ABC Radio North Queensland

SUBJECT/S: Cuts to Community Legal Centres








SUBJECT/S: Cuts to Community Legal Centres


MICHAEL CLARKE, HOST: Mark Dreyfus, thanks for being with us.


CLARKE: Why are you concerned?

DREYFUS: I’m very concerned about the upcoming 30 per cent funding cut to Community Legal Centres around the country, from the first of July this year. It’s a cut that was first announced in the 2014 budget, and we protested then, Community Legal Centres contacted all their local MPs, and the Government put off the cut that was going to come in on the first of July 2015. That was put off for another two years and now it’s arrived. We’re calling on the Government to reverse this cut because it will mean that people in need, people who really are pushed as a last resort to Community Legal Centres because they need help with some legal problem – they won’t be able to get help. That 30% cut is going to mean a loss of jobs, loss of solicitors, sometimes a loss of community workers, and the services that are presently being provided by the Community Legal Centres just won’t be provided.    

CLARKE: What do you believe will be the impact on the Townsville service in particular?

DREYFUS: Well I’m going to talk to the Townsville Community Legal Centre and the other Community Legal Centres in Townsville today, but I believe they will probably not be able to provide the full extent of phone help they presently provide – about a third – because that’s what you get when you cut funding by 30%. Something has to go. It’s likely that some solicitors will no longer be able to be employed. And that would directly mean that the legal need in Townsville, representation at Court, advice on difficult problems - particularly domestic violence - because we know that Community Legal Centres are on the frontline of dealing with domestic violence. Those services simply won’t be available. 

CLARKE: These services would be quite expensive to run, I would assume, wouldn’t they be?

DREYFUS: They’re not expensive because although, as I often say, the lawyers in Community Legal Centres do the hardest work in Australia, they also do some of the finest work in Australia. They do it practically on the smell of an oily rag. They are the lowest paid solicitors anywhere in Australia but they do it because they believe in the work that they’re doing. And we should all be very grateful for the work that they do. It’s a very very cost effective service. It harnesses volunteers - that is volunteer lawyers. Very many of the lawyers in Townsville that work at the private firms donate their time as volunteers to help with the service and non-lawyers of course are helping as volunteers. So we get really, a lot of bang for our buck from the Commonwealth investment in Community Legal services.

CLARKE: This campaign, because you’ve been travelling around the country talking about this to the various legal centres – does it have any prospect of success or is this legislation that’s already gone through parliament that will happen, regardless of what you say?

DREYFUS: It’s a budget decision, Michael. And I’m heartened by the fact that we had success back in 2015. We convinced the Government then that this was the wrong thing to do. We know just what a good investment it is. The Productivity Commission looked at this back in 2014 and they said the community gets $17 back in benefits for every dollar we invest in Community Legal Services. You’d think that this Government would listen to that figure if to nothing else, but what they really should be doing is looking at the incredibly valuable services that are provided by Community Legal Centres around the country, and pay attention to in particular domestic violence. This is a Government that has said it cares about domestic violence, that it is investing in assisting with eliminating or reducing the scourge of domestic violence in Australia. What it should understand is that Community Legal Centres are at the front line of dealing with domestic violence. This is not the time to be cutting their funding. It is the time to be increasing their funding.

CLARKE: Would you try to block a budget to make sure that these cuts don’t go ahead?

DREYFUS: Well Labor doesn’t block budgets. We made that clear many decades ago. What we do do is closely examine every measure that the Government brings forward, and we will be directly saying “if there are unfair measures, they should not go forward”. But here, the budget is not yet completed. The budget is still being framed. This is a time to speak up and tell the government. We’re hoping that Liberal members of Parliament and around the country, who know and understand the work that Community Legal Centres do, that they will be approaching the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and telling them this is not a time to be cutting Community Legal Centre money.

CLARKE: Well what sort of discussions have you had with other parties – cross-benchers for example?

DREYFUS: Well, we know that most of the cross-benchers in the Senate… certainly Nick Xenophon, a former solicitor himself, has got a very keen understanding. I’d be expecting him and his two colleagues in the Senate to be supporting us in this. So too Derryn Hinch, who I think has a very keen understanding of the work and the value of Community Legal Centres and Jacqui’s party would be very opposed to a cut in Community Legal Centres.

CLARKE: I know that for some of the representations for the Community Legal Centres, they’re not just fighting against cuts, they’re fighting for increases. Is that something maybe Labor could guarantee down the track?

DREYFUS: We went to the last election promising to increase the funding for Community Legal Centres around the country. We made a specific promise of amounts of money with particular increases in Townsville for the Townsville Community Legal Centre for the North Queensland Women’s legal Service, for the North Queensland Aboriginal Legal Service, all of which are here in Townsville. And although we are two years or more from the election, I would expect that we would go to the next election with the same position. Right now, it is for the Government to reverse the cuts that it’s planning to bring in on the first of July 2017. This is not the time to be cutting Community Legal Centres. It will mean here in Townsville a loss of jobs. It will mean here in Townsville and the region a loss of legal services. 

CLARKE: Mark Dreyfus we’ll leave it there thank you for your time today.

DREYFUS: Thanks very much Michael.