Abbott Govt Breaks Promise On Black Legal Services

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A program which helps Aboriginal people transition back into society after release from prison has been axed by the Abbott Government, breaking a Coalition commitment to maintain frontline services in the wake of significant cuts to Indigenous affairs spending.

Funding for the $500,000 a year Prisoner ThroughCare program, run by the NSW and ACT Aboriginal Legal Service, will be discontinued at the end of the month, forcing the unit’s caseworkers to cease their services, which are used by up to 70 Aboriginal people every year.

Phil Naden, the CEO of Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, said the program aimed to lower rates of recidivism by providing drug, alcohol and mental health counselling and support to prisoners before release, and housing and employment assistance post-release.

“We were under the assumption that it was going to be funded [because]we were told that no frontline services would be cut at the ALS,” Naden said.

“[With] Prison ThroughCare being one of our main frontline services, it was a bit of a shock when [we were told]by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet it would be cut.”

In May, shortly after the Abbott Government handed down its first budget – which slashed hundreds of millions of dollars of black funding –
Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion told media frontline services would not be affected.

But several weeks later, Naden says he received a phone call and correspondence from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet notifying him of the cut.

Funding committed by the previous Labor Government expires in June.

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Shayne Neumann told New Matilda Labor had intended to continue the funding, and had “dramatically increased” funding to ‘through care’ programs during its time in government.

Since announcing large cuts to Aboriginal legal services just days before the 2013 election – cuts which were eventually watered down after widespread criticism – the Coalition has insisted funding alterations would not hurt ‘frontline’ or ‘coalface’ services, and savings would instead be made from lobby groups and bureaucratic waste.

“These savings were designed carefully so that [they]would be found in policy and advocacy,” Attorney-General George Brandis told a Senate Estimates hearing in February.

Neumann said the Abbott Government had lied to the public and misrepresented its cost saving measures by claiming they would not harm frontline services.

“They said one thing before the budget in terms of justice and assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and they’re doing another thing entirely when they’re in government,” he said.

Naden said the ALS had not yet been provided with concrete reasons for why the ThroughCare program, which has been operating for eight years, would not continue to receive funding.

He said the withdrawal of support for the NSW/ACT program would mean clients currently using case workers would be forced to attempt the transition on their own, without culturally appropriate services.

“We feel really sad that people with such high levels of needs are going to be left in the dark,” Naden.

“There’s going to be no case worker there to help them out.”

Having vowed to be the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’, Tony Abbott appears to have sidelined questions of Indigenous justice. Indigenous Australians are up to 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Meanwhile, as the Abbott Government moves away from through care, the ACT government has pumped more money into similar programs, which have reportedly helped lower recidivism rates.

Yet a document on the Attorney-General’s website describes through care programs in positive terms.

“The Department funds several prisoner through care projects that provide intensive one-on-one case management and support of Indigenous prisoners and juvenile detainees from prison to community to address their offending behaviour and reduce the risk of further offending upon release,” the document says.

“By providing intensive case management to Indigenous Australians in prison or juvenile detention, these projects are assisting with their rehabilitation and reducing their prospects of future adverse contact with the criminal justice system following their release from incarceration.”

A response from Minister Scullion was not available at the time of press.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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