It is becoming increasingly difficult to take this government seriously.
Minister for Employment and Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, cancelled a planned meeting with the states, the one chance she had this year to talk domestic violence leave with all the industrial relations ministers, because, in her opinion, there were “no matters requiring ministerial decision”.
This is at the same time as the COAG leaders are meeting for a violence against women summit.
Also this week, probably in an attempt to deflect attention, George Brandis announced an inquiry into the alarming levels of Aboriginal incarceration.
Whilst action on this is certainly needed, as many pointed out, the recommendations of previous inquiries have been roundly ignored so it is hard not to be cynical about spending more money on yet another talk fest.
If the government was really concerned about domestic violence and Aboriginal incarceration, they would not be slashing funding to community legal centres.
The 2016-17 Federal Budget did not reverse the looming funding cuts or include any additional investment in legal assistance service, including Community Legal Centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services or Legal Aid Commissions.
The funding cliff for Community Legal Centres under the National Partnership Agreement for Legal Assistance is still a reality, amounting to $34.83 million cut between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2020.
Funding cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services amounting to over $6 million between 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 will continue, as will the underfunding of Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services and Legal Aid Commissions.
Community Legal Centres helped over 215,000 people with free legal advice last year and had to turn away over 160,000 largely due to lack of funding.
In 2014, the Productivity Commission published a report into access to justice arrangements which found significant gaps in free legal help for family law matters, including family violence and child protection, recommending an extra $200 million be provided by federal, state and territory governments.
Its report said the funding boost would enable legal aid commissions, community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to maintain their frontline services and provide more legal help to more people. It would make about 400,000 more people eligible for civil legal aid grants and about 10 per cent of households eligible for legal aid services, in line with the proportion of disadvantaged Australians. Funding to legal aid services have been cut in recent years, at the same time as demand for their services was growing.
The Productivity Commission said legal aid commissions imposed “too restrictive” means tests, below those of other government benefits, because they were underfunded: “It is not the case that people are ‘too wealthy’ to be eligible for legal assistance, but rather that they are ‘not sufficiently impoverished’.”
Any funding increase was “challenging”: “However, not providing legal assistance in these instances can be a false economy as the costs of unresolved problems are often shifted to other areas of government spending such as health care, housing and child protection. Numerous Australian and overseas studies show that there are net public benefits from legal assistance expenditure.”
“A smart, economic rationalist government would want to adopt the recommendations of its own Productivity Commission,” Mr Warner, Victoria Legal Aid’s managing director, said. “This is not a report by legal academics or the sector talking about itself. This is the country’s premier economic think-tank saying it makes economic sense and provides fairer access to justice.”
The Productivity Commission also recommended reversing the government’s $13.3 million cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. It said the cuts had already had an impact on frontline services.
Australia’s funding for free legal help per person is lower than in comparable countries including England and Wales, the report said.
The Coalition have also slashed funding to many community early intervention programs and emergency refuge accommodation whilst spending money on more police stations and truancy officers. They pursue tough laws like three strikes, mandatory detention and impossible parole conditions. They lock up children in remand because no-one can afford the bail. They impose income management but ignore the role that poverty plays.
This government creates problems, pays for commissions, reports and reviews, and then ignores them.
What a shambles they are.
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