2BH Broken Hill Radio Interview

Subject: Senator Brandis' cuts to Community Legal Centres.

DAMIEN FISHER: Well, the fight continues to try and get some kind of an answer from either State or Federal politicians in regard to the future funding of the Far West Community Legal Centre. It’s not just here locally in Broken Hill that has the issue, it’s right across Australia. It seems that the Abbott Government and that of the Attorney-General, well they just don’t get the message, they like to play political tennis. We have our Federal member for the seat of Farrar, who is the Minister for Health Sussan Ley saying it’s a state issue and the State Attorney-General saying it’s a federal issue.

 

Well, who do we start believing? The man who actually got the contract signed to give some kind of a surety for staff at the Far West Community Legal Centre was the Attorney-General at the time, Mark Dreyfus, and now he is the Shadow Attorney-General in federal politics and he joins me on the program this morning. Mark, good morning to you.

 

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning Damien.

 

FISHER: Great to have you on the program this morning and thank you so much for your time. Mark, you must be feeling pretty much disappointed at the moment?

 

DREYFUS: It’s bitterly disappointing what’s happened to the Far West Community Legal Centre. I did set up the Centre with additional funding and more importantly a four year funding contract, because when I was Attorney-General in 2013, I’ve got a view that you do need to provide certainty, continuity to Community Legal Centres like this to recognise the important work that they do and to give certainty to the staff.

 

FISHER: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve just had in the last 72 hours three senior staff members at the Far West Community Legal Centre resign because there’s no a surety as to if funding’s going to continue.

 

DREYFUS: Well, that’s right. Not only did the additional four year funding that I set up for the Centre get cancelled by Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, but no certainty of any funding at all has been provided after 30 June this year. That’s no certainty at all for the staff and unsurprisingly because of the savage cuts they’ve actually gone from three solicitors to one. The CEO has resigned. And if you’re looking for certainty, looking for how to pay your mortgage, you can understand why staff might want to move on.

 

FISHER: Yeah, absolutely. Mark, where to from here? What can you in opposition do?

 

DREYFUS: Well, I can help. I can certainly – and I will be – approaching Senator Brandis about this. You said in your introduction that there seems to be a wrangle between the State Liberal Government and the Federal Liberal Government over who is responsibility this Community Legal Centre is. I can be very clear about this, there are 138 legal centres across Australia, Community Legal Centres across Australia, that receive funding from the Commonwealth Government. Some of them also receive funding from the State Government, so both of them are responsible, both of them have contributed in the past to the Far West Community Legal Centre, both of them can fix the problem. They shouldn’t be trying to shove the problem from one to the other. And it is a disastrous situation in Broken Hill, I have to say, because the nearest Community Legal Centre is Dubbo.

 

It’s not possible for the NSW Legal Aid Commission, which is the NSW Government’s contribution to legal assistance in Broken Hill, to pick up all of the legal need that exists. That’s mainly, of course, because the Legal Aid Commission concentrates on criminal law. It certainly doesn’t pick up the kind of work in the family violence area that the Far West Community Legal Centre has been doing.

 

FISHER: I’ve actually got a statement here from the office of the Attorney-General, saying that the Australian Government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community, including by providing access to justice. It goes on to say that over the next four years the Australian Government will provide $1.3 billion to support frontline legal services to vulnerable people. Funding allocations to individual States and Territories will be considered as part of the 2015 Federal Budget and finally it says all of the legal assistance funding arrangements are being aligned to expire on 30 June 2015. The Government is currently considering legal assistance arrangement beyond that date.

 

Well, we all know how the Federal Budget is going, don’t we?

 

DREYFUS: We do, and that is no way to run a system. Imagine if, in your workplace, you were told that there was no certainty after 30 June as to whether or not the business was going to be in existence and so no certainty that you had a job. Imagine if anyone working in a Commonwealth Government department, or a State Government department were told that, or any business. It’s no way to treat long established community organisations like the Far West Community Legal Centre, nor that exactly the same treatment has been handed out to every Community Legal Centre in the country.

 

It’s very concerning and it follows on from a report that I commissioned the Productivity Commission to do, which was, they started in 2013, completed last year. This is a group of pretty dry economists, Damien, in the Productivity Commission. They concluded, without any hesitation, that there is an amazing contribution made to our communities by Community Legal Centres. That it’s a tremendously worthwhile investment of taxpayer’s dollars because it leads to early dispute resolution, helps people navigate through the legal system, makes for a better community. I don’t know what’s not clear to the Abbott Government about that, but they need to step in right now and restore funding to the Far West Community Legal Centre.

 

FISHER: Mark, when you actually signed this four year contract with the Community Legal Centres across the country how were the finances for Australia at the time? Was it the right thing to do to throw that money around to the centres? Were we financially viable?

 

DREYFUS: I’ve got no doubt, as I said, I’ve got no doubt that some of the most difficult legal work that’s done in the country is done in Community Legal Centres. I’m full of admiration for solicitors and staff at these centres and very often volunteers, because Community Legal Centres are grounded in their communities. They very often harness the efforts of volunteers and provide a tremendous service to our communities.

 

I’ve got no doubt that it’s a worthwhile use of Commonwealth taxpayer’s dollars and if Labor is returned to government we have promised to restore the funding cuts that have recently been inflicted. At the moment we simply don’t know what is to be the future of the entire sector, because of the uncertainty that’s been created by Senator Brandis.

 

It’s really a disgraceful situation that’s been allowed to be created and I can’t think of a precedent for the Commonwealth Government creating, deliberately creating, this level of uncertainty. Saying we’re going to spend money, but we’re not going to tell any individual centre whether or not they’re even going to continue past 30 June this year, that’s about three months away. As I say, I can’t think of this every occurring before.

 

FISHER: Yet the Australian Government is more than happy to go and spend money on trying to stop the death penalty of the drug dealers in Bali.

 

DREYFUS: Well, you can point to any number of other expenditures. I’d point simply to almost indecency of expecting people to go on working in organisations, many of them that have been in existence for three of four decades, because the Community Legal Centre movement traces its roots back to the early 1970s, who are now being told we’re not going to give you any guarantee of any funding in three months’ time. That’s a pretty short time horizon. It’s no way for the Government to behave.

 

They Attorneys General of all the States and Territories have recently written to the Commonwealth Government – that’s the Liberal Attorneys General as well as the Labor Attorneys General – calling on the Commonwealth Government to now give some certainty and their letter, this was about 10 days ago, said that by 31 March the Government needs to indicate what it going to be doing in the medium term, at least, for the legal assistance sector. I join that call and say it’s no way to be treating long established Community Legal Centres and long established Legal Aid Commissions, because the same uncertainty is applying to the Commonwealth’s contribution to Legal Aid.

 

FISHER: Just finally, what can the community do, Mark? What can the average person in the street, who OK, may not use the services of the Far West Community Legal Centre, but they are an integral part of our community. The people that work there, they give their time, their money, they give, you know, everything to help the people that they service. What can the average Joe Blow in Broken Hill and the Far West do to get a message through to the Government?

 

DREYFUS: I’d imagine there’s very many people in Broken Hill who have been touched or assisted by the Far West Community Legal Centre. Their starting point should be Sussan Ley and I’m sure that Sussan’s already made a big effort to try and get this funding restored, but she needs to understand the depth of community feeling. And write to Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General.

 

FISHER: Unfortunately, I don’t agree with you on that one. I don’t think she does understand. She’s too busy with, you know, doing her other portfolio of Health and, you know, I know that the Far West Community Legal Centre have had numerous meetings and it’s only been in the last couple of days that she’s actually done that and written letters to the Attorney-General. But, anyway, let’s get the community involved and get them knocking on the door of our local Federal member and maybe she might start listening.

 

DREYFUS: Let’s hope so. I’m sorry to hear she hasn’t been quick to jump, but certainly I’ve been prompted by this news from Broken Hill of the departure of these solicitors to just understand how dire the situation is.

 

I’m certainly going to be raising it with the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis.

 

FISHER: Appreciate your time this morning. Have a great day.

 

DREYFUS: Thanks Damien.