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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6148

Senator ELLISON(3.49 p.m.) —Let me say at the outset that this government continues to honour the sentiments outlined in its pre-election commitments to legal aid funding. Let us just go back to the policy document and remind ourselves of what the coalition committed itself to. What it said it would do is increase the extent to which legal aid is granted in civil proceedings, particularly in the family area, and explore ways of ensuring equity in the allocation of legal assistance and in devising new and innovative ways of ensuring that all Australians are able to access the court system.

In that statement the coalition went on to recognise that governments simply do not have adequate funds to assist those who want and merit legal assistance. Consequently, alternative solutions need to be found. In that statement the coalition was alluding to the fact that, prior to the election, funding for legal aid was a problem, that obviously not everybody who wanted or needed legal aid could be funded. That is simply a fact of life. This government has in no way turned itself away from the fact that all are equal before the law.

Since coming to government in March this year this government discovered the $8 billion black hole which needed to be addressed. So legal aid, just like all other areas of government funding, had to experience a cutback. The government also became aware that the existing legal aid agreements with the states were no longer appropriate. It has been some 10 years since these agreements were looked at and they needed to be renegotiated. The government is currently in the process of renegotiating those agreements. For Senator Bolkus to say that the government is not talking to the states is quite simply not true.

It is also not true to say that the cuts are having drastic consequences because the cuts have not yet taken place. In fact the cuts that have been mentioned do not take place until the next financial year. Any cuts or any lack of legal aid funding now is as a result of the previous government's decisions.

I also take issue with Senator Bolkus on another matter, that the government is not consulting. The Senate legal and constitutional committee, of which Senator Bolkus is a member, is looking at a wide ranging reference into legal aid and the government is also undertaking a detailed study of legal aid. That study is to be completed by December this year.

But let us look at the undertaking the coalition made in relation to civil and family law. We need only look back at the figures to see that between 1990-91 and 1994-95 Commonwealth funding for legal aid increased by 6.3 per cent in real terms. Over the same period, the number of approved applications for assistance in family law matters funded by legal aid commissions fell by 19 per cent.

Although the Commonwealth was expending more money on legal aid, we had a decrease in funding for family law matters. Therefore, the Commonwealth was not getting value for its legal aid dollar. So the Commonwealth decided that it should fund only legal aid matters. That would thereby ensure an increase in funding for family law matters. That, of course, is what was stated in the coalition's election policy. There is absolutely no question of the government failing to honour any commitment in that regard.

In the fiscal environment in which we find ourselves, which was inherited from the previous government, it is only proper to allocate costs between the Commonwealth and the states as needed. Senator Bolkus has referred to various jurisdictions which are state matters—such things as de facto relationships, restraining orders, courts of petty sessions and largely criminal matters. The Commonwealth is saying the states can take care of state matters and the Commonwealth will take care of Commonwealth matters. Indeed, the Commonwealth is currently responsible for providing more than 50 per cent of funding for legal aid commissions and provides additional funding to legal aid commissions for child support matters, war veterans' matters and criminal cases arising under the Commonwealth law.

The Commonwealth's priorities for assistance are largely in the areas of family and civil law. These are the matters that I men tioned earlier were stated in the coalition policy. The Commonwealth has therefore, for all intents and purposes, been subsidising the states and territories for matters which have largely been in the state jurisdiction. The Commonwealth, as I said, has determined that in future it will fund only Commonwealth matters. Of course, funding levels for those Commonwealth matters will be maintained.

The opposition has said a lot in relation to legal aid, mainly portraying doom and gloom. The government does not shy away from the fact that we could always spend more money on legal aid. I am a great proponent of the legal aid system in this country. I believe the legal aid commissions we have in various states function very well, and any cut in this area has to be made with a great deal of thought and care. It is not something the Attorney-General (Mr Williams) relishes, but it is a fact of life that we cannot spend money that we do not have. People do not rely on Bankcard for their household finances. To do so would be irresponsible.

We have a duty, not only to this generation but to forthcoming generations, to put Australia's finances in order. If we continue to go down the slippery slide the previous government was going down, in years to come we simply will not have a legal aid system. We have a legal aid system that we can be proud of, one which I think no other country can boast. But if we are to keep it we have to be financially responsible now and we have to look to the future. If we look after the money now, we will be able to extend into those areas which need attention in later years.

The government is negotiating these legal aid agreements with various state governments. The government has maintained that it will fund only Commonwealth matters, but negotiations are still on foot. Senator Bolkus has implied that the door has closed, but that is simply not so. Over the forthcoming months the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee will be looking at the reference into legal aid which I mentioned earlier. The national legal aid conference held today was attended by representatives from the government. I think Mr Reaburn, the first assistant secretary of the department, was there with other officers. So the government did have representation at that conference today. The government will look at the comments and submissions made at that conference, as will the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee.

The government has acted responsibly and has approached this matter with great care. It does not make any cutback with any relish whatsoever. I do not believe that we will in any way be facing the abrogation of equality before the law that Senator Bolkus makes out.