Transcript, Parliament House

SUBJECT: Brandis’s cuts to Community Legal Centres; big business tax cut; 18C; China extradition treaty

THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL

SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY

MEMBER FOR ISAACS

 

MURRAY WATT

SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND

 

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DOORSTOP

CANBERRA

MONDAY, 27 MARCH 2017

 

SUBJECT: Brandis’s cuts to Community Legal Centres; big business tax cut; 18C; China extradition treaty

 

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It’s a pleasure to be here with my Labor colleague in the Senate, Senator Murray Watt, with Senator Nick McKim from the Greens Party and Senator Jacqui Lambie, all of whom are co-sponsoring a motion in the Senate this week which calls on the Government to reverse the shocking cut that is about to fall on the CLCs of Australia on the first of July this year. It’s a cut of about 30 per cent unless the Government reverses this planned cut in the budget. The reason why this is important is that CLCs serve the most disadvantaged people across Australia, they serve people who cannot afford to see a lawyer, they serve people who do not qualify for legal aid because of some means test reason, there are very, very much among them victims and survivors of family violence. A lot of the work of CLCs is concerned with family violence. They are accessible justice providers because they are located right across Australia. There are some 200 CLCs across Australia. About 130 of them receive funding from the Commonwealth Government. All of them will have to cut back on their services because of this cut that comes in on the first of July. It’s shocking that a Government that says it wants to do something about family violence has failed to understand that the front line against family violence is in fact Community Legal Centres. Labor is calling, the Greens Party is calling, and Senator Lambie is calling on the Government to reverse this cut, and I’ll hand over to Senator McKim to say a few words.

SENATOR NICK MCKIM: Thanks mark, good morning everyone. I entirely endorse the comments that Mark made in his contributions here this morning. Can I just say a couple of other points. Firstly, this is about access to justice for some of the most vulnerable people in the country and unfortunately people who don't have money find it difficult or impossible to access justice, if they've been a victim of domestic violence – it can come from a range of reasons. For this Government to continue forward with these shockingly large cuts to CLCs, and it’s been on the agenda for a long time now, the Government’s known this funding cliff is coming and they have done precisely nothing. And some of our most vulnerable people in the country are going to miss out on access to justice because of these cruel and callous cuts to CLCs. The other point I wanted to make is that the Courts are already under pressure at the moment. Justice delayed is justice denied, and cutting funding to CLCs will mean that people won’t get the advice that they need, prior to entering the justice system. This means that people who really don't have a case are going to take their cases into the system to give it a go because they haven’t had access to good legal advice that will enable them to make an informed decision on their prospects of success. So, this is not only an access to justice issue for the vulnerable people of Australia, it’s about taking pressure off courts and making sure our justice system works in the most efficient way possible. Access to justice is crucial because access delayed is access denied.

SENATOR JACQUI LAMBIE: Thank you. Okay so last week we saw welfare cuts to some of the most vulnerable, which seems a pattern of behavior from the Liberal-National Party. I can assure you that by denying justice to those who are already the most vulnerable Australians is an absolute disgrace on behalf of the Government. We have a lucky country and we have the right to have legal representation whether you have money or not. Because that right should be given to any Australian out there. Cutting these people to their legal rights is only going to cost us more in the long run, and it will become more unsettled. Like they said, we’ve already got a massive workload that is going on in the our system already, now if we can work this out at a lower level through mediation and the rest then this is a good result and a much cheaper option. By cutting nearly 30 per cent of the legal funding, is not the way forward. I tell you now those people keep getting poorer and poorer, you have more people that will need to go to these services in the future and right now by cutting them is an absolute disgrace by the govt. Leave those people that are on welfare alone. Stop sledging them with the hammer. It’s enough. Let them have the justice and the right to prove that their cases in a court of law, if that’s what it takes, for free of charge. So they can sort their business matters out. Thank you.

SENATOR MURRAY WATT: I endorse everything that has been said already. I worked as a volunteer in CLCs when I was a lawyer and I know very well that the people who depend on CLCs are some of the poorest and more vulnerable people in our community. They’ve got every bit as much right as anyone else to have access to justice and it really is only a CLC that can provide that access for them. Just to give you one example of what these cuts can mean if they go ahead on the first of July. On the Gold Coast where my office is based, unfortunately the Gold Coast has seen some of the most horrific, high profile domestic violence murders in recent times. The Gold Coast CLC over the last four years, the number of domestic and family violence cases they were handling has risen by about 14. About four years ago they were handling about 60 odd cases a year of domestic and family violence. That is now about 800 a year that they are handling. That is a 14-fold increase of domestic and family violence cases in about four years. And yet this service is facing a 30 per cent funding cut which means they will have to lay off both their family violence lawyers. This will be a disgrace for the Gold Coast and I think all Australians no matter where they live would be horrified to see those cuts going ahead. We’ve now got some representatives from some Community Legal Centres.

DREYFUS: Thank you Murray. I just want to introduce Mr Nassim Arrage who is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Community Legal Centres. Nassim is going to add to what my senate colleagues have said, as I understand and introduce some clients Diane and Peter from a Community Legal Centre to speak about their experience.

NASSIM ARRAGE, NACLC CEO: Thank you for having me here today. So CLCs are one of FOUR publically funded legal assistance services, including Aboriginal Legal Services, FVPLSs and Legal Aid. We help more than 250,000 people across Australia each year especially those who are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. The 30 per cent funding cut to CLCs amounts to $34.8 million across the next three years. Now this is a small amount of money when it comes to the federal budget but it’s going to have devastating impact on the services we provide. Some CLCs need to close and others will have to cut back on the essential frontline services that they provide. This federal budget is the last opportunity for the Government to make a difference and reverse the funding cuts and to commit to the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in 2014 on legal assistance. I’d now like to introduce Peter and Diane who have been clients of the CLC and are so concerned about these cuts that they've flown all the way from WA to be here with us today.

DIANE: Hello everyone, we were first of all clients of the legal service in Perth, who helped us tremendously. We lost our [inaudible] cottage and they helped us. We had no idea where to turn to for the advice we needed. They helped with that and we did get most money back. Consequently we are now volunteers for that office and we volunteer for whatever they want us to do, hence we are here. I agree with what everyone has said, a lot of it is very elderly people. They don't understand what their rights are. Families can be very strange where money is concerned, you might think you are a very strong family but it just takes one to get into the change of thinking and a lot of people suffer for it. I certainly do endorse and agree with everything that has been said today and I hope that the Government agrees. Thank you.

DREYFUS: Thank you very much, are there any questions?

REPORTER: This one is for Senator Lambie. This is obviously, listening to the way you speak, very important to you. There are a lot of your cross-bench colleagues holding company tax cuts to ransom to get legislation they want. Is this something you’re perhaps willing to use as a bargaining chip.. [INDISTINGUISHABLE].

LAMBIE: Look I think you’ll find and I’ve said this before, that there is crossbenchers, there is the Labor Party, there is the Greens that have given them other answers to raise revenue in the future. But I can tell you what, by us putting our ideas across the table, for them being costed, approved, but the Liberal National Party refuses to actually use them, they would not have to come after the most vulnerable in society. And the whole thing is, it’s only just a little bit and a little bit and a little bit – these aren’t big grabs. And for that they’re taking justice, they’re taking true justice off people who probably need it more than the average Australian out there. We’ve got a lot of kids out there, we’ve got a lot of amphetamine out there, these kids are going to need their day in court, the last thing we want them doing is ending up in the jail system where we know they aren’t going to be rehabilitated. So we know that this affects a whole cross section of Australia.

REPORTER: So just on that, would you just wish the government would forget about company tax cuts and focus on issues like this?

LAMBIE: I think I made it quite clear that I agree with Nick Xenophon and what he’s calling for when it comes to company tax. It's the big business of Australia. They’re already getting big tax cuts I can assure you. 600 out of those biggest profit makers out there don't pay any tax so to me that’s just not a fair system. I’ve got small to medium businesses – you’ve only got to walk around the northern coast of Tasmania – shutting everywhere. So how about we go down to the people in these rural and regional areas and start with them first, so that those areas of Australia will stay open and survive. Otherwise we are going to be moving into the big cities before much longer, and that's the reality of it all.

REPORTER: Can I just get a comment on the effect on Indigenous people who access these services.

DREYFUS: Indigenous communities receive assistance through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services rather than generally speaking their CLCs. Indigenous women in remote and regional Australia receive legal assistance in other FVPLSs. Both the FVPLSs and the ALS’ have experienced cuts in recent years. It's a bit complicated because the FVPLSs have been moved into the Indigenous Advancement Strategy in the Department of PM&C and they are facing an entirely uncertain funding future. But the ALSs, like the CLCs are facing cuts on the first of July. And this call for the reversal of cuts to CLCs certainly extends to ALSs. The idea that at a time of rising incarceration rates, rising numbers of Aboriginal people in jail, we heard the PM giving some support over the weekend for the idea of adding a justice target to the Closing the Gap targets. We’ve been calling this for years now, so we absolutely endorse that if it goes forward. But now is not the time, at the time of rising imprisonment of Aboriginal people to be cutting the funding that is going to the funding of ALSs. ALSs are more vulnerable because all of their funding comes from the Commonwealth, unlike the CLCs and LACs who get some of their funding – in some cases more than half of their funding – from State governments. But it’s a real concern that there should be considerably more funding for Aboriginal legal services.

REPORTER: Can we expect such a unity ticket on the government’s proposed company tax cuts?

DREYFUS: Well, we’ve made our position very clear on the company tax cuts. So have the other people who are here. Senator Lambie has just said something about it and the Greens party have made their position clear as well. We don’t see why at this time there should be a $50 billion tax cut when, for example, penalty rates are being cut, services are being cut, pensions are being cut, and the thing we’re about here today, money that goes to provide legal assistance to the most vulnerable people in our community, is also being cut.

REPORTER: Mr Dreyfus, in terms of Labor’s proposed consolidation of discrimination laws, could that incorporate the same test that is currently in 18c of the RDA, so would that actually make it unlawful to offend or insult someone on the basis of sexual orientation, for example?

DREYFUS: We’ve had a long-term proposal for consolidation of the five acts of Parliament that make up the human rights legislation package for Australia. They are the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Racial Discrimination Act, and the Act which sets up the HRC itself, the Australian HRC Act. It’s obviously a sensible thing that instead of having five separate pieces of legislation you try to consolidate them in one place so that people who are going to see what are the rights available can find them in the right place. Five years ago Labor put forward an exposure draft bill. That was in 2012. My predecessor as Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, put that forward. I ended that project in early 2013 because it had become bogged down in extraordinary and I think unnecessary controversy. What that consolidation looks like will depend on when Labor gets back into government, because there is no hope that the government, this government, would embark on this project. What that bill ultimately looks like to consolidate these five statutes is going to be the product of long consultation and a great deal of thought. The idea that I would stand here and foreshadow what the drafting looks like when we haven’t even embarked on that long consultation is really an absurd one and I am certainly not going to allow this long-range project of consolidating Australian human rights statutes to distract attention from the outrageous legislation that is in the Senate now to gut s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s what’s before the Parliament now. That’s the important thing for us to be talking about in this area right now.

REPORTER: But if Labor supports the provisions in 18C at the moment in the Racial Discrimination Act, by logic wouldn’t it support a similar test in relation to discrimination on sexual orientation or discrimination on the basis of age or disability?

DREYFUS: I’m simply not going to foreshadow what the drafting of a future act of – a future bill to consolidate the five acts of Parliament that we have at the moment might look like. As I say, I’ll say again, it needs to be the subject of long consultation, it needs to be the subject of some very serious thought being put into the drafting. The problem that is in the Australian Parliament right now this week is the current Commonwealth government gutting the protections against racial hate speech in our country, and that’s what this week’s human rights concerns are, not the long-range project that Labor has made no secret of. It’s sitting there in our national platform, it’s been there since July 2015. Of course we will get back to this project at some point, of consolidating these five acts, but I’m not going to draft it at a press conference, and I’m not going to foreshadow what it might look like because, quite simply, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either.

REPORTER: Senator Lambie, what, just on 18C, what do you think about, this is the last sitting week before the budget and the government’s using it, at least Senate time, to talk about 18C? How do you feel about that?

LAMBIE: Oh, we’re still using more time, well you know I’d rather be talking about these legal aid cuts because that’s more important to me, the hundreds of thousands of people out there who are going to require them in the future, and that cutting them by 30 per cent is going to put us in a much worse situation in the long term. That’s what I’d rather be talking about. But if they want to move 18C up, nothing has changed, I still believe it is a fair system, and I won’t be voting for changes on 18C.

REPORTER: Just back on the legal services cuts, this is a question for Mr. Dreyfus, and the NACLC, is it the case that someone from Treasury actually asked the NACLC if these cuts were a rounding error, because in the Treasury books they are so comparatively small?

DREYFUS: Amanda Alford, who is here with us, actually mentioned this in the speech last week that I heard Amanda give. In fact that is what a Treasury official said to her, this is just a rounding error. That’s, I think it was Amanda’s way of saying, this is in the context of a Federal government that is proposing to raise some $380 billion dollars’ revenue in the next budget, or a figure somewhere around there. The money that we are talking about here, some $34 million over 3 years, has to be seen as a very small proportion of the federal budget. It’s a way of making that point.

REPORTER: Just a question – just a question to the two senators and to you, Mr. Dreyfus. Considering the case of detained UTS professor Feng Chongyi did you have any concerns about the China extradition treaty and would you consider blocking it in the Senate considering this case?

DREYFUS: Labor is considering its position in relation to the China extradition treaty. There’s currently a regulation before the Parliament and I, and other senior frontbenchers, will be making a comment about this as the time approaches for disallowance of that regulation.

MCKIM: Yeah look, I’m happy to make a comment on that. Look, we’ve got very significant concerns about extraditing Australians, in particular to China. The Chinese government’s legal system quite frankly cannot be trusted, the conviction rate is astronomical which calls into significant question someone’s right to receive a fair trial in China and we will not be supporting the extradition of Australians to China. So we’ll be voting to block that extradition.

REPORTER: Does the case of this professor add more weight to those concerns?

MCKIM: Look I think it does, I’m not across the detail on that case, so I’m not going to go into details on that case this morning with you guys, but we’ve had a look at a number of past cases, we’ve had a look at the record of the Chinese so-called judicial system over there and we simply don’t trust it.

REPORTER: Mr Dreyfus, can I just ask, why did Labor backflip on its position to support changes to the Native Title Act?

DREYFUS: Well in no sense has Labor backflipped, as you put it in your question, in relation to the Native Title Act, or the Native Title Bill, that is currently before the Senate. This Bill was brought forward by the government in extraordinarily hurried fashion. It was introduced into the House of Representatives without notice some five weeks ago and then brought on for debate without notice the following sitting Thursday. Labor voted against that Bill in the House of Representatives because we think that it is important that there be time to consider even urgent legislation, and that’s particularly so when the people affected by this Native Title Bill are Indigenous people, right across Australia, very often in remote communities, with whom it is difficult to consult, and time needs to be provided. The Bill that the government has brought back into Parliament, now in the Senate, having passed through against Labor’s objections in the House of Representatives, has now been the subject of a Senate Inquiry. Again, it could have been a longer inquiry, should have been a public inquiry, and there could have been more public hearings but that process, that month-long process, has provided an opportunity for some sixty-odd submissions to be made. What those submissions show is that a very large number of Indigenous groups across Australia support this Bill which serves the purpose of giving certainty where at present following a decision of three judges of the Federal Court there is considerable uncertainty surrounding some 126 Indigenous Land Use Agreements in every State and Territory. That’s the purpose of this Bill. Labor’s view is that the Bill’s got unnecessary provisions in it, not made, that are not consequent on that McGlade decision of the three judges of the Federal Court, which is why we oppose those two provisions. You can see that in the report that Labor Senators made accompanying that Senate report and that’s the position we’ll have, but Labor does support this Native Title Bill as to its core purpose which is to provide certainty and in effect reinstate the law on Native Title as it was understood to be between 2010, following a single judge decision, and 2017 on the second of February, when this three-judge decision of the Federal Court was handed down. So there’s been no backflip. Labor opposed this legislation in the House of Representatives simply because there had not been, not just adequate consultation, there’s been no consultation by the government. Now there has been some time for limited consultation, some time for views to be expressed, we think that it is appropriate for Labor to form a position.

REPORTER: Can I just check, clarify something with Senator Lambie. I understand you don’t want to support changes to 18C. What about the other elements of the government’s package, the reasonable persons test and some of the process changes of the Human Rights Commission?

LAMBIE: Yeah, well, I have, I’ve been very – the Attorney-General won’t speak to me and I have yet to speak to the Shadow here so I have yet to make my mind up, though if you remove, if you leave 18C as is, then I’m certainly open for discussion on the other parts of the proposal to bring forward in reference to the rights and obviously the persons – the persons test –

REPORTER: The pub test.

LAMBIE: Yeah. So of course I’ll go and speak to these experts, I’ve also got the Law Council coming in over the next few days as well. So we’re just trying to get our heads around all these changes there, and see where we go from there.

REPORTER: And Senator McKim?

MCKIM: Yep. Well the reasonable person test is actually part of the 18C changes, so that’s important that you and everyone else to understand that. We certainly won’t be supporting that test. I mean it’s, it is logically absurd for the government to try and establish a benchmark for racism in this country that doesn’t solely rely on the lived experience of the group of people that are being impacted by that racism. I mean it’s a crazy suggestion, it’s another attempt to water down protections against racial hate speech in Australia and we won’t have a bar of it. In regards to the procedural reforms within the Human Rights Commission, a couple of things to say there. Firstly we’ve consistently argued for some procedural reform and that was our reporting of the Human Rights Committee. What we found out from the Attorney-General on Friday during the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is the government is preparing amendments to its own legislation which they say will address some of the concerns that the Human Rights Commission has outlined in regards to the draft bill. So we’ll have a look at the amendments the government will bring in, we want to say those concerns expressed by the Human Rights Commission addressed in the legislation and we hope the government will do that. If they don’t then we’ll be preparing our own amendments to give effect to those concerns.

LAMBIE: Can I just add something to that? I need to speak to the Attorney-General but I think the only way you’re going to get this through is if you take out 18C out of the equation, all the procedural stuff you put in one bill, and you leave that over here. Otherwise I don’t see you getting the numbers. So that would be the common sense way. That’s what I would effectively do and it seems that’s, that seems to be the talk that’s going on at the moment, the whole thing’s going to have to split the bill. It’s as simple as that.

DREYFUS: OK. Thanks very much.

ENDS