ADJOURNMENT;Community Legal Centres – 21 Mar 2017

Last week in Hobart I joined the shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, on visits to community legal centres, where we heard first-hand about the devastating impact of the government’s cuts to their funding. Among our meetings we met with the Women’s Legal Service and the Hobart Community Legal Service, and Mr Dreyfus also met with the Environmental Defenders Office. The federal member for Franklin, Julie Collins, accompanied us to the Hobart CLS.

Community legal centres across Australia are facing a 30 per cent cut to their Commonwealth funding from 1 July this year. These are services which help some of the most vulnerable people in our community, people who are facing issues such as family violence, tenancy issues and termination of employment. People rely on these services for such things as fighting unfair dismissal, seeking family violence orders, gaining access to their children during a separation and having incorrect decisions reversed by Centrelink.

This has come at possibly the worst time ever, as the welfare rights cases of the Hobart Community Legal Service have doubled due to this government’s robo-debt disaster. We know that at least 20 per cent of those debt notices have been sent to people who do not owe any money, and we have recent admissions from the government that it could be as high as 40 per cent. I suspect it is probably a lot higher. The truth is we do not actually know how many of these debts are legitimate.

A number of people have reported to my office and those of all my colleagues and to the CLCs that, despite not owing anything, they have gone ahead and paid the money because it is easier than taking the fight up to Centrelink. The very people who take a key role in defending these people from the injustice of this robo-debt debacle are facing a massive funding cut—$200,000 a year in the case of the Hobart Community Legal Service. Imagine the impact of that massive cut to a legal centre that has already lost one solicitor due to previous budget cuts.

The Women’s Legal Service is experiencing an increase in its core business, which is family violence cases. It expects that this is due to an increase in women coming forward and seeking help. Of course more victims seeking help is a good thing, but we need to think seriously about the kind of message we are sending if we have to turn away women in desperate and dangerous situations.

The Women’s Legal Service estimates that the government’s cut would result in them losing a majority of their legal staff and see up to 1,000 women lose access to legal advice, representation, advocacy, information and education. It would also mean an end to mentoring law students and legal volunteers, which would be very unfortunate.

The staff recounted to us the story of a woman on a bridging visa who had experienced family violence and likely faced retribution on return to her home country. With the help of a barrister, acting pro bono, the Women’s Legal Service were able to secure a guarantee in the Family Court that the woman’s children could stay with her until her visa outcome is determined. If her children were forced to return, it is likely she would never see them again. While this is obviously one of the more complex cases they have had to deal with, the government’s funding cut would lead to some tough decisions about whether they can afford to put resources into such cases. Just imagine the consequences for vulnerable women if the Women’s Legal Service could not take on cases such as the one I have just mentioned. When many CLCs across the country, like the Women’s Legal Service, are at the front line when it comes to helping victims of family violence, cutting their funding is a very bad move.

The Hobart Community Legal Service also handles family violence matters and often deals with perpetrators of family violence. And while we may not be so sympathetic to the perpetrators, experience shows that they are more likely to adhere to family violence orders if they have legal representation—which is a good outcome for their victims.

Another group of people who we may not have a lot of sympathy for are those who engage in petty crime. But often petty criminals rely on CLCs for help, and having proper legal representation could make the difference between getting an outcome that helps their rehabilitation or going down a pathway that leads to a more serious criminal career. What becomes of these clients when CLCs have to turn them away? If someone is in desperate need of legal help and has been denied legal aid and pro bono representation, the local community legal centre is usually their last resort. I remind those opposite, once again, that we are talking about the most vulnerable people in our community, people who are desperate for help and advice, where safety, livelihoods and sometimes even lives are at stake.

I know this is unusual but I would like to acknowledge the Tasmanian government, who have stepped in with funding of $1.2 million to make up for the Turnbull government’s cuts to CLCs in Tasmania. While this intervention is welcome, the Tasmanian government should not have to step in to make up the shortfall from these cruel and savage cuts. This is $1.2 million that could go to providing other essential services for Tasmanians. Essentially, we have seen a cost-shifting exercise where some of the CLC funding has been shifted from the federal government to the Tasmanian government. This will result in cuts in other parts of the Tasmanian budget, which will likely impact on vulnerable Tasmanians.

This is a short-term stop-gap measure that has not solved the problem for CLCs because the state government’s funding is only guaranteed for the 2017-18 financial year—and, the cynical part of me could say, in the build-up to the next Tasmanian state election. It offers no funding certainty for Tasmanian CLCs beyond 30 June 2018, and it is impossible for CLCs to plan for the long term with this 30 per cent cut continuing to hang over their heads. This puts paid to the bizarre claim by the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, that the federal government’s cuts worked because the Tasmanian government has stepped in to make up the shortfall. I remind Senator Brandis that they have not worked for the CLCs in all the other states and they will not work for Tasmanian CLCs after 30 June 2018.

To reverse this cut, CLCs only need additional funding of $30 million. That is $30 million in a budget of over $300 billion. It equates to a few kilometres of highway or a small fraction of the $50 billion tax gift that this government wants to dole out to big business. I would like to remind those listening that a Productivity Commission report that Labor commissioned when we were in government found that every dollar invested in CLCs returns $17 in other benefits—that’s right, $17. In other words, reversing the $30 million cut that starts from 1 July would net a half-a-billion-dollar return! It is an indictment on the performance of Senator Brandis, the worst Attorney-General in Australia’s history and previously the worst arts minister, that he cannot win the argument with his government—or, even worse, fails to prosecute the argument—to secure a mere $30 million to help protect the most vulnerable people in Australia.

Is it any surprise that we see such failure from an Attorney-General who throughout his time in office has been so inept and so ineffective? He might have a big book collection but that does not mean he is smart. I say he is the worst Attorney-General because the highest law officer in the land is charged with protecting the rule of law, yet Senator Brandis spends most of his time trying to undermine it. He has argued publicly with statutory officers—for example, the Solicitor-General and the President of the Human Rights Commission—and admonished them for simply doing their jobs. He has defended the so-called right of Australians to be bigots and to engage in racist hate-speech. He has spent time and resources fighting a fairly benign freedom-of-information request through the courts and only recently complied with the court’s ruling—after about three years of shadow minister Dreyfus trying to get access to his diary.

This is all coming from the man who has ministerial responsibility for the FOI Act. Just think of what an example he is setting for the rest of the government! When it comes to the electoral prospects of this government, Senator Brandis is an anvil chained to their ankles—an anvil that, no doubt, the Prime Minister will be only too eager to cut loose in the coming months if he has even the vaguest sense of self-preservation. And now Senator Brandis is cutting funding to services which help get access to justice for some of the most desperate, vulnerable people in Australia. Not only is that incompetent; it is downright cruel. Denying access to legal advice and representation means denying justice. This cut to CLCs is, no doubt, one of the most mean-spirited, cruel acts of a government that plumbs new depths of cruelty every day—and it must be reversed.