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Tuesday, 16 November 1976
Page: 2689

Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The proposition for debate at the moment deserves repeating, that is, the systematic dismantling of the Australian Legal Aid Office by the Government. In the last couple of minutes the Attorney-General (Mr Ellicott) has conceded that in fact that is his very definite intention. He has expressed it. He has come out into the open.

Mr Baillieu - That is nonsense.

Mr Antony Whitlam (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) -When the honourable member checks Hansard later on he will see that that is what the Attorney-General said. It is the one promise of the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) on which he is going to perform. He promised to abolish theAustralian Legal Aid Office and he will. Let me deal with some of the curious arguments raised by the Attorney-General, not in any particularly logical order but in the order in which he raised them. First of all, he said that the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr Lionel Bowen) in raising this matter for debate was trying to stop the Government establishing adequate and proper legal aid services. 'Adequate and proper'- the old code words. Let us consider the legal aid services which existed in Australia before 1973. With the exception of New South Wales, such services hardly existed at all, and in New South Wales they were a very confusing mish-mash of different governmental schemes and private practitioners' schemes. Legal aid did not grow up in a vacuum in 1 973. It grew up to meet a real human need, and it was opposed at every turn by the then Opposition, which is now in Government. It was opposed by the Attorney-General when he was in Opposition and by every one of his colleagues. If one examines what the Attorney-General said today, their interest first and foremost is that of private practitioners and never of those who are the clients of proper legal aid services.

The Attorney-General then raised the curious proposition that in the Budget this year there has been some increase in the budgetary figure for the Australian Legal Aid Office. He knows that in real terms there has been no increase in the allocation above the expenditure by the Office last year. Of course, the truth is that in February, when the Attorney-General suspended all development and future expansion of the Legal Aid Office, he cut back considerably on its proposed development- development proposed by the Australian Labor Government and voted for by this Parliament. When this Parliament appropriated funds for the establishment of new regional offices and for the employment of additional staff in Legal Aid Offices, those funds were supposed to be spent for those purposes, but in February the Attorney-General cut those funds. He ordered that they should not be spent.

The Attorney-General went on to refer- I should have thought that he would be rather ashamed of it- to the $60 fee he has imposed on applications in divorce. This is the divorce tax introduced by this Government, a revenue opportunity from the other people's misery. What a great piece of revenue gathering it is. As I recall it, and I have not got the Budget papers here with me, it presents a revenue opportunity of about $2m. To suggest that that will finance legal aid in this country, even at its present inadequate level is, of course nonsense. It will do nothing of the sort. It will make no impact on it. In fact, the Attorney-General has proposed to apply a $60 fee not simply on applications for divorce but on ancillary proceedings for maintenance and custody, and it was only because there was a leak of information and the newspapers got wind of it that the Attorney-General was stopped from further pursuing this iniquitous way of financing -in part, he tells us- legal aid in Australia.

Next and most curiously, the AttorneyGeneral referred to the fact that increasing numbers of matters were undertaken by the Legal Aid Office during the past year and that that reflected an increase in activity. I put it to the Attorney-General that, as he would be well aware, where there is a staff freeze and the same number of staff is conducting more interviews and dealing with more matters, in a legal office that is not a reflection of an increase in productivity. It is a reflection of the fact that less thoughtful time is being spent in counselling the people who have come to discuss their legal needs and in providing assistance to them. The Attorney-General ought to know that big law offices charge on a time basis, and from the sort of statistics he has given to the House today it is quite apparent that less time than is necessary is being spent by staff in Australian Legal Aid Offices branches in counselling their clients. Yet he said, with a touch of pride, that those statistics reflect a wonderful performance by the Fraser Government. In fact the truth is the contrary.

The Attorney-General referred to the staff security of officers employed in the Australian Legal Aid Office. He made great play on the fact that he put it to the Law Council of Australia in no uncertain terms that he was not in the business of putting people out of jobs and that officers of the Legal Aid Office had to be looked after. If that is the position that gives the lie to his rationale for stopping expansion of legal aid officers. In February when the Attorney-General suspended the development of offices that had been proposed, and already undertaken and in relation to which certain expenditure had already been incurred he said that he could not have this, that it would lead to too much staff insecurity. In fact, it is the old story- it is fiddling while Rome burns. He may become known as easy going Ellicott' but in his provision of legal aid services he will never be known as 'bustling Bob*. These offices were thought to be necessary. If they had been established and if he is genuine in what he says about officers employed in them being able to be transferred to State legal aid commissions, of course he would have been able to do that at the same time as he established the new offices.

The Attorney-General referred to the fact that the Labor Government had established the Australian Legal Aid office in 1973 and had cast the officers into bare offices to dispense legal aid. I wonder why that happened? That happened because no offices existed before that time- 23 years of Tory Government in Australia had not acknowledged legal aid as a proper subject for the provision of funds by this Parliament. The Labor Government set about rearranging that priority. It established legal aid offices. Of course, they-were bare offices with bare floor boards and without carpets because they were new offices. It was not a matter of being able to improve or touch up some existing legal aid services. None had existed. This was a situation of satisfaction perhaps to those who back the Liberal Party and National Country Party in this Parliament, but not of much help to the many people who have since the establishment of the Office, shown very clearly the necessity for it by taking their problems there, especially to the offices in easy convenient locations in major country and suburban centres.

The Attorney-General has a fixation about the relationship of the Australian Legal Aid Office with private practitioners. I do not suppose there would be any sociologist in Australia who would not be able to establish very clearly that lawyers must be about the most conservative people in our community. Doctors may run them very close but lawyers would certainly be up there with them. I do not think that if we fiddled with any existing scheme we would not discover lawyers who were not disturbed about it. Of course they are. The Attorney-General spoke about Liberal initiatives. He pointed out that he had established casual conferences between members of the Australian Legal Aid Office and persons in the private practitioner schemes- in fact, the people who run the law societies in several States and Territories. In fact, of course, the major initiative of the Liberal Party and National Country Party during the establishment of the Legal Aid Office was to institute a challenge in the High Court of Australia with the fiat of the Victorian Attorney-General to seek to dismantle the Australian Legal Aid Office. They did that at a time when they had not even half-baked plans to establish anything in its place. The fact is that the Attorney-General's intention to establish legal aid commissions in each of the States is nothing more than an attempt to hand over legal aid to the private profession.

I do not seek here to deprecate those persons in the private profession who are providing services of a legal aid nature. But it has been shown time and time again in Australia that this type of service simply is not adequate. To hand over any legal aid in Australia again to a group controlled by the private profession will simply not be good enough. To talk about its being done on a State by State basis does not help much either. If we look at what has happened in Western Australiathis is a scheme with which the AttorneyGeneral is quite satisfied- we will see that it will be controlled by the private profession.

I do not have the time to go through every one of the points raised by the Attorney-General. But I think it extraordinary when he talks about the multiplicity of sources from which people can seek legal aid in New South Wales- perhaps not unnaturally his obsession has been with New South Wales because that is one State in which there ever was any attempt to provide a salaried service- he talks about clients being confused. I can tell the Attorney-General now that my constituents are confused about going to the branch legal aid office at which they formerly were able to get legal aid because they are now being turned away as a result of the means test which he has imposed. They are being turned away as a result of a tightening of the means test. The Attorney-General talks about lawyers not being supposed to impose a means test- of lawyers having to administer a means test that he has made so harsh.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.

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