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Issue #1733      June 1, 2016

More of the same …

Legal services hit by cuts in Federal Budget

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have categorised the Federal Budget as “more of the same”, with little-to-no focus on Indigenous organisations or programs. The most positive assessment seemed to be that the 2015/16 Budget wasn’t as cruel and harsh as the two previous Coalition efforts, essentially a banging-your-head-against-a-brick-wall announcement.

However, Indigenous legal services were cut even further and the widely-criticised Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) received no extra money.

Family and domestic violence prevention experts are also concerned that, despite a recent focus, there were no specific Indigenous organisations funded.

And, as expected, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples received no financial support, which in all likelihood means the organisation will have to close by the end of the year, unless Labor wins the July 2 election and decides to fund it.

Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) chair Hewitt Whyman said funding for Aboriginal legal services around the country was being reduced by nearly 6%, with the cuts to begin in July 2017, with additional decreases each year after that.

“We’re particularly concerned about children,” he said. “Yes, some kids get into scuffs with police and the law, just as any kid does, just like I did.

“Our kids need the opportunity to move on past minor incidents so that they can finish school, go to university, and become the person they want to be.

“Instead, and this makes me so sad, the government is reducing our funding, which means there are less lawyers available to assist our kids.”

ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Gary Oliver said Australia has a dubious reputation for locking up Aboriginal kids.

“In fact Western Australia is locking them up faster than the rate they lock up black people in America,” he said. “Our legal services can barely keep up with states and territory police rates of arrest now over the most minor of offences – what will it be like with funding cuts and less frontline staff?

“Significant drop”

“The significant drop in funding we’re facing next year will mean Australia’s poorest, more disadvantaged, and most needy, will have to renege their right to natural justice before the courts.

“In NSW alone we estimate some 4,800 Aboriginal men, women and children in one year alone will miss out on legal assistance, and with continued decreases over the next few years, even more will be turned away.

“This is made even worse when other legal assistance providers such as Legal Aid and community legal centres are also facing funding cuts by the Federal Government.”

National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service (FVPLS) convenor Antoinette Braybrook said Indigenous victims of violence were invisible in the Budget.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from family violence and 10 times more likely to die of violent assault than other women. The question must be asked why there is no targeted action to address this crisis,” she said.

“The Budget includes $100 million over three years on initiatives to reduce violence against women and their children. This is inadequate to meet the needs of women fleeing violence for their safety. It is also silent on a specific allocation of funding on programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Without targeted investment in services like FVPLS the horrific disproportionate impact of violence against women will only get worse.”

Congress co-chair Rod Little said he was concerned that the $500 million in funding cuts rolled out in the 2014 Budget are still affecting Indigenous people today.

“We encourage the government to work positively to limit the damage and devastation which resulted from the chaotic rollout of the IAS,” he said.

“The Budget includes a specific allocation of $14.6 million to the Recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution, which includes another $5 million to the Recognise campaign. But while the government fails to recognise the representative voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the National Congress, this initiative lacks substance. Without a relationship with Indigenous peoples Constitutional Recognition will remain problematic.”

Professor Peter Buckskin said the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC) welcomed the announcement outlining its continuing commitment and financial support for securing increased success for Indigenous people in higher education.

“Combining funding for the Commonwealth-Scholarships Program, Indigenous Support Program and tutorial assistance into a single flexible program will maximise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes,” he said. “It is gratifying to note these funds have not been subject to savings measures.”

Health organisations, including the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and the Australian Medical Association, said the freeze on Medicare (where, despite inflation rising, government payments to doctors will remain the same) had the potential to adversely affect Indigenous people.

SNAICC (Secretariat for Aboriginal and Islander Child Care) said there was “little surprising news for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector, with no new funding secured for long-standing priorities”.

SNAICC chief executive Gerry Moore said he was disappointed at the overall lack of focus on the Indigenous sector by the federal government, and he called for “a renewed whole-of-government effort towards meeting Australia’s agreed Close The Gap targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

Koori Mail

Next article – Legal Aid Matters

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