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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5245

Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsAttorney-General, Minister for Emergency Management, Minister for the Public Service and Integrity and Special Minister of State) (18:50): I thank the member for La Trobe for her question. I know of her very longstanding interest in the legal assistance sector through her own work as a lawyer. Access to justice for every single Australian is for Labor a non-negotiable feature of our democracy. Only with decent legal assistance can we ensure that there is access which is truly available to everyone in this country. Without it our legal system cannot look after those who often need the most help: the sick, the elderly, our Indigenous communities, families and children in crisis.

Deep and savage cuts by the Howard government cut legal aid to its bare bones. That government then chronically underfunded the system, while demand for legal services grew. It created long-lasting damage to the whole of the sector. Liberal state governments in more recent times have made the situation worse, with 1950s law and order regimes where resources are devoted to rounding up the accused but those resources are not allowed to extend to funding their day in court.

In this year's budget, as the member for La Trobe rightly mentioned in her question, Labor is continuing the long haul of repairing and rebuilding legal assistance across our country with an extra $52.3 million for legal aid, community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. Specifically, over the next two years, legal aid commissions will receive an additional $30 million. That is on top of the $420 million already allocated, and it is a 7.15 per cent increase over the two years. Over the next two years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services will receive a $12 million boost. That is in addition to the $137 million under current funding agreements. Community legal centres will be boosted by $10.3 million over four years. This is in addition to the $32 million in recurrent funding they have received this financial year and $162 million since Labor came to office.

The contribution of the 138 community legal centres funded by the Commonwealth government to creating a fairer society over the last 40 years since they were created under a Labor government, by the great Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, cannot be underestimated. For many people in need, literally coming in off the street, community legal centres are the first point of contact. As I indicated in my introductory remarks, but it bears repeating, the deeply committed staff lawyers and volunteers who work as volunteer lawyers—as well as the volunteer non-lawyers, but I speak of these lawyers in particular—are among the best legal brains in the business. They are an asset to our justice system, and we are very proud to support them.

With the additional funding in this budget, the Commonwealth government's total contribution to the four legal assistance services over the four years, 2013-14 to 2016-17, will be $1.413 billion and our commitment to repairing and rebuilding access to justice will continue. The government is certainly going to continue to receive and consider requests for funding to legal aid and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services following the review of the national partnership agreement which is currently underway, because Labor is about improving access to justice, to improving equity, to giving a fair go to all Australians. These are the hallmarks of a decent society.

To go back again to what the Howard government did, there was a savage cut to legal aid in the 1997 budget. It cut the Commonwealth's contribution to legal aid in half. There is little doubt that a Liberal Party would, again, go back to those cutting practices. We can see that from what the conservative state governments in Queensland and New South Wales have done since they have come to office in terms of their treatment of community legal centres—services such as Redfern Legal Centre, starved of funding, no longer able to provide the vital frontline services that it has been providing in the past, and funding denied to legal services by both the Queensland and New South Wales governments because they have had the temerity to engage these conservative governments in policy debate about law reform issues and, apparently, that is off-limits for legal services. Not under our government, Deputy Speaker.