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Estimates: Indigenous Legal Aid funding questions

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 18 Nov 2013

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee 
Attorney General's Department 

18 November, 2013

Senator WRIGHT: My understanding is that the government announced a cut of $42 million from the Indigenous Legal Aid and Policy Reform Program just prior to the federal election. It would appear to be a cut of about 15 per cent of what is budgeted over the forward estimates. My understanding is that that was an announcement that was made before the election. What we are hearing now is that in fact that is not a cut that is going to necessarily be followed through on. Naturally the agencies that are within that program are anxious to have some certainty about what will be happening and what that cut might mean to them on the ground. What I would like to ask first of all is: can you advise what proportion of that program is currently spent on front-line services, as opposed to the proportion currently spent on law reform?

Mr Duggan: There was a time, about five years ago, when the program had a separate allocation for policy reform activities. That was around $2.1 million. However, it is a question of definition. Clearly, significant resources go into responding to government questions on particular issues, such as law reform initiatives. It would be impossible for us to estimate just exactly how much effort goes into precisely that issue because the program now, of course, is fused and there is no separate allocation for it.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you, because my understanding is that that is the term that has been used to suggest that these cuts would not affect front-line services. But, in fact, if it is not possible to determine what proportion of a program goes to each, that would be difficult to determine I would have thought.

Mr Duggan: Yes, Senator, that is true.

Senator Brandis: I think, Senator Wright, it also depends in part about what you mean by 'front-line services'. I know that you, Senator, chaired the Senate select committee into access to justice, which reported earlier this year, and I am great admirer of your committee's report. You treated front-line services in a particular way. I think you probably are aware of my view which is that front-line services should be given preference over the other services—this is controversial, I know—including advocacy work that legal assistance providers provide. My own view is that it is more socially just if the limited amount of money available, which does not meet the demands upon it, is exhausted on casework and front-line services rather than other things, which although are arguably worthwhile, are not as pressing.

Senator WRIGHT: That is interesting because it is not actually a phrase that I tend to use; it is a phrase that others are more likely to use.

Senator Brandis: It was in your question.

Senator WRIGHT: I used it because that is, in fact, a term that has been, I understand, discussed in the context of these budget cuts. My concern and the concern of some of the people that I have been talking to, who are concerned about Indigenous justice and Indigenous incarceration rates, is that apparently it is difficult to determine anyway what part of that program is devoted to law reform and policy and what part is devoted to so-called front-line services. As well as that I will ask a question and that is: have there been any predictions sought or any work done about how those cuts, if they were to go ahead,—and that was the figure that was actually provided—would likely to impact on Indigenous incarceration rates, which we all know are highly disproportionate at the moment in Australia. What would be the effects of those cuts if they were to go ahead?

Mr Wilkins: We have not done any work on that. That would be quite a complicated exercise, actually.

Senator WRIGHT: An important one, I would suggest.

Mr Wilkins: It is an important question, but it would be very complicated to try to trace out what might be the implications of funding cuts of this type in legal aid.

Senator WRIGHT: Given that that was the figure that was initially provided,—and we do not have any certainty that that is not figure that will be cut; it may well not be we are hearing now—I would ask you to take on notice some kind of modelling about what the effect might be, because you would be in a position to determine what are front-line services and what are law reform and policy services.

Senator Brandis: Senator Wright, your question assumes that modelling has been done.

Senator WRIGHT: No, I am asking that it be done.

Senator Brandis: I do not think, if I may say so, that that is really a proper use of the take-on-notice procedure. You can ask for information and, if the officers do not have the information at the table, you might ask them to take the question on notice. What you are asking for is something else. You are actually asking them to undertake quite a complex exercise and potentially, I dare say, an expensive exercise. I do not think that is something that can really be done. You might suggest that it would be a good idea but, if the modelling has not been done, it has not been done.

Senator WRIGHT: I accept and understand what you are saying. What I would suggest then is that, if there are any predictions that have been made or any information that has been sought in these discussions that are apparently occurring about how budget savings are to be made, in the context of this figure having been announced before the federal election, I would ask that you take on notice and provide information to the committee about them.

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