convened the Community Housing Forum, she did not participate -giving a welcome at the start, then returning seven hours later.

Finding solutions to the housing affordabiilty crisis is an ambitious task which state and federal governments have been struggling to address. Years of low interest rates have fuelled property price growth. Last year saw a reckoning in the market, with interest rate rises hurting mortgage holders who were attempting to refinance, and many first-time buyers were prevented from entering the property market. While rate rises have stabilised, with the cash rate sitting at 4.35 per cent, first home buyers are still predicted to struggle this year to obtain a mortgage. Meanwhile, CoreLogic data released in January shows Sydney has the highest rents in Australia, at $745 a week compared to the $601 national average – with North Sydney higher than the median.

Add to that inflation levels which have caused household goods, food and even building materials to skyrocket, and you have a housing crisis the likes of which Australia has never seen before.

Enter Kylea Tink, elected as an independent to ‘do politics differently’.

“Coming in as an independent has brought with it its own opportunities for me to really consider how I would be ensuring that when I advocate for our community in Canberra, I’m actually delivering a true community voice,” Ms Tink tells North Shore Living. The issue, Kylea says, was being able to deliver consensus.

“To do that, though, I had to have a way of getting consensus opinion, not just 160,000 individual opinions,” Ms Tink adds.

Enter newDemocracy, a non-partisan research organisation which seeks to foster greater citizen engagement to change the way politics works. Already versed in garnering community consensus on hot topics like nuclear waste storage in South Australia, newDemocracy built a format for the forum which would enable participants to understand the issues behind housing affordability, then come up with solutions. Over 60 submissions were received before the day which were then broken down and discussed at the forum, with expert speakers providing guidance. It was the first time newDemocracy had worked at an electorate level.

Kylea Tink with a forum facilitator Chris Corneil.

Director Iain Walker explained to North Shore Living the premise behind newDemocracy’s philosophy: “Fundamentally, people want to have a say, and they’re capable. We’ve just got to build the infrastructure (to support them). A deliberative process is something where people feel respected.

“We need to stop politics only ever focusing on public opinion (what we think in the next 20 seconds) and switch gears to emphasising public judgment – what we think when we’ve had time to think.”

The forum was a success, Mr Walker said. “The fundamental principles of a random group coming together and finding agreement absolutely worked.”

After seven hours of intense – yet ‘respectful’ – debate, participants agreed that the Federal Government must tie federal infrastructure funding to more medium housing density around transport hubs and allocate 10 per cent of floor space for affordable, social and essential worker housing.

“They took what is often just pigeonholed as a state and local government issue and found a way for the Federal Government to play an active role in evolving the approach,” Ms Tink said.

“What’s so important about what came out of this forum is that it literally is the community speaking through me” Kylea Tink

“It’s incredibly energising to see that our community has the capacity to present ideas that can help not only our electorate move forward, but our entire nation.”

Exactly one month after the forum, the NSW Government came out with its own proposals, which will force councils to approve more homes in areas around transport hubs – such as the soon-to-be-opened Crows Nest Metro – and more subdivision in low to mid-rise zones, to encourage duplexes and residential flat buildings. Planning Minister Paul Scully says the government is ‘determined’ to meet the state’s goal of 377,000 dwellings over five years.

“I think most fair-minded people will recognise that our reforms are significant and need time to take effect,” Mr Scully said on 18 January. “I think they also recognise that there are many factors that influence housing like interest rates and access to finance and materials.

“The NSW Government is starting from a long way back, but has taken immediate action to turn around housing completions from the incredibly low base of only 48,000 homes delivered in 2022.” Submissions for the Minns’ Government planning shake up close soon, on 23 February.

It is this very issue of the shortfall in supply that urban design expert Bruce Judd highlighted in his presentation to the forum. Professor Judd, who is emeritus professor of the City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW, spoke about barriers to downsizing for older residents, caused by a lack of diverse housing supply.

“So I think there are questions as to whether or not that supply can occur at a pace that addresses the shortage of housing in a short timeframe” Professor Bruce Judd

While stimulating more density around transport hubs is a logical solution, Professor Judd said it creates another problem-whether the industry can handle the increase in production.

Professor Judd said supply chains of materials had been affected by COVID-19 and international conflicts. Labour shortages in the building industry were also an issue. “So I think there are questions as to whether or not that supply can occur at a pace that addresses the shortage of housing in a short timeframe.”

Where to from here? Ms Tink has already shared the forum’s recommendations with local mayors and the relevant state and federal ministers. The MP is embarking on a series of meetings, including with housing networks, and will soon lodge the outcomes in her pre-federal budget submission for North Sydney. She is realistic about her ability as an independent to convince the Federal Government to adopt her collaborative approach.

Professor Bruce Judd

“I do not expect that we’re going to see the government turn around and say, ‘North Sydney has solved this problem,’” she laughs. “But what I said to the community (at the forum) was, when you hear the government say it will be tying federal funding to this in terms of the housing area, all the people in North Sydney will be able to go, ‘we did that,’ and it truly will have been them who did it, not me.”

Fundamentally, her desire is for the ‘deliberative democracy’ model to be used more, not just in her electorate, but across Australia. She is looking at three more forums in the next 12 months on different topics, and hopes her cross-bench colleagues will also take up the challenge.

“What’s so important (that) came out of this forum is that it literally is the community speaking through me. And that is the perfect outcome for the step that our community has taken in terms of turning towards independent politics.

“It was invigorating to know what my community wants me to fight for. Now I can go do that.”