SUBJECTS: Liberals’ cuts to community legal centres; Liberals’ infighting; penalty rates.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well thanks very much for coming out this morning and thank you to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre for welcoming us to their offices. We’ve got a very important funding cliff coming up in the area of community legal centres and it’s my pleasure to welcome to the electorate today our Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, to talk about this important issue. I’m very fortunate in my electorate to have a number of local and state-wide community legal centres that help people with all sorts of issues. With fines, with domestic violence, with family law, with issues around homelessness, with issues around discrimination based on sexuality or gender or race. These community legal centres help thousands of people every year, and they do it on the smell of an oily rag. Now they’re facing, on top of the people they’re already turning away, they’re facing further cuts which will make it even harder for them to help people who are in desperate need of legal services, and of course it’ll also make it much harder for community legal centres to do the other important part of their work, which is to give policy advice to government. People who are at the front line of providing legal services are in a great position to suggest changes to laws that make life fairer and simpler and easier for people. Thanks very much Mark.

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much Tanya. It’s a pleasure to be here at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre here in Sydney. This is the launch, the national launch, of a campaign that every Labor member of the Federal Parliament will be participating in - working with community legal centres to try to get the Government to reverse extraordinarily ill-considered cuts. A 30 percent cut across the board to community legal centres, and it’s a cut that’s been coming for a long time. It was first announced in the 2014 Budget, it was put off, it was intended to come in on 1 July 2015, it was put off thanks to campaigning and agitation across the country, by community legal centres and by everybody in Australia who realises just how important the work that’s done by community legal centres is. Unfortunately, the Government seems set on a course that that cut, that 30 percent across the board cut, is going to come in on 1 July 2017. We are calling on the Government to reverse that cut, indeed, what should be happening to deal with massive unmet legal need across the country is that there should be an increase in resources for the legal assistance sector. It is not in doubt that the work that is done in community legal centres, the work that is done by the legal assistance sector, is of immense value to the Australian legal community.

I want to say to everyone here, from PIAC and other people from other community legal centres, that we, in the Labor party at least, recognise that the best and most difficult legal work that is done in the country is done in community legal centres and in the legal assistance sector. We value not only the work that’s done, we value the advice we get from the community legal centres about what reforms could be made to the Australian legal system, something that the Australian Government, the current Australian Government, seems to have completely failed to understand because they’ve tried to ban advocacy being conducted by legal centres or by the legal assistance sector. It’s something that we will continue to work on, it’s something that I’m at a loss to understand, why the Government has persisted with this cut. I know that local MPs, and I include in that Coalition MPs, understand just how valuable the work is that’s done for their communities by legal assistance and by community legal centres. I’d end on this topic by saying it is hollow for the Government to be saying that it supports action on family violence. Of course we welcome the Government’s efforts, it’s bipartisan, we welcome the Government’s efforts to do more for family violence, but it is hollow if the Government, at the same time as saying that it is taking action in relation to family violence, is cutting front-line services. Because make no mistake, cutting community legal centres is cutting services at the front-line, it is leading to a denial of services to hundreds of thousands of Australians, that’s what the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars by individual centres across NSW, right across the country, is going to lead to.

I want to mention something else that’s in the news this morning, which is, of course, perhaps an explanation of why this Attorney-General’s too busy to pay any attention at all to community legal centres, he’s too busy because he’s covering up what he’s done in relation to the Bell legislation, a dirty deal he did with the Western Australian Government. He’s been caught out, I think that’s the correct thing to say, he’s been caught out lying to the Australian Parliament, again, in the way he has sought to conceal his role in avoiding the Commonwealth from challenging Western Australian law that would’ve gutted Australian taxpayers about $300 million or more. He’s been caught out and the Prime Minister must now call on him to make a complete and proper explanation, which thus far he has failed to do, and I think we know why he’s trying to cover up his role. I’m going to hand us briefly to Linda Tucker, from Community Legal Centres NSW, just to talk a little bit about the effect that’s going to be experienced here in NSW by community legal centres. Thanks very much.

LINDA TUCKER, CHAIR CLC NSW: Thanks Mark, thanks Tanya, and we absolutely welcome the commitment of both State and Federal Labor in relation to the cuts that we are facing, given July, and in NSW that would mean a cut of $2.9 million, which possibly doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but that’s simply because we operate incredibly efficiently, we are extraordinarily effective as centres, but across Australia, we are turning away an enormous number of people, as Mark was just saying, while we’re helping, across Australia, well over 200,000 people a year, doing all this great work at a local level, community level, and also at a national level, we had to turn away around 160,000 people. So we’re helping an enormous amount but we are already turning away the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our community. In NSW, there’s a range of cuts at centres that have nothing left to cut. It will mean turning away more people, so that $2.9 million translates into an extraordinary loss of service, and losing people within centres, and losing the capacity to deal with the most vulnerable people doesn’t just mean a loss of services, that is a cost to health, it is a cost to community cohesion, it is extraordinary levels of damage that can be done when you lose those services.

And yes, as both Tanya and Mark say, we are great advocates in relation to systemic changes, that can achieve great benefits for all members of our community, and we provide an enormous range of services as well. So when that person comes in with that DV issue, those family violence issues, and which of course we welcome the continuation of that funding, they also have tenancy issues, they may be made homeless, they’ll have credit and debt issues, they may be getting discriminated against or facing issues in their work. Because we work really well on bugger-all money, and we work cohesively, collaboratively, and we are extremely agile and intelligent in the way that we do our work, that those victims of DV, all of those services will be helped. That means that families help, that families that’re made homeless, and so those losses that could be incurred at all levels, in all communities. DV affects us in all levels of our society, no matter what the background. Those impacts are felt across such a large scale, and we can help prevent that, so it is a saving. It is a good economic argument, and it is a good social justice argument.  

DREYFUS: Thanks Linda.

PLIBERSEK: Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Do you have any comments on the infighting between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott that we saw recently?

PLIBERSEK: Well it’s just extraordinary isn’t it. While ever Malcolm Turnbull is fighting for his survival, he’s not fighting for Australian jobs, for a stronger economy, for a fairer society. Malcolm Turnbull’s only about his own survival and Tony Abbott has broken cover. This isn’t trench warfare anymore, this is a full-frontal assault. And, based on Malcolm Turnbull’s previous behaviour, we expect him to roll over and ask Tony Abbott to tickle his tummy. What really worries me about the policy agenda that Tony Abbott has laid out is that it’s not just Tony Abbott’s policy agenda, based on past experience tomorrow it’ll be Malcolm Turnbull’s policy agenda as well.

JOURNALIST: Is this not hypocritical after the tumultuous Rudd-Gillard years we’ve seen?

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, you really would’ve thought that people would learn that a party that is fighting itself will be punished by the Australian people. We have certainly learnt that lesson, we have learnt that lesson in spades. It’s a shame that the current Government has not.

JOURNALIST: In relation to cuts to community legal centres, you’ve raised concerns about advocacy being stifled by the Government, can you make some comments about that?

DREYFUS: This is, of course, something that is now in place, firmly in place. The Government put clauses in the funding agreements for community legal centres after it came to office in September 2013, which actually ban community legal centres from engaging in what the Government describes as advocacy. Other, ordinary Australians would think of this as helpful suggestions, helpful engagement in law reform by people who are best placed to actually make those suggestions, as to how the system can be changed so that instead of simply providing a legal service to a single client, or perhaps to a couple of dozen clients, changes can be made to the legal system which help thousands of Australians. I can’t think of a better source of advice for law reform than community legal centres, certainly if we are returned to government we will be immediately removing that ban on advocacy, because I want encourage, not ban, I want to encourage community legal centres and people in the legal assistance sector to speak out.

JOURNALIST: And just on penalty rates, Labor’s been critical of the Fair Work Commission’s recent decision on cutting penalty rates. How can the Coalition be blamed for this decision by the Fair Work Commission?

DREYFUS: I think I’ll let the Deputy Leader answer that.

PLIBERSEK: Well thank you. This Government could have put in a submission to the Fair Work Commission and argued to protect people’s take home pay. Let’s be clear about what’s happened with this decision yesterday – some of the lowest paid workers in the country have had up to thousands of dollars taken away from them. A worker could lose up to $77 a week, that’s over $4,000 a year. Again, these are some of the lowest-paid workers in the country already. This Government has said they’re on their own. They could have put in a submission, they didn’t. Labor will continue to fight this decision, fight it in the Commission, and fight it in the Parliament because we believe that people should get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That if you are giving up time with your family and friends on the weekend, if you are working unsocial hours, if you are missing out on community connections, celebrations at home, your friends getting together, your kids’ sport, then you deserve extra pay for that. This Government has more than 60 members that are on the record arguing for cuts to penalty rates, at the same time as they’re all arguing for a $50 billion big business tax cut. It shows where their priorities are. Low paid workers are on their own, but big business can expect a handout. Thanks, everyone.