House of Representatives Speech- Community Legal Centres

The Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, said in an interview published on 17 April that he was 'a John Stuart Mill man'. He said that he has been a fan of free speech since he entered politics. Senator Brandis is a very selective fan of free speech. He is a fan of untrammelled speech for hateful demagogues but he is not a fan of informed public debate—precisely what John Stuart Mill actually intended freedom of speech to foster.

The Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, said in an interview published on 17 April that he was 'a John Stuart Mill man'. He said that he has been a fan of free speech since he entered politics. Senator Brandis is a very selective fan of free speech. He is a fan of untrammelled speech for hateful demagogues but he is not a fan of informed public debate—precisely what John Stuart Mill actually intended freedom of speech to foster.

Senator Brandis's department has notified community legal centres that the government will be withdrawing funding from law reform and advocacy work. The government proposes to amend the Community Legal Services Program service agreement to exclude 'law reform and legal policy activities' from the definition of CLC activities that the Commonwealth funds. The government proposes also to remove clause 5 of the agreement, inserted by the last Labor government. That clause affirmed the commitment of our government that conditions attached to Commonwealth funding to CLCs would not 'stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities'.

This attempt at silencing community legal centres comes on top of a cut of $9.6 million from community legal centres in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook and a further $6 million cut in the budget, part of a broader attack on the whole legal assistance sector. Senator Brandis obviously does not understand the importance of Australia's 138 Commonwealth funded CLCs and the nature of the work they do. Senator Brandis's ignorance is wilful. He refuses to consult with community legal centres. He will not meet with their peak body.

An Attorney-General who understood the legal assistance sector would know that an important part of the work of CLCs rightly involves the law reform or advocacy work that he wants to stifle. Advocacy or law reform work often arises directly out of the experience a CLC gains providing legal services to individual clients. The expertise CLCs have from practising in particular areas of law makes them uniquely placed to advise governments in those areas. CLCs have contributed greatly to reforms of areas of law such as residential tenancies and consumer credit.

The Productivity Commission understands the importance of this work. In its draft report Access to justice arrangements, the commission noted, 'Legal assistance lawyers … are uniquely placed to identify systemic issues, particularly those affecting disadvantaged Australians.' The Commission said that advocacy work can not only 'benefit those people affected by a particular systemic issue, but, by clarifying the law, it can also benefit the community more broadly and improve access to justice'. The Commission found that advocacy 'can also be an efficient use of limited resources. It can be an important part of a strategy for maximising the impact of … CLC work.'

The rest of the government understands the usefulness of CLC advocacy. Since the last election, a range of Commonwealth departments have approached CLCs to provide their views on various proposed changes to the law. Senator Brandis's own department has done so. This is right, and it is usual. CLC advice is valued by those who take policymaking processes and informed debate seriously.

Senator Brandis, however, just does not get it. Though he likes to talk grandiosely about an open marketplace of ideas, Senator Brandis wants to stop community lawyers from making informed, expert and useful contributions to public policy debates. Senator Brandis said on 23 May that the 'core concept' of free speech is 'intellectual freedom', but evidently he thinks that racist speech is a more worthwhile exercise of this freedom than reasoned policy debate. What a twisted set of priorities from this Commonwealth Attorney-General.

I call on Senator Brandis to recognise the valuable contribution to public debate that is made by community lawyers, that is made by people working in community legal centres, that is made by people working throughout the legal assistance sector, and to abandon this foolish new policy of attempting to stifle the valuable contribution that they make.