ABC CANBERRA DRIVE WITH ANNA VIDOT
TUESDAY, 29 NOVEMBER 2022
SUBJECTS: COMMUNITY LEGAL CENTRES, CHARITIES
ANNA VIDOT: Speaking of organisations that do a power of good in our community, for some of the most vulnerable people in Canberra, community legal centres are a vital service for accessing justice. Whether it was people who were caught up in the awful road [indistinct] saga, victims of domestic violence, public housing tents, First Nations people navigating the justice system, many of these clients are represented by not-for-profit community legal centres.
Now, clearly there are also a lot of policy questions around all of this, and the laws that affect all of these kinds of issues, but for almost a decade, community legal centres that receive Commonwealth funding have not been allowed to lobby government or advocate for policy change or law reform.
This dates back to a 2014 change when the Abbott Government restricted the right of these organisations to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth and its agencies, and that was a condition of their Commonwealth funding.
Well, that's been scrapped, the Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has announced today, he says they're ending that what, he's called "censorship", of these community legal centres.
Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Competition Charities, appropriately enough, when we're talking charities today, Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, thanks so much for your time.
ANDREW LEIGH: A real pleasure, Anna, glad to be with you. And congratulations on what you're doing with OzHarvest. I had a couple of minutes on hold, so jumped online and made a small donation. They do such remarkable work in the community, and it's so good of ABC Canberra to be helping them in that work.
ANNA VIDOT: Oh, look, it's our pleasure, and thank you very much for your donation, Andrew Leigh; more than $43,600 now raised by Canberrans, which is wonderful, I have to say.
But on the community legal front, what do you think the impact has been of this restriction; their inability to kind of weigh in publicly on policy changes and law reforms?
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, it's hurt the clients that rely on community legal centres, it's hurt the community legal centres, but it's also hurt the public debate. The Coalition in their nine-year war on charities took the view that charities should be seen and not heard. That environmental charities should plant trees, but couldn't talk about deforestation. That antipoverty charities could serve in a soup kitchen but couldn't talk about inequality. And that in legal charities could serve clients but couldn't talk about law reform.
It just makes no sense whatsoever, and as Mark Dreyfus has pointed out, those community legal centres are close to the ground, they know exactly what's going on, and they're among the best place to advocate on law reform.
When I was a law student I worked at Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney, and the Welfare Rights Legal Centre here in Canberra, and I've seen the critical work that they do. We want those organisations to be out there advocating for law reform, and under these changes, they will be.
ANNA VIDOT: Is your government prepared to listen, even if what they have to tell you is that your government needs to make some pretty big changes?
ANDREW LEIGH: We are absolutely prepared to listen. Of course, not every change they propose will get through, and I don't think they'd expect that. But what they'll get from this government is the respect from a government that admires charities, that recognises the value that charities and non-profits bring to the public debate, and that understands that law can be strengthened when it has the voices of those informed people who are at the coal face helping some of the most vulnerable in their interactions with the laws.
ANNA VIDOT: Are there particular areas where you are eager to hear from community law organisations?
ANDREW LEIGH: It's right across the board. I mean it could be something as big as the National Anti-Corruption Commission, but it might also just be a local provision that's not working as intended. We've got a substantial agenda to reduce poverty in Australia; that goes right through from income support to housing, to work we're doing in Indigenous communities. And if some of that isn't working on the ground, we need to know about it.
We do our best to consult on issues, but every now and then governments will get it wrong. And the craziness of the Coalition's gag clauses was that those legal charities couldn't speak out, these community legal centres, Legal Aid Commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services were locked out from the public debate when it came to criticising what the government was doing.
ANNA VIDOT: They might no longer be formally locked out, Andrew Leigh, but can your government guarantee that a community organisation, a community legal service, in this case, for instance, can you guarantee that them speaking out against the government won't result in some kind of informal retribution, that their funding just finds its way going to a different organisation instead?
ANDREW LEIGH: Yes, Anna, I can absolutely guarantee that. And look, that's an excellent question to be asking, because if you take away gag clauses in the provisions, but you implement a secretive gag clause, that's just as bad. But that's not the way in which we behave. You're not going to see this sort of approach the former government took on aid agencies, for example, where they were stymied from speaking out against the Coalition's aid cuts, because they were worried they were going to lose contracts.
That's just not the way we roll. We are confident in our policies; we're willing to have those policies debated in public, and we recognise the value that community legal centres bring. I've worked in them, Mark Dreyfus has worked with them, we are engaged with them repeatedly, and we understand the value that they play in helping some of the most vulnerable get access to justice.
ANNA VIDOT: Andrew Leigh is with us, the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, talking about this reversal of an almost decade-long gag effectively on community organisations who receive Commonwealth funding, that as a condition of that funding they could not enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth and its agencies. When it comes to funding of these kinds of organisations, particularly across the legal sector, Andrew Leigh, we've seen some concern over many years, not just about the amount of funding from the Commonwealth for these agencies and organisations, but the timeframes of that, that often they find themselves really hanging on trying to know whether there will be funding ongoing or coming, and it's making it very hard for them to plan ahead and to use their resources wisely. Beyond this kind of advocacy side, what is your government going to be doing to support these important agencies to do the work that you say you value so much.
ANDREW LEIGH: Yeah, we need to longer dated funding agreements with the charity and non-profit sector more broadly. Amanda Rishworth has been talking with social services providers about that, recognising that if we want people to have long and productive careers in the social sector, or in other sectors that are dependent on government, then we need to have longer dated funding agreements. You can't criticise casualisation but then provide six month or one year funding contracts that essentially demand that organisations keep their employees hanging. We want people to have long and productive careers in these organisations, so the clients they serve have access to experienced staff, and we can only do that if we get longer dated funding, get the indexation right, and, of course, strip out the gag clauses, as we've done.
ANNA VIDOT: How about the option of more funding for these organisations at all? In the October budget the Labor government gave about $13.5 million over three years from 22, 23, for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, $12 million over four years from that same time for community legal centres in New South Wales to assist fire and flood affected individuals. Sector says that's not going to be enough to deal with the overwhelming community needs. Given the extent of the ongoing flooding disasters, is the Government prepared to up that funding?
ANDREW LEIGH: We're certainly up for that conversation, and we certainly want to be engaging with the sector. I think the community legal sector knows that it will always be better off under a Labor government, and until the area of Indigenous legal assistance, you've got the specific initiative in the last budget around justice reinvestment spearheaded by Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Australians and Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney General. That reflected the extraordinary rise in Indigenous incarceration, which has doubled since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down in 1990. It's just not good enough when we look across the board at the appallingly high rates of Indigenous incarceration. Appropriately funding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services as a key part of that.
ANNA VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, appreciate your time this evening, thank you.
ANDREW LEIGH: Thanks so much, Anna. Take care.
ANNA VIDOT: Thank you very much. Andrew Leigh, who's the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, joining us on ABC Radio.