House of Representatives Speech- Indigenous Legal Assistance

  It seems longer, but it was just 14 months ago that this government took office. On 7 September 2013 newly elected Prime Minister Abbott addressed the Australian people to claim victory in the federal election. He said:

In a week or so the Governor-General will swear in a new government. A government that says what it means, and means what it says. A government of no surprises and no excuses ... and a government that accepts that it will be judged more by its deeds than by its mere words.

It seems longer, but it was just 14 months ago that this government took office. On 7 September 2013 newly elected Prime Minister Abbott addressed the Australian people to claim victory in the federal election. He said:

In a week or so the Governor-General will swear in a new government. A government that says what it means, and means what it says. A government of no surprises and no excuses ... and a government that accepts that it will be judged more by its deeds than by its mere words.

Of course, the fact that millions of people watched this on live national television is apparently no longer any guarantee that an Australian Prime Minister will admit that he said these words, but we should hold him to them.

In their election costings this government promised a $42 million cut to the Indigenous Policy Reform program, which provided legal assistance services to Indigenous Australians. But on 6 September 2013, the then shadow Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, said that the coalition's cuts would not affect Indigenous legal assistance, only policy work carried out under the program. The incoming government promised repeatedly that front-line services would not suffer cuts. Like almost every other promise made by the Abbott opposition, this assurance that front-line services would not suffer has been flagrantly disregarded by the Abbott government.

The government has launched a shameful and devastating attack on Indigenous legal assistance funding. In MYEFO the government ripped $43 million from legal assistance providers, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, ATSILS, and Family Violence Prevention Legal Centres.

The Attorney-General cut more funds for vital legal services in the budget by taking a further $15 million from legal aid commissions and $6 million from community legal centres. In the budget the government cut more than half a billion dollars from Indigenous programs, including funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

In October Senator Scullion told Senate estimates that funding for unique service providers such as Reconciliation Australia, the Healing Foundation and the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services was not guaranteed.

And what of the government's assurance that its cuts would not affect front-line services? Rubbish, absolute rubbish. Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, who as a commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission reports to the Attorney-General, has pointed out this broken promise in his most recent annual social justice report, tabled in parliament on 26 November.

Commissioner Gooda said of the budget cuts:

The impact on frontline services is already evident. ATSILS are losing staff and branch offices are being forced to close. This has already occurred in Queensland, with offices in Warwick, Cunnamulla, Chinchilla, Dalby and Cooktown closing down.

It is disappointing that these budgetary measures may also lead to the closure of many other ATSILS offices across Australia.

More than that, Gooda rejected the government's notion that any distinction could be drawn between policy work and front-line work. He said that the value of Indigenous legal services is their ability to provide advice to government about justice policies that can reduce the shameful level of incarceration of Indigenous Australians. Gooda quoted NATSILS's chair, Mr Shane Duffy, who said:

… more people are going to end up in prison. It's as simple as that.

I want the government to reflect on that statement. More Indigenous people will go to prison as a result of their cuts. In this, as in numerous other policy areas, this government has shown that it cannot be trusted to keep its promises. What do front-line cuts look like if not sacked staff, reduced services and closed offices? What could be more 'front line' than working to reduce the level of Indigenous incarceration?

When he took office, the Prime Minister told us that the hallmark of his government would be that 'It says what it means and means what it says.' But, after 14 months of dishonesty and dissembling, broken promises and backflips, I am reminded more of Humpty Dumpty, who famously said to Alice: 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'