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Estimates: Indigenous Legal Services

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 28 Feb 2014

Senator Wright asks questions related to Indigenous Legal Services during Estimates hearings for the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. 

Senator WRIGHT:  Is it the case that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, known as NATSILS, will be entirely without federal funding at some point over the forward estimates?

CHAIR: Has that decision been made?

Mr Wilkins : Why would that be, Senator Wright?

Senator WRIGHT: I am not sure. But there is concern among the sector because of this push about front-line services versus-

CHAIR: You can't ask the minister or the officers about concerns people might have. If there has been an announcement of cutbacks-

Senator WRIGHT: There has been an announcement that there is going to be a funding cut to the policy and advocacy aspects of Indigenous legal funding. NATSILS are predominantly an organisation that does that. I am asking whether or not they will, at some point over the forward estimates, be without federal funding.

CHAIR: Your question is: 'Is it the government's intention to cut funding to NATSILS'?

Senator WRIGHT: Is it going to happen? That is what I am asking.

Mr Fredericks : I think I can say that that consequence does not necessarily follow from the decisions that have been made.

Senator WRIGHT: And no decision has been made at this point that would point to that?

Mr Fredericks : There are decisions that have been made. Your conclusion does not necessarily follow, and there are still decisions that will be made by government in due course.

 Senator WRIGHT: All right. As the national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, to what extent has the government consulted with NATSILS about issues over the last five years affecting Indigenous people, policy formation and other lines of inquiry in relation to the justice sector? Has the government consulted with NATSILS?

Mr Fredericks : I think I can say that this department has a very strong relationship with NATSILS, consults when possible and has traditionally done that.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. To what extent has the government made reference to NATSILS's submissions to government? NATSILS has made submissions at different times in relation to Indigenous law, policy and law reform.

Mr Fredericks : This department will always take into account submissions that are received.

Senator WRIGHT: So are you confirming that NATSILS has in fact made submissions at different times in relation to Indigenous law, policy and reform?

Mr Manning : That is my understanding. I have only been in this position since the end of November, but I have met with NATSILS recently. They explained to me that they have made numerous submissions on different topics.

Senator WRIGHT: All right. I ask you to take on notice the submissions they have made over the last five years in terms of the area we have just been discussing.

Mr Wilkins : You mean just in relation to legal assistance?

Senator WRIGHT: In relation to Aboriginal law, policy and reform issues.

Mr Wilkins : That is what I thought. I am not sure I can do that. The department of the environment, for example, would have received submissions. I do not think I am going to go and ask them.

Senator WRIGHT: I would imagine it would generally be about law given that it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, but perhaps we will confine it to the areas of law reform and policy affecting Indigenous people.

Mr Wilkins : But I think it is law reform and policy across government. I am not going to be able to answer that any time soon.

Senator WRIGHT: What do you think you could answer, then?

CHAIR: With respect, five years seems to be an unreasonable call upon the department.

Senator WRIGHT: I would ask the department to put that to me if that is the case. I am interested in knowing and understanding-and I think you can understand where my question is coming from-what services, value and things have been obtained from this organisation and the nature of that. It is not just some general, 'Yes, they've made numerous submissions' but what submissions and how often. The question then will be: if they are not able to continue to make those submissions, where will the government receive that unique view about the implications of changes to law on Aboriginal people in the legal sector.

CHAIR: I am not going to even allow that question. We are short of time. If they are rejected from making submissions-

Senator WRIGHT: They are not. This is a reasonable question to ask.

CHAIR: It is hypothetical.

Senator WRIGHT: No, it is not. I am asking specifically what submissions NATSILS has made in the area of, let's say in relation to-

CHAIR: You have asked that, and it has been taken on notice.

Senator WRIGHT: I am not sure that it has, because you have suggested that they have said no.

Mr Wilkins : It has not been taken on notice.

Senator WRIGHT: Do you understand the question?

Mr Wilkins : I do, and I do not think it is a tractable question, with all due respect. I am happy to look at my own department to see what submissions they have made to my department-

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. That would certainly be of assistance

Mr Wilkins : but not the whole of government.

Senator WRIGHT: All right. Thank you for clarifying that. I am happy to have that discussion about what is reasonable and what is not.

I am interested now in knowing-and this was a question that was asked at the last estimates-if the government has now assessed the likely impact of reducing funding for Indigenous legal services on the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people in Australia's prisons? I asked last time if there had been any modelling or forecasting by the department about what the effects of these cuts might be on Indigenous incarceration rates.

CHAIR: Have you made an assessment?

Mr Wilkins : No.

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator WRIGHT: Nothing further?

Senator Brandis: Because we have asked the savings be found in the policy and advocacy function, we would not expect that it would have any effect at all. However, if your question is, 'Has an empirical study been done?' no. But the savings have been very carefully designed to protect against that eventuality.

Senator WRIGHT: Then I ask a clarifying question on that. Is community legal education part of frontline services, or is that part of law reform, policy and advocacy?

Senator Brandis: I know this is a slightly unhelpful answer, but it all depends upon the circumstances. I would struggle to give you a yes or no answer to that question. It may be.

Senator WRIGHT: And you can understand why that question is very important.

Senator Brandis: Sure.

Senator WRIGHT: Arguably, if there are reductions in community legal education, that very much might translate into an effect on incarceration rates in terms of people's understanding about the law and how to avoid getting into trouble with it.

Senator Brandis: Potentially. You are absolutely right. It would be great to be able to spend a lot more in the access to justice area. I would like to spend a lot more in the access to justice area. Unfortunately, the government has no money because it was all spent by the previous government and the country was left with $400 billion of public debt.

Senator WRIGHT: All right. I will put the other questions on notice.

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