National Association of Community Legal Centres

National Association of Community Legal Centres and Community Legal Centres Queensland

National Association of Community Legal Centres and Community Legal Centres Queensland

26 AUGUST 2019

Thank you to the National Association of Community Legal Centres and Community Legal Centres Queensland for inviting me to speak at the welcome reception to this conference.

I would, of course, much rather have been addressing you as the Attorney-General, but the election did not turn out the way my colleagues or I had hoped. That defeat has, I think, left this nation a much poorer place, and no more so than for the most vulnerable members of our community who rely on organisations such as yours.

Labor knows that the work that you do is important. In fact, the work that you do is fundamental to who we are as a nation.

Like you, we believe that justice must be accessible to all Australians. Your values are Labor values and a Federal Labor Government would have reflected those values in the support we provide to organisations such as yours.

Ensuring that all Australians are able to have their legal rights upheld is especially important for families and children under threat of violence, to the victims of financial fraud and other crimes perpetrated against them by banks and other large companies, to Indigenous Australians and communities, to the sick, to the elderly, to rural Australians who don’t have easy access to lawyers or to the courts, to our new arrivals, and yes – to those accused of serious crimes.

You know this. My colleagues and I know this. Sections of the Liberal Party used to know this. I hope at least some of them still do.

This sector has suffered from neglect and, at times, outright hostility from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government over the last six years. It took until the eve of the last election for the Government to provide the sector with some measure of funding certainty. That was welcome. But funding levels remain far too low while demand for your services continues to increase.

This would be bad enough but the regrettable truth is that the Government’s attitude to the legal assistance sector does not appear to be the product of ignorance or competing priorities. Rather, the sector has been dragged into a broader culture war that is being waged by the hard right of the Liberal Party – a group that includes the current Prime Minister.

  • Lawyers who provide critical assistance to vulnerable people have been branded “unAustralian” by senior members of this Government. Neither this Attorney-General nor his predecessor has ever lifted a finger to defend the profession against these attacks.
  • At a time when Australia and the world are facing an ecological and climate crisis, this Government cut all Commonwealth funding to the Environmental Defenders Offices. That was almost six years ago. We’re still living through an ecological and climate crisis and senior members of this Government are still waging an ideological crusade against EDOs. Matt Canavan recently called on State and Territory Governments to cut funding to EDOs.
  • At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are calling out for greater self-determination, this third term Liberal Government is proposing to effectively abolish the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program (or “the ILAP”) as a standalone program. The ILAP gives effect to the fundamental principle of self-determination for First Nations by funding ATSILS as community-controlled providers of culturally safe legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Prime Minister likes to talk about the “quiet Australians”. But as we know all too well, the quietest of quiet Australians are those who are denied a voice completely. Those are the Australians who are overlooked by this Government. Many of those Australians are your clients.

They are victims of domestic violence who are forced to keep quiet out of fear of what their partner will do to them if they speak up.

They are Indigenous men and women across Australia who are told to stay quiet rather than speak up and risk public vilification, ridicule or worse.

They are recent immigrants in our cities, towns and in our regions who do not speak up about worker exploitation because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they assert their basic rights.

The list goes on and on.

You know those quiet Australians all too well because part of your job is to be their voice

It is important that you keep doing that work. And while my colleagues and I did not win the last election, we are unbowed in our commitment to the legal assistance sector in this country and to supporting the work that you do in whatever way we can.

My door is always open.

Please keep up the vitally important work that you all do, providing access to justice for Australians in need. 

I trust that this conference will be both productive and enjoyable.

Thank you.

  • Mark Dreyfus
    published this page in Speeches 2019-08-29 10:12:44 +1000