Cornered. The federal government has cornered our most vulnerable people.
The cascade of harm from the Centrelink automated debt notifications debacle now includes providing too little legal help for those who need it most. And the little offered them now will disappear in July.
Lined up against the disenfranchised are all the agents of the Department of Human Services, led by Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, combined with all the outcomes of all the funding decisions made by Attorney-General George Brandis.
And there, cornered, are the women and men of Australia who are victims of both. Those people, on disability pensions, on unemployment benefits, on youth allowance. These automated debt notifications, of which at least a quarter appear to be false, don't discriminate – but the federal government does.
It has carriage of a system which it knows is faulty. But it is also refusing to fund appropriately the very legal services which help those hounded by debt collectors. Community legal centres, welfare rights centres, all of these are already on the financial edge.
Briefly, when the Abbott government was first elected, Brandis removed what was called the Dreyfus money – funding provided by the previous Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, for these centres. And it's not some strange progressive fantasy to fund these centres – in 2014 the Productivity Commission recommended an extra $200 million for legal assistance.
What do these community legal centres do? They provide legal assistance for those who can't afford to pay for it. They advocate for the powerless – and they do extraordinary work in the domestic violence sector. A striking campaign by former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty oversaw a brief respite for the CLCs.
And that was when, briefly, domestic violence was "in fashion" with this government. I doubt strongly that this government will ever consider the needs of welfare recipients because they are a group of people never central to the concerns of a conservative government except to demonise them. They are, in the words of a former treasurer, "leaners". To paraphrase the unmourned Joe Hockey – No-hopers. Bludgers.
From this July, nearly a third of the funding for these services will disappear. There can only be suppositions as to why Brandis is continuing his slash-and-burn. But one thesis is that his ideological position opposes advocacy of any sort – and certainly advocacy funded by the state. But who will advocate for the unemployed or for those who have a disability? They have no jobs queen, no mining magnate, no oil czar to stand up for them, to lobby on their behalf.
Halfway through 2015, the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) ran a census of its member organisations. More than 150,000 people were turned away in that year because the CLCs didn't have the capacity to deal with demand.
Dan Stubbs, of NACLC, says it's frustrating that yet another arm of the Commonwealth government is making the "turnaway problem" even worse.
"We will be turning away more people from July and right now we have very stretched welfare rights centres," he says.
Already this year, welfare rights centres, specialists in dealing with social security and part of the community legal centre network, have been flooded with people needing desperate help.
Dan Nicholson, executive director of Civil Justice, Access and Equity, at Victoria Legal Aid, says demand has soared.
"We had more demand in the seven working days of this year than in all of January last year so we are on track for triple our usual demand. That's overwhelmingly because of automated debt notices," he says.
And the situation is dreadful in NSW as well. Polly Porteous, of NSW Community Legal Centres, says its members are already experiencing a spike in demand.
"This is likely just the tip of the iceberg – we are expecting an increase in demand as people move through the Centrelink appeal process."
Gerard Thomas, of the NSW Welfare Rights Centre, also says services are stretched.
"[Claimed] overpayments have always been a core area of our work at the Welfare Rights Centre, but we are seeing an unprecedented number of people calling us about debts. Our phones are ringing off the hook."
Last week the service received a call from a Centrelink client undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for advanced melanoma – all the while trying to gather payslips to challenge the decision.
"This automated debt system is having a terrible impact on some very vulnerable people and we urge the government to suspend the system."
Here is the horror and the sheer pettiness of this government.
Thomas says: "As a result of funding cuts we can only operate three advice shifts a week, for 3½ hours each. We are extremely concerned about the impact of the Commonwealth's 30 per cent funding cut to the community legal sector.
"In NSW the funding cut is $2.9 million, a tiny amount from a Commonwealth perspective but it can make a real difference to people's lives."
But these aren't the lives of people this government cares about.
The victims of Centrelink aren't famous. They don't have status or cultural capital. They don't go to racing days. They don't travel on yachts. They aren't the partners of ministers. They don't get to accompany their partners to luxury resorts for a little break from the hardships of life. They haven't sought or bought influence. They have nothing and they will now face dealing with complex legal issues on their own.
Even Matthew Butt, a lawyer and now the executive officer of the National Social Security Rights Network, says he has spent hours trying to unravel the complexities of the system; and it is a core part of his work.
"This kind of conversation takes longer, we need to spend more time with people . . . it requires a high level of service," says Butt.
And that time, that service, that ability to help those in need, will wither away come July.
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