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Profile of new Director of the ACT Council of Social Services

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Tomorrow, the ACT Council of Social Services will conduct a day long conference on social justice in the ACT. And the Council will also introduce its new Director, solicitor, Alan Anforth, who takes over from the high profile John Tomlinson, who's on a Churchill Fellowship to the US. Alan is a former senior public servant and has been actively involved in ACTCOSS for many years, and he's come with me into the studio this morning, to preview tomorrow's conference and to spell out some of the issues he believes will confront the Council in the coming months.

Alan, good morning, and congratulations on your appointment. Alan, can we just start with a little bit about Alan Anforth. Who are you?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, as you've indicated, Matt, I have been in Canberra for years. I came to Canberra in 1980 in the public service, and prior to that I'd been in the public service in New South Wales. I worked as a legal officer in the public service until the mid-1980s, and I left after holding positions in the director and SES level and went into private practice in Canberra. Shortly thereafter, I went to the Welfare Rights Centre where I was a director of the Welfare Rights Centre for a number of years, and I've been involved in ACTCOSS and other community agencies for most of my life, in Canberra. And more recently I was a partner in a firm in Canberra and have, as you've indicated, just elected to take up the position of Director of ACTCOSS.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What steered you in the direction of social issues?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, I've always had a bent in that direction. I have reasonably deeply held political and social beliefs and I don't make any secret of the fact that I hold a number of executive positions in the Australian Labor Party, in the New South Wales branch. And I tend to have, over the years, found myself gravitating perhaps more to the left side than the right side of the spectrum. And it's been a lifelong experience.

I come from a relatively humble background and I formed certain views and, in the course of growing up, as to how fair society was structured in the way it distributed its opportunities and its wealth amongst its people. And those views have stayed with me over the years, and they've matured, I would hope, and certainly been refined and been put into a social and political context in which I now work.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Tell me a bit about the seminar, the reasons for it.

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, the seminar endeavours to bring together government, union and community groups in Canberra to put their own points of view on where social justice has to go to, in Canberra. It stemmed from the Salvaris report in which there was a recommendation that Canberra needed to take stock of where it was going in terms of social justice and that, hitherto, there'd been an element of ad hocness about the Government's policies, and not just the Government, because social justice doesn't start and finish with the Government, it extends across all elements of society, and it includes what unions do with union members and it includes how the community group functions with the members of society. It also includes how professional groups operate and how they use their privileges within society; and unfortunately, the professional groups are not represented - I personally think perhaps an omission - but we do have the government, union and community groups each tending to put their point of view and, hopefully, out of the cross-over of views expressed, some common features can emerge.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What sort of issues are you looking at?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, it isn't a conference that's directed to specific issues. Lots of those conferences occur and, indeed, on a couple of days ago with the Council of the Ageing, and there are many of these conferences occurring on specific issues. This is not intended to be such a conference. It's intended to be a conference that deals with the general direction, with the broad-brush issues: What is social justice? How is social justice achieved? It's going to endeavour to set general guidelines and determine general parameters for the definition of social justice, if you like, which can be then taken and used in specific context. And there will be and have been and are already scheduled a number of specific conferences on specific issues which, hopefully, can draw upon the general definitions emerging from this conference.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What general areas would you like to .. the general direction you'd like to see ACTCOSS go now?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, I take over from John Tomlinson who, as you said, was a very high profile man and a man of great talent and insight on social matters. John had a particular view as to what ACTCOSS was about, and our views don't exactly coincide.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, can you be a bit specific about that?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, I don't see the role of ACTCOSS as being a primary organ of policy development. ACTCOSS has got some 150 constituent corporate members across the welfare and community sectors. They work at the coalface in their respective areas. It's my view that those people, those organisations working at that coalface, are in the better position to be the primary developers of policy which they then feed into ACTCOSS as the peak body through our task forces and through personal networking, and that ACTCOSS then has to develop the policy or set the agenda for the welfare and community sectors based upon the policy input of its constituent members. So that ACTCOSS' primary role is one of facilitation, co-ordination and advocacy - presenting the views of its constituent members to the public to the media and to the Government.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So, you won't be tending to get the boots into the Government quite as much?

ALAN ANFORTH: I suspect that I would be less inclined to launch as strong attacks as John had in the past. I mean, I have areas of my own personal interest that I get a little agitated about, but I'm very conscious of that and try and keep a rein on it as best I can. But I see ACTCOSS' role as being a representative advocacy role rather than the primary developer of policy.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Has the New South Wales Left put you in there to take the heat off the Follett Government?

ALAN ANFORTH: Well, I don't know. The New South Wales Left knows nothing of my appointment, but we'll see how that goes.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I know one of the areas you're interested in and have been throughout your career, is the cost of justice, and we have just had the Attorney-General, Mr Connolly, introduce a new range of fees for the court system, the justice system. What's your view on that?

ALAN ANFORTH: Yes, Matt, I think it's particularly unfortunate that Mr Connolly has chosen to adopt this approach. Both at the Commonwealth and State and ACT levels in recent years, there's been statements forthcoming from the Governments that they're interested, finally, in dealing with this very important issue of curtailing the cost of justice. The Federal Senate, of course, has been dealing with the matter for years and has gone nowhere with the matter. And recently Mr Fahey, of course, made an announcement that he wishes to grapple with it - much to his credit. Unfortunately, we now find a Labor Government in the ACT, through its Attorney-General, Mr Connolly, imposing a $500 hearing fee in all matters in the Supreme Court. This is a new fee to be imposed whenever a matter, which has already been commenced in the court, already paid the lodgement fees, the service fees, and the various other fees that one cops at each stage of litigation. Now the Government is determined to impose a further $500 fee to lodge the document that you file to say that you're ready for hearing.

The cost of justice is already outrageously high. It's well beyond the capacity of even middle-class Australia and there's a number of reasons why it's too high. Most of it has to do with the structure of the system rather than excessive profit taking by solicitors. I know it's been in vogue of recent times to lay the blame at the foot of the legal profession, and whilst they must take some of the responsibility, theirs is not the primary fault, I don't think. There's not too many solicitors get rich. The problem is with the way the system is structured, and the Government has a large part to do with that, both in allowing the system to be structured in the way it is and in the way they impose their own fee structure on it.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So this move is only going to make it worse in the ACT?

ALAN ANFORTH: Oh, it's only going to make it worse. It just adds another $500 to the cost of a person seeking to bring an action in the Supreme Court here - and these relate to civil matters rather than criminal matters. And essentially, a person can't run it now unless they're very wealthy or they're a company, because all company legal costs are tax deductible - a fact that not many members of the public realise when corporations use up nearly all of our court time and run up the court costs that, in fact, they throw the cost back onto the taxpayer. But it's not going to assist the cause at all. And what I'm more concerned about is the extent to which the ACT Attorney-General's Department engaged in public consultation before these somewhat kneejerk reactions. You know, there's problems with court costs, with funding the court system, ergo, you just impose more fees on the public. I mean, it's a kneejerk-type reaction and I would be interested to find out just to what extent the ACT Attorney-General's have done their public consultation and done any sort of research and thinking on alternate ways of structuring the system, rather than just pumping up costs all the time.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Alan Anforth, new Director of ACTCOSS - a different style but I think maybe interesting times for the Government, any way.