Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024

Matters of Urgency

Legal Aid

4:48 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate will now consider the proposal from Senator Thorpe:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move "That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Australian Government to urgently fund the $215.3m funding shortfall for legal assistance services for the 2024-2025 fiscal period, as per Dr. Warren Mundy's Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-2025 (NLAP).

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Australian Government to urgently fund the $215.3m funding shortfall for legal assistance services for the 2024-2025 fiscal period, as per Dr. Warren Mundy's Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-2025 (NLAP).

Thank you to Senator Paterson for allowing me to do this.

Legal assistance services are so crucial. They provide life-saving support for women and children trying to escape family violence. They help Aboriginal mothers whose children are targeted for removal. They help marginalised people who have been targeted by police They help children to break from cycles of incarceration. These services are on the front line, helping the most vulnerable people, but, due to years of neglect from successive governments, these services are crumbling, overstretched and unable to do their jobs. Over 52,000 women were turned away from life-saving legal services last year. That number is growing, and Aboriginal women suffer the most. We are 45 times more likely to experience family violence and at least 25 times more likely to be killed or injured by a former or intimate partner.

At the start of March, the Attorney-General received an independent review into the dire strait of the sector. When Dreyfus received the report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services were calling for it to be released so they could discuss the recommendations with the government. But the Attorney-General refused to be open or honest with the sector. He even refused my order to produce documents that had majority support in this chamber. The government were doing all they could to keep the report from the sector until after the May budget so they wouldn't come under scrutiny or pressure to fund these essential services. So much for working openly and in partnership with First Peoples!

When we finally saw the report, after the budget, we found out it contained $215 million worth of recommendations for this year to keep legal services afloat. But Labor only gave $41 million to the sector in their budget, leaving the sector shortchanged by $174 million. Still, today, the Attorney-General hasn't given a formal response to those recommendations. Instead, he has just ignored them. So the sector has been kept in the dark and left critically underfunded.

To make it worse, the government had this report at the same time that the National Cabinet convened for their emergency meeting about family violence. What a joke! But the report wasn't fed into the process. They hid it, despite it having clear recommendations about family violence prevention. This whole saga has demonstrated shocking neglect, secrecy and a lack of goodwill from the Labor government. We've seen again how far Labor will go to avoid scrutiny and accountability and to shut out First Peoples. Shame!

That brings us to this week. We've heard that Dreyfus and the state A-Gs are expected to meet on Friday morning here to finally discuss this report together for the first time. They've been trying to keep this meeting secret, too. It beggars belief that they've waited for four months to have a meeting on this issue given how urgent it is and that people's lives are at risk. This is the opportunity they have to make up for their shocking neglect and bad-faith actions and offer the life-saving help that is so desperately needed.

The government must understand the gravity of their failure to properly fund legal services. There is a direct connection between underfunding and increased risks of harm, trauma and loss of life on Labor's watch. It will have impacts on health care, housing, child protection and incarceration. Women turned away from legal services are often turned back into violent situations. Thirty-nine women have been killed violently already this year. The government can't continue to underfund this sector and keep a clear conscience. They have had to turn that around this week. So, Labor, if you are fair dinkum about preventing violence against women in this country, stop sitting on your hands and fund these underfunded services that will actually save people's lives.

4:53 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this urgency motion in regard to legal assistance services and the report by Dr Warren Mundy, an independent review of the NLAP. As most people in this chamber know, I have had a very constant and personal connection to the work that this government is doing on the prevention of family violence. I think everyone in this chamber knows how important and imperative it is for us to take action on family violence and to commit to funding the services that require support, taking preventive action and making sure that we never forget that, at the end of the day, this relates to families, particularly women who face the extreme consequences of deciding whether to stay in a violent situation or to leave that violent situation.

I want to thank very deeply and sincerely the people who work for these legal services. I know that many of them, in North Queensland particularly, do an incredible job. I really am thankful that they provide not just expertise but also care and advocacy. It's that advocacy that has led to our government providing extended and increased funding for this sector. We continue to work with the sector while the 2025 NLAP is being prepared.

The Albanese government recognises the pressure that legal assistance services are under and the importance of strengthening the sector. Legal assistance is essential to ensuring access to justice and equality before the law. Dr Mundy's report is important. We respect the findings. We know that there have been so many reviews, so many inquiries. Unfortunately, under the last government we saw very little investment in the legal services sector. We had community legal services, in particular, here many times, before many budgets, asking for assistance—assistance that never came.

Unlike the Liberals when they were in charge, this government is listening to the legal assistance sector. After a decade of neglect, the Attorney-General is working incredibly hard to ensure that we can invest more money in the sector. We have invested $270 million more in legal assistance funding since the October 2022 budget. That funding is incredibly important for legal assistance services. I acknowledge the very sincere way in which Senator Thorpe moved this motion, but it's not true to say that the government is not providing additional funding to legal assistance. We have done so since the October 2022 budget.

We also announced in this budget, very importantly, $44.1 million of urgent funding to assist legal assistance providers to address current resource and workforce issues until the new NLAP commences on 1 July 2025. This was an important injection of urgent funding, exactly what the sector needs at this time to ensure that there isn't a gap before the new NLAP commences. We'll continue to work with the sector and the states and territories towards a better agreement than those opposite delivered. We know that it's important that we work with the states and territories on how we can combat family violence and how we can provide the legal services assistance that is so desperately needed.

Just on the partnership, while I have a short amount of time left, it was really important that there was a review. It is really important that we get the funding agreement right. That is what our government is working incredibly hard to do. We are taking the findings of the report into consideration, and we'll make sure that we respond to the themes that it covered, including increased investment in access to justice and sustainable sector reform and funding arrangements to ensure that we can have sustainable services into the future. (Time expired)

4:59 pm

Photo of Jacinta Nampijinpa PriceJacinta Nampijinpa Price (NT, Country Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition opposes this motion, and the first reason is to do with Dr Mundy's review itself. There are significant fair and legitimate criticisms of the Mundy review. Dr Warren Mundy was first commissioned over 10 years ago, by the then Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, to conduct a report into the legal sector during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd days. In both reviews, Dr Mundy adopted an access-to-justice approach.

The reality is: this review has been informed by stakeholders with entrenched political and vested interests. That is why it's appropriate to apply scrutiny to it and examine its true independence.

The review recommends that taxpayer money be spent on things like the community legal centres engaging in law reform and advocacy rather than assisting clients. Fifty-nine per cent of CLCs wanted to be funded to spend somewhere between one and three days per fortnight solely devoted to advocacy work; 25 per cent of CLCs wanted funding for up to 50 per cent of their time to be spent on advocacy and also in an attempt to support LGBT Australians and the legal needs of sex workers.

This is not to say that the whole report should be disregarded. It makes important recommendations: for example, the competing interests of Legal Aid and family violence prevention legal services. Often, these groups are in direct competition. So there's a need to get the balance right regarding this funding; it warrants close attention. However, given some of the more overt political aspects, it needs to be interrogated in a robust way and approached with a degree of scepticism.

The NLAP was set up by the coalition government and the review was commissioned for the purpose of renegotiating the NLAP. A key tenet of the NLAP scheme as set out by the coalition was that it required full buy-in from states and territories and thereby recognised that the funding for legal services was not simply the responsibility of the Commonwealth but, rather, a joint effort. This is another reason we do not support this motion: it undermines that partnership that is the foundation of this scheme.

The current government is doing a terrible job, mind you, of administering NLAP. We don't need to look any further than what's happening with the spectacular failings of NAAJA in the Northern Territory, where there have been over 90 unrepresented clients since October 2023, 27 of whom have been remanded due to inadequate service delivery at NAAJA and not enough lawyers in place. A grant controller was established in December 2023 because NAAJA, in fact, was not administering funds appropriately. The Federal Court recently found that former CEO Priscilla Atkins was unfairly dismissed by the board after she raised allegations of corruption against the financial officer at NAAJA. The recent chair of the board, Hugh Woodbury, was appointed to his position in March 2024 when the board knew that he had pled guilty to charges of domestic violence against his pregnant partner in 2020. The deputy chair of the board, Colleen Rosas, admitted that NAAJA rejected requests from the NIAA and the Northern Territory government to observe NAAJA board meetings. Leeanne Caton, the deputy chief executive and the most senior female executive, left NAAJA on 21 June 2024, only five months after coming in to the position. There were notices issued by the Northern Territory government to recoup approximately $2.69 million unspent from NAAJA. An audit is of course being undertaken regarding NAAJA's possible misuse of funding.

The redirection of any funding under the NLAP, as sought by Senator Thorpe, should reflect the agreement of states and territories in accordance with how the NLAP was founded. This motion is not a productive or an effective way of achieving this, and that's why the coalition will not support this motion.

5:03 pm

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to say that I, together with my colleague Senator Cox, support this motion. I thank Senator Thorpe for bringing it to the chamber.

On 5 March this year, the Attorney-General received the Mundy report into NLAP, a report the government itself commissioned—an independent report commissioned by the government, to work out how to fix the crumbling Legal Aid, CLC, First Nations legal services and domestic violence legal services across the country.

This was an independent report from a highly-credentialed expert who knew his stuff. He went out and he spoke to all of those services. He consulted in detail with them. He looked at hundreds of submissions and saw the crying need. At the core of the recommendations that came back in the Mundy report is an urgent need, in this financial year that's just started, for an additional $215 million in urgent funding, just to stop services collapsing. That's the shortfall that's been caused in the sector by a disgraceful lack of funding by the coalition government over the last decade. So, it's no wonder coalition senators come in here and oppose this motion, because they are, in large part, responsible for the crisis we see in the sector.

You might think $215 million is a lot of money, and for any one individual or any one organisation it's of course a huge amount of money. But for a government that's willing to spend $45,000 billion on a couple of ships? Or $368,000 million on nuclear submarines? You're telling me you can't find $215 million to fund community legal services, Aboriginal legal services, domestic violence legal services? You're telling me that can't be found? This is about choices.

Instead of $215 million, what did we get from the government? Well, after interrogating them at length in budget estimates, we found out that the total additional funding that the government is offering to the sector this year is $44 million, and most of that is just an indexation to keep up with this year's inflation. It's not just treading water but watching the sector slowly drown over the next 12 months. That's what the Albanese Labor government have offered. And when we're talking about $215 million, of course it's a lot of money, but this year the government chose to have a $9 billion surplus. This is a $9 billion surplus, paid for in part by First Nations women who can't get legal support when they're leaving domestic and family violence. That's, in part, how this surplus is being paid for. The government knew this. I want to repeat: the Attorney-General had this report from 5 March—months of time—in order to put into the budget the $215 million needed to save the sector.

This report says that the sector can't wait and that, without some urgent injection of funds from the Commonwealth, this next 12 months will see disastrous job losses, service cuts and, potentially, the closure of a series of critical services. I've been around the country and spoken to many of these services. I remember being in Tasmania and talking with some of the women's legal services. They said they can't deal with the scale of the problem. Many of them just get legal funding. But when a woman walks into a domestic violence legal service in Tasmania, they often don't just have a legal problem; they've got a counselling problem, a financial problem and a housing problem. They've got this package of problems. Again, the Mundy report says, provide the wraparound services, fund these services as though women are full human beings, not just a legal problem, and the same for First Nations legal services. Legal problems don't walk in the door of these centres; human beings, with complex problems, walk in the door, and that's what should be funded.

I want to highlight some of the recommendations that were ignored. Recommendation 17 of the Mundy report was that an additional $12 million to ATSILS and $4 million to family violence prevention legal services should be funded. What did the government give? Not one cent. Recommendation 18 said that $44 million is needed for legal aid. And what did the government give towards that independent recommendation from the independent report about legal aid for the next 12 months? Not one cent. There's a chance for the government to turn this around, but it requires money, it requires listening and it requires implementing this independent report.

5:08 pm

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise, as Senator Shoebridge said, to support this motion that has been brought by Senator Thorpe here today and echo my colleagues' comments. Family violence prevention legal services do an important job, as we have heard during the course of the inquiry into the missing and murdered First Nations women and children. For 25 years these organisations have been going—since 1988. The reason they were put together is that the victims and victims-survivors of violence needed a specialised and culturally safe place and the support that was necessary on the back of the Aboriginal legal services being in place, because there was a perceived conflict of interest, or a professional conflict of interest, that women, particularly victims-survivors, who needed that support were up against alleged offenders in the justice system.

These essential services are a beacon, as Senator Shoebridge and others in this chamber here tonight have already said. These services are essential. And what we heard in the course of this inquiry was that it isn't just about family violence; it is about housing and it is about child protection. It comes with a whole raft of issues and experiences that these women have had. We tell these women: 'Come forward. Come to services. Come and disclose.' To who, when these services are not funded to the adequate level? The Mundy review goes right to the heart of that—the $215 million that Senator Shoebridge just talked about. We ask them to come forward, and then we criminalise those women. We criminalise them through the systemic failures that have been in place under the family violence and child protection regime in this country.

The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum said they need an urgent injection of $100 million in the sector. Some of these services do work that is outside of the contracts that the Commonwealth currently provide. They are providing, in a huge gap, essential services that are missing in our communities. They have got wraparound for their victims-survivors, and it's not just immediate. They've got long-term clients who have lost family members due to homicides. That's what we heard during the inquiry. These families need ongoing help. These are families that are coming interstate to seek out services because services are not funded in some states and territories. Services are not operating, and they're not willing or able to support our women and children. This destroys the heart of what's happening in our communities.

5:11 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a national disgrace that, in the middle of a crisis of family and domestic violence, with 47 women murdered so far this year—almost two per week—we have more than a thousand people being turned away every day from community legal services in this country.

This morning I attended a roundtable organised by the member for Goldstein, from the other place, with frontline family and domestic violence service providers from around the country. They are despairing at their funding shortfalls. Here in the ACT, DVCS is facing a $1.6 million hole in their operating budget after the federal government didn't increase funding for services that are more in demand than ever. They're already at a point where they can't answer every call. This means that even more cries for help are going unanswered. Last week I met with a huge delegation from the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, who told the same story of overstretched resources and being unable to meet demand.

I was proud to sign onto Senator Thorpe's letter to attorneys-general this morning. I thank her for putting forward this urgency motion today. I do not understand how or why a government can commission an independent review, receive a report saying that $215.3 million is urgently needed to sustain critical legal services until a new agreement can commence and then only provide only $41.4 million in the budget—a fifth of what is needed and a fifth of what has been recommended by a report that you commissioned. In the same budget, $45 million has been provided to explain the stage 3 tax cuts to Australians. Apparently, this is stage 3 tax cuts week; that's all the government has wanted to speak about. Australians would be horrified to know that they have a government that is spending more on advertising stage 3 tax cuts to Australians than they've provided in additional funding to overstretched community legal services around the country.

The government have to step up and match their soaring rhetoric of ending family and domestic violence in a decade with the measures that need to go alongside that for there to be any chance of that happening. How can you have a report telling you the breadth and depth of the problem, and the funding required, and then just put in a little bit and say, 'Here you go. Thanks for the work you do. Good luck with it'?

I understand the budget's under pressure. We know that. We also know that we're happy to give our gas away for free. When the government has the petroleum resource rent tax and the Treasury recommends changes to get more from this gas that we're happy to give away to multinationals to be shipped overseas, with no PRRT and very little corporate tax paid, the government goes for the weakest and most cowardly option. They say: 'We'll just bring forward some of those payments. We don't need more to be able to fund the sorts of services that women and children desperately need around this country.' I think this is shameful. Thank you, Senator Thorpe, for raising this. The government needs to step up and do better.

5:16 pm

Photo of Tammy TyrrellTammy Tyrrell (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Thorpe, for affording us the opportunity to speak on the funding shortfall for legal assistance services. People going through their most vulnerable moments are being turned away from legal assistance services because these services just don't have enough resources or funding to help everyone who needs them.

Imagine how you would feel if that was you in one of the worst situations of your life. It might be a domestic violence situation, a relationship breakdown or maybe even a criminal offence done out of desperation. You've been broken down. You've been pushed to your absolute limits. You just need someone to talk to you to help make sense of it all, and then you're told that no-one can help you. What is someone supposed to do in that situation? Legal assistance services don't want to turn people away. It's heartbreaking for the staff at these services to say no to people who desperately need their help, but there are only so many of them and only so many hours in a day.

Governments past and present have failed to ensure that legal assistance services have adequate funding. These services are running on the smell of an oily rag. They're struggling not only to keep the lights on in their offices but also to pay their staff the wages they deserve. Funding for legal assistance services has been indexed by only 1.9 per cent over the past five years. This means that the services have basically been watching their funding go backwards. Staff are being poached to work in private firms that can offer attractive salaries and better working hours. Tassie has one of the lowest ratios of legal practitioners per population in the entire country. There are just not enough lawyers to go around, so when someone leaves legal aid or community legal services to go to work for a private firm, there's no-one to fill the gap. It's hard to persuade people to come and work in beautiful Tassie when you can only offer a short-term contract on less attractive wages.

The Mundy review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 has highlighted all of these issues and more. The review estimates the funding shortfall for legal assistance services right now is around $215 million. That's not small change. The Labor government say they help the most vulnerable people in our communities and that no-one will be left behind but, because of their failure to adequately fund these services, thousands of people are being left behind every single day. For these people, the consequences of not receiving help could be devastating. That's why all attorneys-general from every state and territory, including the federal Attorney-General, need to urgently commit to funding legal assistance services to the levels the Mundy review recommended. Every day they don't means more people will be at risk.

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Thorpe be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells being rung—

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

What? I thought the ayes had it.

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They called for a division, Senator Thorpe.

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you want to cancel the division?

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Cancel it. Come on!

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Cancel the division. The original call will apply.

Question agreed to.