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Thursday, 19 June 2014
Page: 6764

Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsDeputy Manager of Opposition Business) (16:39): Prime Minister Abbott recently described himself as a conservationist. This absurd claim would be hilarious if the damage the Abbott government is inflicting on the environment were not so serious. Callous disregard for the environment extends to all corners of this destructive government, and the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, is no exception.

Environmental Defenders Offices, EDOs, are community legal centres which operate in each state and territory. They are small, highly dedicated organisations which work to protect the environment through law. They provide the community with legal advice and representation in public interest environmental matters. They work towards the improvement of our environmental laws and regulations. They are in a real sense the environment's own legal team.

Hardworking EDO lawyers, who forgo the remuneration available in private practice to work in the public interest, fulfil the highest ideals of the legal profession. I have had the privilege to meet with staff from most of Australia's EDOs during my time as Attorney-General and shadow Attorney-General. Regrettably, Senator Brandis has not seen fit to do the same. Senator Brandis went so far as to question in estimates earlier this year whether some of the invaluable work the EDOs perform is 'worthy'.

After Senator Brandis's conservative colleagues in the Queensland and New South Wales state governments slashed funding to EDOs, the former Commonwealth Labor government stepped in. As Attorney-General, I delivered $10 million of funding to the EDOs to make sure they could continue their work. This was the largest increase in funding ever received by these organisations. I wanted EDOs to be able to continue to protect endangered species, prevent pollution, assist farmers with land-use issues and support proper urban planning.

On taking government, however, Senator Brandis moved quickly to unravel the Labor government's good work. In December he advised all EDOs that they would not be receiving the additional $2.5 million each year that was already committed and contracted for by the Labor government. In his trademark style, Senator Brandis did not actually consult with the organisations he was attacking, although he admitted in estimates that he had been in contact with the Minerals Council of Australia on the issue of EDO funding. This government like to talk about how brave they are and how they courageously take tough decisions, but they never have the guts or even the common courtesy to front up to those their policies hurt.

Senator Brandis ripped away the $10 million of total funding already committed to EDOs citing a 'change in policy'. Good governments think before they act, but Senator Brandis has admitted that his government conducted no assessment of the economic or social benefits of funding EDO services. This is a strange way for a supposedly grown-up government to go about making policy. Senator Brandis claims that his funding cut 'fulfils an election promise', but he certainly did not own up to planning an attack on environmental protection services before Australia went to the polls in September last year.

The EDOs are lean, resourceful and hardy organisations. They are used to setbacks and they will not give up easily. I know that they are working hard to find alternate funding, and I wish them well in this endeavour. I hope that the wider community will band together to support their important work. If we had a government which recognised the value of community legal services, which cared for the environment and which was not afraid of non-government organisations which speak out in the public interest, the EDOs would not be in this position. If we had an Attorney-General who did his duty and spoke up in cabinet for the worth of community lawyers, the EDOs would be able to spend their time protecting this country's environment rather than fundraising.