By Jim Hayes
In the face of mounting pressure, the plan to curt tens of millions of dollars from community legal services funding has been chopped by the federal government.
In a major backdown, attorney general George Brandis, let out the news on the ABC’s AM radio yesterday. The May budget was going to start of a three year $56m cut. Trying to put a brave face on the humiliation of having to back down, Brandis has tried to make it look like this has been the result of government generosity.
But the legal centres have campaigned vigorously and drawn a lot of widespread support. Major concerns are the effect on domestic violence legal services and the high volume of Centrelink related cases that a 30 percent cut in funding would entail.
However, the sting is that the focus from now on would be on domestic violence. Providing more or this branch of the work of the community legal centres is great. But there is an implication that those who claim they are suffering as victims of Centrelink may be left out in the cold. If this is the case, it is wrong. Centrelink recipients are the most disadvantaged part of our community and lack of sufficient support means that their voice is silenced.
Nor does the funding cut reversal overcome the years of neglect that have already forced community legal centres to cut back, in the face of growing need. More Australians are out of work and poverty is growing. This brings about an increase in the social problems that cause a need for legal assistance.
The Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria’s executive officer, Serina McDuff said, “Some centres have had to make structural changes, because of course 1 July is imminent. Staff have moved on, because they couldn’t deal with the uncertainty and they were essentially told that their jobs were going to be lost.”
At least in the short-term, the government’s back down has brought in a measure of certainty and this means that the centres are somewhat able to betters plan their priorities and commit resources.
Nevertheless, longer term services to meet growing needs also needs to be addressed.
Community legal centres need support for the good job they are doing, under difficult circumstanced. They need more funding.