The national peak body for Aboriginal legal aid services, defunded under the Attorney General’s department and this week knocked back for funding under Prime Minister & Cabinet, have called on government to be transparent about where its $13.4 million in funding cuts will hit black legal aid.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Aid Services (NATSILS) is a lean operation which runs on about $295,000 a year. Since it began in 2007, it has never received a funding boost.
That changed last year when it was announced on the eve of the federal election that the Coalition would be slashing $13.4 million from already chronically underfunded Aboriginal legal aid services. A casualty of those funding cuts was the national peak body.
With no signs that the Attorney General’s Department would budge on the funding cut to NATSILS, the service applied under the chaotic Indigenous Advancement Strategy administered by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.
The IAS collapsed 500 programs into five broad funding streams, after ripping out more $500 million from the Indigenous affairs budget. Organisations only found out whether their applications had been successful last week, after months of uncertainty.
NATSILS chair Shane Duffy received a phone call and a follow up email informing him that their application had been unsuccessful.
It’s a devastating blow to Aboriginal Legal Aid, because despite running on the smell of an oily rag, NATSILS has been very active in law and policy work, providing numerous submissions to parliamentary committees and offering advice to government on the best way forward for Aboriginal justice issues.
“There needs to be a collective involvement of all the sister (Aboriginal legal aid organisations) across the country,” Mr Duffy told New Matilda.
“Obviously there is a lot of similarity between ALS’s and a lot of differences specific to each state, but there was a formulated collective for each of the organisations to feed into any law reform agendas, any public policy issues, senate inquiries, commissioner’s inquiries.
“It really provided a one-stop-shop where we could collate all the expertise around the country to provide well-informed, accurate advice on any issue in relation to legal assistance.”
It was advice the staff from PM&C valued, with the department regularly seeking the input of NATSILS. But despite this, that same department knocked them back from funding under the IAS, Mr Duffy said.
“It’s only $295,000. You know, other peak bodies run off million dollar budgets. It’s a very lean operation. You look at NATSILS and you can see the information we provide.”
The Attorney General’s department has also has shown it does not value that advice, Mr Duffy says.
“It is concerning that the Attorney General hasn’t seen our value. It’s not just about the legal assistance sector, there’s grassroots experience around community services. There are valid resources that exist in community and we know our community. Aboriginal legal aid organisations have been doing it for 42 years.”
When the Treasurer announced $13.4 million in cuts, saying it would only hit policy and advocacy work, Mr Duffy said there were already concerns it would impact on frontline services.
There are only 10 positions across Aboriginal legal aid services which work in advocacy and policy – two of them are the positions at NATSILS.
Mr Duffy said those positions are only funded to about $800,000, so there is still confusion about from where the government intended the full $13.4 million would be cut.
Already Mr Duffy says offices in Queensland and the Northern Territory have been forced to close down. In NSW, the Aboriginal Legal Aid Services NSW/ACT are also estimating cuts of $3 million, which would result in office closures, and staff departures.
“We cut three offices in Queensland after the announcement. We are trying to work ahead. In the Northern Territory they’ve closed an office,” Mr Duffy says.
“Even more importantly, it is the community wondering what the hell is going on. And it basically means we’ll have to cut services. There is no other alternative other than the impact on frontline service delivery. In Queensland for instance, we have around 50 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.
“From my perspective, if PM&C are talking about economic freedom and jobs, and a breakaway from welfare, this will actually force people back on the dole queue.
“How can you raise employment by cutting employment?”
NATSILS, which will be forced to cease operating in June because of the IAS knockback, says that it is still asking the Attorney General’s department which organisations will be hit by the cuts.
“The question we need to know is what the cuts are. We anticipated that the cuts may be in each state and territory, but even that hasn’t been defined,” Mr Duffy says.
“The second point of the decision is, where are we going to cut already underfunded services when the productivity commission recommended $200 million extra.
“Thirdly, all this is going off what we understand from the May budget.
“No business can operate in that environment. No business in their right mind and yet they expect it of us.”
The IAS knockback was slammed by the federal Greens, with Senator Rachel Siewert and Senator Penny Wright releasing a joint statement condemning the decision.
Senator Siewert said it was an embarrassment given the high cost of imprisoning people.
"This is a national embarrassment that the first so-called Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs has allowed this to go ahead,” Senator Siewert said.
“To refuse NATSILS the $295,000 it needs to keep going is shameful, as it costs governments more than $100,000 a year for every person in jail.”
It was also condemned by the legal fraternity, with the President of the Australian Bar Association Fiona McLeon saying “the likely consequences of these cuts will be chaos in the courts and an increase in Indigenous imprisonment which is already at unprecedented levels”.
Mr Duffy says the impact of any funding cut will be devastating.
“You know any cut to our services will have devastating effects. It’s going to lead to unrepresented people before court… and the ongoing cost of jailing people.
“They talk about a fiscal argument, but it’s not a fiscal argument because the unintended flow-on effects will have an impact on legal aid, an impact on people and communities, an impact on the courts, and an impact on the prisons.
“By reducing criminal, family and civil law services, more people will go to jail.”
New Matilda was still waiting on a response to a series of questions from the Attorney General’s Department by the time of press.
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