Senator Penny Wright asks questions of the Attorney General's Department related to funding cuts to Environmental Defenders Offices during the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Estimates hearing.
Senator Wright also questioned the Attorney-General about lobbying by the NSW Minerals Council to de-fund EDOs. He couldn't recall at first, but then he could.
Find more information and details of how to donate to your state's Environmental Defenders Office here.
Senator WRIGHT: These are questions regarding the Environmental Defender's Offices, which I will call EDOs, to be more succinct. MYEFO cut $10 million in funding to EDOs in December 2013, and from 1 July this year EDOs will receive no federal funding. EDO lawyers have assisted private citizens, community groups and farmers in a range of environmental cases, basically around public interest, environmental and planning law, relating to things like coal mining, urban development, water and air pollution, and threatened species, just to name a few. I am interested to know what review process the Attorney-General's Department or the Attorney-General conducted in order to inform the decision to defund the Environmental Defender's Office in December 2013.
Senator Brandis: Senator Wright, I do not want to go over the discussion we had before. I am sure many of these EDOs do good work. Some of them, I think, are less worthy; nevertheless I am prepared to assume that most of them do good work. But a decision had to be made about areas of savings to identify in this budget because, as I have to keep reminding you, the previous government left the country bankrupt and the new government was elected to bring the budget back under control. I made a decision that policy and advocacy work were less important in the access to justice spend than providing the limited resources available to actual people in distressing circumstances-in other words, case work-and I stick by that view. I think, from a point of view of social justice-which I know your party often speaks about-it is more socially just to help a distressed person than to spend the money on a cause, particularly when there are many other advocates for those causes who do not rely upon that limited pool of funds.
Senator WRIGHT: Minister, if I can interrupt you, because I know time is limited and I am conscious other people have questions. The review was essentially you coming to that view yourself, it seems.
Senator Brandis: Not in isolation. Mr Fredericks might-
CHAIR: You have had a lot of submissions from your colleagues on exactly the point you make, Senator Brandis.
Senator Brandis: Yes.
Senator WRIGHT: So, Chair, you are contributing to the answer-is that right?
Senator Brandis: Mr Fredericks has wonderful in helping develop this area of policy.
Senator WRIGHT: I just want to clarify something that you said. It sounds to me as though there is a suggestion that EDOs do not have clients. My understanding, and I have had a long association with Environmental Defenders Offices, is that they do client work, they advise clients-
Senator Brandis: But it is not just clients, Senator.
Senator WRIGHT: They advise real people. These are often people who are often taking public interest matters who are in distressing circumstances-if there is noise pollution or air pollution that affect not only them but the community. So, arguably-
Senator Brandis: But, Senator, there is not enough money in the system to look after everybody who is being prosecuted for a crime or in a distressing family law matter, let alone small-business people who fall into trouble, for example. There is just not enough money, so we have to prioritise by putting at the top of the list the neediest people. What is wrong with that?
Senator WRIGHT: I think what I understand you to be saying is that you do not value the work of public interest-
Senator Brandis: I didn't say that.
Senator WRIGHT: environmental and planning law as much as a priority over-because the client distinction does not really make sense, in the sense that they do have clients; it is not just law reform and advocacy. But you are saying that that is why they have been defunded totally. I am interested in knowing the background to this, so I will ask this question.
Senator Brandis: I will answer the question you just asked me: yes, I think an impoverished person facing the jeopardy of being put into jail, or in the distressing circumstances of a relationship break-up and issues like access and custody of children and so on, at their most vulnerable and distressed, should be the first claim on the scarce resources-absolutely.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you, Minister. I am going to ask you now a question that I think would not translate easily to being on notice. I will have to ask some of these other ones on notice. Previously, the Minerals Council has openly lobbied against EDOs. They have accused EDO lawyers of a campaign of economic sabotage, and that was reported on the ABC. The Australian reported that the New South Wales-
CHAIR: Do you have a question, Senator?
Senator WRIGHT: It does come to a question-I think an important question that the public would be interested in knowing about.
CHAIR: Well, forget the political sideshow-
Senator WRIGHT: No, this is actually the background I have to ask about. As the peak mining industry body in New South Wales, the New South Wales Minerals Council was lobbying the federal Attorney-General to cease the EDO's funding. That was reported in the Australian in October last year. These are not unverified assertions.
CHAIR: Is the question: did they lobby the-
Senator WRIGHT: What I am asking is: what submissions, formal or informal, did the Minerals Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of New South Wales or anybody who represents the interests of the mining sector, make to the federal government to support the withdrawal of funding from EDOs after the election? It is a very important question from the public interest point of view, I would have thought.
Senator Brandis: I can answer your question directly. I do not know what approaches may have been made by those organisations to other ministers or other departments. It may be that they may have written to me but, if they did, I cannot immediately recall any correspondence from them. As you know, when there is a change of government, many, many organisations in the community, from all points of view, make approaches to the new government to, as it were, put a point of view. I do not recall seeing any such communications from any of the organisations that you have mentioned and I had no meetings with anyone from any of the organisations which you have mentioned in which I was lobbied for the purpose for which you have described. So the answer to your question, subject to the qualifications I have made, is: none.
Senator WRIGHT: All right, I understand you cannot recall. Can I-
Senator Brandis: I have no recollection. I just want to allow for the possibility that there may have been a letter, among the hundreds of letters that come into my office every day, that I did not see.
CHAIR: I understood you the first time, Minister.
Senator WRIGHT: Can I ask you, Minister, to take that question on notice?
Senator Brandis: No, I will not take on notice a question that I have just given you a direct answer to.
Senator WRIGHT: But you said you have no recollection. That does not really answer the question. It may be that you did receive such a letter and you do not have a recollection of it. So I am asking you-
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Wright. We are not here as a debating society. We will now be moving to-
Senator WRIGHT: Chair, I would just like to know whether the minister is willing to take it on notice or not.
CHAIR: group 3, national security and criminal justice programs.
Senator Brandis: I-
Senator WRIGHT: Will you-
CHAIR: I am sorry, Minister, and I am sorry, Senator Wright, but we have finished that. We have had more than fair-
Senator WRIGHT: I do not have an answer to the-
CHAIR: You will get it on notice if you put it on notice.
Senator Brandis: Chair, before we go on, I have just been handed a note. I do try to be helpful. The note from my adviser says, 'I think the NSW Minerals Council wrote us a letter, but I am not certain.' I will take on notice whether a letter was received from the NSW Minerals Council.
CHAIR: Thank you for that, Minister.
Senator WRIGHT: Yes. I will go back to the issue of the Environmental Defender's Offices and the fact that they will be receiving no further federal funding from 1 July this year. I am aware of many different actions and advice and cases that have been taken around Australia over a significant period of time. There have been court decisions around Australia upholding environmental laws, or indeed overturning private or government action on the basis that it has been illegal. Those have been the court's findings, and they have only occurred because the EDOs were able to support citizens, individuals, to make representations or to be represented in court in those. I am interested to know how the federal government can expect that the legal interests of the environment will be protected by those citizens who are taking on, arguably, a larger public interest-it is not necessarily particularly in their own interests-if the de-funding of the EDOs means that they cannot continue to operate.
Senator Brandis: As I said a little earlier on to Senator Singh, I do not think we should make the assumption that things can only happen in Australia if the Commonwealth government pays for them. It is not as if we are prohibiting EDOs. It is not as if we are doing anything other than saying that, from the limited resources available for the access to justice budget, we are spending our money where it is most needed. EDOs can continue to operate and they can make other arrangements for funding, but the Commonwealth's legal aid spend is being focused on the people who need it most