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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6132

Senator BOLKUS —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Attorney-General. Can I say to Senator Newman that maybe she should be relevant to this Senate by coming in here to handle her own bills in the future. Minister Vanstone, has your attention been drawn to comments by the chairman of National Legal Aid, Mr Chris Stanisforth, who stated that the Howard government was the first Australian government to turn its back on the notion of equality before the law as a consequence of its funding cuts to legal aid? Is it a fact that the government is proceeding down the American path of lawlessness, as Mr Stanisforth himself claimed, if it proceeds with its budget decision to slash some $40 million a year for each of the next three years from legal aid? Is it also a fact that, as a result of your funding cuts—cuts which breached the promise that you gave before the election—130,000 of the 435,000 people who use legal aid each year would lose access to legal aid services?

Senator VANSTONE —I thank the senator for his question. No, the comments of this gentleman have not been drawn to my attention. But there has been a range of comments on changed arrangements for legal aid funding. What the Commonwealth has said is that the states need to look after legal aid funding for state matters. There has been some consternation and some disagreement about it, but that is the view that the Commonwealth has taken.

With respect to any assertions as to numbers that particular people have made, I would simply say: turn to your own state government, my state government—yours and mine is the same state government—and other state governments and ask them to live up to the responsibilities they have got for the provision of legal aid. As to the other part of your question, are we going down the American road, the answer to that is quite simply `no'.

Senator BOLKUS —I ask a supplementary question, Madam President. Minister, if you will not concede that the legal aid cuts have led to a crisis in the legal aid system, has your attention been drawn further to recent Victorian cases where, for instance, an intellectually disabled woman was forced to represent herself and where two girls were almost cross-examined by their father, who had allegedly sexually abused them, because he had no legal counsel? Are Victoria's legal aid funding cuts that led to the above cases the result of federal funding cuts or is the VLA simply cost cutting? Do you disagree with the president of the Law Council of Australia, Peter Short, who said this morning, `The citizens of Australia shouldn't be the piggy in the middle.' Have you also seen comments from your state Attorney-General in South Australia, Mr Trevor Griffin, who has claimed that the Commonwealth is retreating from its obligations?

Senator VANSTONE —No, I have not seen the comments of Peter Short apparently made this morning—asserted by you as being made this morning.

Senator Bolkus —I have them right here!

Senator VANSTONE —Fair enough, you have them. I have not seen them. If that is all he said, that citizens should not be the piggy in the middle, I do not think anyone would disagree. I do not see why you think that is of any particular note whatsoever. As to comments made by the state attorney in my own state and presumably shared by a number of other people, what do you imagine, Senator Bolkus, the states are going to say when the Commonwealth says, `Look, it is about time you lived up to your own responsibilities.' Of course the states are going to say, `Look, the Commonwealth is walking away from this, leaving us in the lurch.' Of course the states are going to say that. They have said it for years whenever the Commonwealth has looked to them to come to their side of the bargain in any particular portfolio area, and legal aid is no different. So Trevor Griffin's comments do not surprise me whatsoever. They are the comments I would expect from a state attorney. I would not be at all surprised if other state attorneys had made the same remarks. (Time expired)