Late yesterday afternoon the LNP’s Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb took questions on the the LNP’s policy costings.
Almost lost in the fog of that presser and subsequent fallout was this response by Hockey to a question.
QUESTION: You’re talking about $42 million, sorry billion, of savings, sorry, by re-prioritising indigenous policy reforms, which is a third of the savings…
HOCKEY: Sorry, 40. Sorry, which number are you referring to? 9.3.
QUESTION: The last page, the reprioritisation of indigenous policy programs. What does that mean and is that in breach of the…
HOCKEY: That effectively deals with legal aid services delivered by contractors at various sites. There has been some change in that program. What we’ve said is we’re scaling it back by about 20 per cent. Indigenous aid.
That exchange relates to a single line item of savings – totalling $42 million over the next three years – listed under ‘Other Coalition Savings‘ at point 9.3 of the LNP’s costings list that would ‘reproiritise’ Labor’s Indigenous Policy Reform program.
… funds high-quality, culturally sensitive and accessible legal assistance services for Indigenous Australians. It ensures Indigenous Australians can fully exercise their legal rights as Australian citizens. The program also funds law reform, policy development and community legal education activities that advance the legal rights of Indigenous Australians.
The Indigenous Policy Reform program funds eight organisations – all Aboriginal legal aid services – to deliver legal assistance to Aboriginal people in all States and territories.
As I noted here yesterday, the Coalition has been very light-on in terms of providing details about its plans for indigenous policy over the next few years. That changed yesterday afternoon with the last minute release of it’s Indigenous Affairs policy. That policy is full of the usual warm-and-fuzzy guff that is typical of the indigenous affairs plans from both major parties.
Of note is that there is nothing in the Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs policy about these swingeing cuts to Aboriginal legal aid.
In a piece in The Australian today Melbourne barrister and member of the Law Council of Australia’s access to justice committee, David Neal SC, examines the current state of legal aid funding, which he described the system as ‘in crisis.’
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told Neal that Labor was has committed to further funding increases.
Neal quotes Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis – who presumably would have been aware of the looming cuts to Aboriginal legal aid when he made these comments responding to a Law Council questionnaire in a piece in The Australian late last week:
… the Coalition cannot commit to increase funding for legal aid services, nor can we stipulate a proportion of total legal assistance funding that will be provided by the federal government.
Following the release of news of the Coalition’s cuts Attorney-General Dreyfus was scathing.
Tony Abbott is big on talk but is nowhere to be found when it comes to supporting Indigenous Australians to get the legal assistance they deserve. The Coalition’s cuts amount to an almost 15 per cent cut to Indigenous legal services to 2016-17. There can be no doubt that Tony Abbott is a hypocrite when it comes to supporting Indigenous Australians … Not since the Howard Government have Australians faced the threat that representation in Australia’s courts would be only for the wealthy.
One long-term criminal lawyer (who pled anonymity due to conditions of their employment) who has appeared on both sides of the bar table pointed to the pride that Aboriginal people have in their legal aid agencies and the essential services they provide.
… the cuts go to more than that. ALSs are sources of pride, of inspiration and of hope for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people run them, the staff, in the main, is Aboriginal and the clients we serve are in the most straightened circumstances of the most straightened group of people in our country.
ALSs give voice to the protests of many Aboriginal who are on the receiving end of the ever more powerful presence of super-charged police forces, an ever increasing capacity for incarceration and harsher and harsher laws.
These cuts further paves the way for what is in essence assimilation by incarceration.
David Neal SC of the Law Council of Australia echoed the concerns that incarceration rates could rise from already unacceptable levels. This morning he told The Northern Myth that the LNP cuts:
… coincide with a crisis in the extent of indigenous incarceration. This comes out of the blue and threatens incredible injustice.
One effect will be to throw huge costs back onto state and territory legal aid commissions. This will make the legal aid crisis even worse.
North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s Chief Executive, Priscilla Collins, this morning told ABC Local Radio in Darwin that the cuts would set her service back years.
People aren’t going to have access to justice, which means people are going to be going to court unrepresented, it’s going to increase the incarceration rate and then it’s going to clog up the justice system.
We are the ones who save the justice system money, so these costs are going to blownout and be passed on to another section. The worst thing about all this is, Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged people, and this is one thing that they are now going to lose access to justice.