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Issue #1695      July 29, 2015

TAC issues warning

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre TAS (TAC) has warned the federal government’s decision last month to award Aboriginal legal service funding for Tasmania to the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) may be a sign of things to come. “This could well be the tip of the iceberg for the Abbott government, and have a domino effect in getting rid of all our community-controlled organisations throughout Australia,” TAC acting chief executive Pat Turner warned.

VALS chief executive Wayne Muir has confirmed his organisation signed a five-year funding contract, and measures are in place, which includes significant assistance from Legal Aid, to begin operations in three locations in Tasmania from July 1. Muir said VALS applied for the funding after being contacted by the Commonwealth, a number of individuals and four Tasmanian Aboriginal organisations, whose identity he would not reveal, because VALS feared the contract would be awarded to a non-Aboriginal provider.

He said that when the current “feeling” died down he would be more than happy to work with the TAC. “We understand the upset. If the shoe was on the other foot we would be upset too,” he said.

It’s a major blow to the TAC, whose legal service has been operating for 42 years, offers a range of integrated services, has been instrumental in significant legislative reform, has longstanding professional relationships with Tasmania’s justice system, employs 15 staff and has 606 open cases, many now in the courts.

Turner spoke of one of those relationships, where an arrangement is in place for a TAC legal field officer to be notified whenever an Aboriginal person is arrested and put in the lock-up, as recommended in the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

She said there have been no Aboriginal deaths in custody in Tasmania since.

The TAC believes an interstate provider will be unable to duplicate community control and self-determination in the delivery of service, because they lack local knowledge and long-standing trust.

It rejects claims by the Attorney General’s Department of ongoing concerns about compliance, saying it has never been in breach. Ms Turner said the TAC was working to keep the Aboriginal Legal Service in Palawa hands.

High-profile legal professionals and politicians have rallied behind the TAC’s push to have the funding decision overturned.

Former judge Pierre Slicer, who helped set up the TAC legal service, has offered to come out of retirement to help on the campaign.

Tasmanian Law Society president Matthew Verney said the decision had been made without proper consideration, and he warned of more incarceration.

Tasmanian Greens leader Cassie O’Conner says it is the most disrespectful decision to ever come out of Canberra and a blow to Aboriginal self-determination.

Former Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings said the decision was an attack on the TAC, and that Abbott was trying to muzzle it.

Ms Turner encourages people on mainland Australia to sign and circulate a petition on change.org

Comment has been sought from the Attorney-General.

* Jillian Mundy is on the State Committee of the TAC.

Koori Mail

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