Federal Attorney-General George Brandis had some welcome respite last Thursday afternoon. Brandis had experienced a solid week of copping it hardcore about his arbitrary decision to downgrade both the importance and the independence of the solicitor-general.
Now he was receiving visitors who needed him more than he needed them, those who seek help and seek funding to protect Australia's most vulnerable people.
There were two groups with the same aim, although their appointments were separate: Amanda Alford and Dan Stubbs, among others, who represented the community legal centres across Australia; and Karly Warner and Cheryl Axelby from ATSILS, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service.
What do these people do? These are the folks who make sure that those who can't afford legal services get legal help when they need it. That's true of women who are escaping family violence. They also work to help those who fall victim to the many tricks of the financial trade in Australia. What they really represent is access to simple free legal assistance. They try to ensure that we have equal justice.
But these decent souls got bad news on Thursday. No one left those meetings with more money. No budging on the budget.
Observers say these meetings were meant to be a sign that the freeze-out of legal assistant services was over. But instead, they were just show. For these organisations, the change will be dramatic from July 1 next year. Millions of dollars just gone. Dan Stubbs, spokesperson for the National Association of Community Legal Centres, says they were very pleased to meet with Brandis and he recognised that they would experience a "funding cliff". Those from ATSILS received the same response.
Nothing about money. Now both organisations are faced with how to save thousands and thousands of Australians from having to go without access to justice.
Some history. As soon as the Abbott government was elected – one of the nearly first things it did – was to slash funding to these services. Hard to imagine why politicians would ever target those who can't help themselves but the Abbott government did. It was a massive cut, a funding cliff, which would dramatically reduce the assistance these organisations could offer. Community legal centres are already turning away 160,000 people nationally even before the cuts begin, and that is set to worsen dramatically from next July.
It was only a last-minute intervention by the 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty which deferred the cuts. She accused the government of lying to her and in response, cuts were put off to July next year.
But now, Batty is no longer Australian of the Year and there is no-one with that kind of power able to hold the federal government to account.
There is some good news. The extraordinary Family Violence Prevention Legal Services lost $21 million for its national program when it was moved from the Attorney-General's Department to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the consolidation of Indigenous Affairs programs into PM&C in 2013.
FVPLS is the organisation which supports Indigenous women when it comes to family violence. That's its job. This year, around 20 per cent of the deaths on the Counting Dead Women list, which details fatal violence against women, are Indigenous yet they make up just three per cent of the actual population. And now, finally, it has had some good news. Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion told the national convenor of FVPLS, Antoinette Braybrook, that funding for nine of the organisation's 14 programs been extended to 2018. Braybrook takes that as a very good sign.
And that's something. But just two weeks ago, the Attorney-General's Office told the ABC's The World Today that it had "restored legal assistance funding" to the sector. The only visible evidence of any "restoration" is more like a brief delay of the death sentence. The Batty reversal only delayed the cuts rather than overturned them.
These cuts amount to a 30 per cent national cut to community legal centres in July 2017. Strangely, the Coalition normally loves anything the Productivity Commission reports but in this case, these cuts are a direct contradiction of a Productivity Commission recommendation for a $200 million annual boost for combined legal assistance services.
Every time these cuts to community legal centres and other legal assistance are covered in the media, Senator Brandis's office has responded by defending the funding that remains – despite the significant cuts, despite the fact that based on the Productivity Commission's recommendation, the combined legal assistance shortfall over this period is $1 billion, so five years at $200 million a year.
When Malcolm Turnbull arrived as PM, he immediately announced $100 million for the prevention of family violence. That was a year ago and still some in the sector are waiting for that money. Only $15 million was for family violence legal assistance, and that was spread over three years. The money was for only a handful of the 200 legal centres nationally – just three in Victoria. There was a further $30 million announced post the 2016 Budget, but that has not been allocated and community legal centres are not guaranteed any of it. With the $30 million, that's for family violence legal assistance over three years, just $10 million a year times three years and shared between multiple services.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service is already turning away community members because they are at capacity or do not have the resources to provide certain services.
The funding reductions in 2017-18 will require ATSILS to reduce staffing numbers. The result will be an unavoidable withdrawal of front-line services. This will deny many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access to culturally competent legal assistance and procedural fairness.
In the last week, four women are dead, children are dead, and the violence continues. And this government is cutting funding from the very organisations that can save lives.
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