By Ben Wilson
Community legal centres around Australia find themselves flooded with requests for help from people facing robo-debt and other issues at the hands of Centrelink.
At the same time, they are facing a 30 percent government funding cut that is due to take effect on July 1. This is more than a coincidence. The government does not see access to support for those who do not have the means for an expensive legal defense as a priority.
On top of this, the government continues to resist any changes that would make the Centrelink system fairer.
A community campaign to restore the funding in the May budget is taking shape. In parliament Labor, the Greens, Jackie Lambie, Deryn Hinch and Skye Kakoshe-Moore (from the Xenophon Team) have called for the restoration of funding.
They say the public needs to know about the consequences of the Coalition’s decision to reduce funding to community legal centres (CLCs) across the country – worth $34.8m over the next three years.
“This is a small amount of money when it comes to the federal budget, but it’s going to have a devastating impact on the services that we provide,” the chief executive of National Association of Community Legal Centres, Nassim Arrage, said in Canberra last Monday.
“Some community legal centres will need to close and others will have to cut back on the essential frontline services that they provide.”
The fight for adequate funding for community legal centres stretches back to 2013. When the Abbott government was elected in September 2013, it used its first mid-year budget update to cut $43.1m for legal assistance services over four years, including $19.6m from community legal centres.
Six months later, in its 2014-15 budget, it cut another $6m from CLCs.
A month later it made one-off grants worth $1.55m to just 14 CLCs. Then in March 2015, following intense community pressure, it reversed some of its 2013-14 budget update cuts, reinstating $12m in funding over two years for the sector.
A few months later, in mid-2015, it signed a new five-year national partnership agreement on legal assistance services. The agreement provided Australia’s 189 community legal centres with $42.2m funding in 2016-17, but that funding drops to $30.1m in 2017-18, $30.6m in 2018-19, and $31m in 2019-20.
The reduction in funding levels from 2016-17 amounts to $34.83m over three years, 30% of CLC funding.
Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney general, said the government must use its forthcoming budget to restore the cuts, saying community legal centres serve the most disadvantaged people in Australia.
Lambie said it was disgraceful that the Turnbull government would allow the planned cuts to continue.
“Last week we’ve seen welfare cuts to some of the most vulnerable, which seems to be a pattern of behaviour from the [Coalition],” she said. “By denying justice to those who are already the most vulnerable Australians is an absolute disgrace on behalf of the government.
“Leave those people on welfare alone. Stop sledging them with a hammer. It’s enough.”