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Tuesday, 28 March 2017
Page: 3463

Mr HILL (Bruce) (17:57): I wish to record a few thoughts on the Crimes Amendment (Penalty Unit) Bill 2017. You will be pleased, though possibly not surprised, to know that I do not intend to take 15 minutes.

Mr Keogh: I am devastated!

Mr HILL: You never know, member for Burt! This is a small bill. It is not a matter of great policy. On some days here you would almost think it would pass for serious reform under this government, given the paucity of any serious agenda in the legislative program. Nevertheless, if you also have a look at the state of the budget—I was just speaking on the appropriation bill earlier—and think about the challenges to our fiscal outlook and the apparent and obvious lack of serious structural reform in the budget to address threats to the AAA credit rating and so on, it is also worth observing that the amount of money raised over the forward estimates is not material.

To record, to echo and to build on what the shadow minister has said, the bill will amend the Crimes Act 1914 to increase the amount of the Commonwealth penalty unit from $180 to $210, with effect from 1 July. It also delays the first automatic indexation adjustment of the penalty unit to the CPI until 1 July 2020, with indexation to occur on 1 July every three years thereafter. For lawyers and those in the system that is probably clear. For those listening at home in the community—I am sure there are some people at this time of day who have the slight misfortune of choosing this bit of the parliamentary day to listen to on radio or wherever else—in plain English, this bill increases the amount that people pay when they are fined for committing a Commonwealth crime. A penalty unit simply sets the maximum amount that you can pay per unit for committing each crime. It is a very sensible solution. Rather than putting a penalty in for committing a crime by writing a dollar figure in—'The fine is $200 today'—to account for the fact that any dollar figure you set at a point in time will go out of date over time from inflation the system of penalty units is used, so governments can increase or adjust the fines all at once, magically, across hundreds of pieces of legislation, when they choose to. The current unit is $180. Again, in plain English: if you commit a crime and you are found guilty of that crime and there is a maximum of, say, five penalty units and you receive the maximum penalty because the court has deemed you extra naughty then you would pay $900. With this change to a penalty unit of $210 you would pay $1,050.

I also need to note that Labor proposed this change in our election policies; the government did not. The government has basically committed, as they say, the highest form of flattery—imitation—by copying our policy as a very small and modest measure in the midyear budget update. I think it is in the order of $90 million over four years. In that regard we welcome the government's decision to copy Labor's policy to ensure that fines keep pace with inflation and remain effective deterrents. One critical point, though, that I wish to make on their kind efforts at copying Labor's policy is that you cannot always pick things off in isolation. Labor proposed this increase in our election policy, but it sat alongside other important commitments. We did bank this revenue, but we did it as we made other critical commitments in the Attorney-General's and justice portfolios. As so often with this government, you need to have a think about what is in the bill and what could or should be in the bill, what is missing and the accompanying commitments.

In that regard I turn my comments to thinking about some of the impact on those who will pay the increased burden of fines. Fines are a blunt, regressive instrument, in a sense, in the criminal justice system. The greatest difficulty in the paying of fines falls to the poor and the vulnerable, as compared to high income earners. That is a fact. We all have family members who find it harder to pay fines if they are low income earners. One of the critical areas in the portfolio that this bill as currently presented does not address is that of community legal centres. They provide a crucial free legal service to all those people who do not qualify for legal aid—those facing family violence, employment and child protection issues. The access to justice is a fundamental human right, regardless of means.

Nationally, despite revenue measures such as appear in this bill, the government is going to cut funding to community legal centres by a further 30 per cent on 1 July this year under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. Community legal centres already turn away more than 160,000 people every year. Labor has opposed those cuts before, when they were first announced in the 2014 budget to come into effect in July 2015, and in a blind panic the hapless Attorney-General put a bit of a bandaid there. I visited my local legal centre, and they call it the Dreyfus money—if you will permit me the courtesy or discourtesy, as the House rules provide, of using the surname of the member for Isaacs—because when he was Attorney-General, this was the additional money provided to the sector.

We opposed those cuts then; we oppose them now. Community legal centre staff and volunteers work incredibly hard. The Productivity Commission in a 2014 report, commissioned by the member for Isaacs when he was Attorney-General, found that the community gets back $17 in benefits for every single dollar invested in CLCs. CLCs like the Women's Legal Service stand to lose incredibly from these cuts. They are at the front line of responding to family violence. Indeed, the biggest single source of requests for assistance is from the survivors of family violence. A government that is seriously concerned about family violence would not engage in these savage cuts to the very services helping women and children fleeing family violence.

To illustrate my point I draw attention of the House to the Springvale Monash Legal Service in my electorate, facing on 1 July this year—the clock is ticking every day—a funding cut of $165,000. This will have a significant impact on the centre's capacity to provide free legal assistance to people who do not have the means to seek help elsewhere. To quote from a letter I received only in the last few weeks:

Our community legal centre (CLC) provides free legal advice to approximately 400 vulnerable and disadvantaged local community members each month. We help people with a range of legal issues including but not limited to employment law, civil litigation, family violence and sexual assault. The most common legal problem we see is family violence and employment related issues specific to people from CALD backgrounds.

The centre will have little choice but to reduce staff hours and client liaison hours from 1 July. That will have a devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable people in my electorate, who will be turned away without assistance. I know the good work of this centre firsthand from my days many years ago as a terrible law student. I was a terrible law student. I did not actually attend classes for four or five years, you will be shocked to know. That is a story for another day. I did not—

Mr Keogh: You got through.

Mr HILL: The member for Burt got through. The single best subject I did in my 9½ years meandering through law school while working full-time—I did not want to waste any time; they kicked you out after 10, so I timed it pretty well—was at the Springvale Monash Legal Service all those years ago, last century, in fact, in the early 1990s. I learnt firsthand there two nights a week at all hours how important these services are to deal at the front line with the most vulnerable people in the community who have nowhere else to go. The government must reverse these appalling cuts to CLCs.

I note that the Senate yesterday in a rare show of bipartisanship or cross-partisanship—multipartisanship—passed a motion introduced by Labor and co-sponsored by the unlikely alliance of Senator Jacqui Lambie, Senator Hinch, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, all of whom condemned the government's cuts to CLCs. No doubt the Attorney-General was not there at the time. He was probably looking at real estate in London, waiting for the next reshuffle before he is shuffled off to retirement as the high commissioner. It takes a very difficult and serious issue to unite different political parties, but these nationwide 30 per cent cuts to community legal centres are certainly one such issue.

In closing, I point out that the revenue gained from this budget measure would go some significant way—not all of the way—to stemming the damage and to giving some genuineness to the government's claims to be seriously concerned about addressing at the front line the impacts of family violence that are felt so desperately in the communities that I represent, adjoining the member for Hotham's electorate—I think you were actually on the board of the Springvale Monash Legal Service many years ago, as our electorates adjoin—and of course we form a little love triangle with the member for Isaacs in terms of our care for the Springvale Monash Legal Service, because our electorates adjoin and overlap the catchment that the legal centre provides service and support to. So I call on the government, in passing this revenue measure, to do the right thing and reverse these cuts and restore what is known as the 'Dreyfus funding'.