Legal Experts Say Budget Cuts Threaten Most Vulnerable

May 9, 2018

The country’s leading human rights advocacy group, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR), is alarmed that the Federal Budget 2018-19 appears to include $54m in cuts in assistance to Indigenous Australians, a $43m reduction in funding to courts and legal services and $30m in cuts to regional cooperation and refugee and humanitarian assistance.

ALHR President Kerry Weste said, “The budget delivered last night fails some of the most vulnerable people in our community and region.”

There appears to be $43m in cuts to courts and legal services for the 2018-19 financial year and a $300m cut from 2020-2021 which the Federal Government says is a result of the end of the current National Partnership on Legal Assistance Service. This Partnership provides essential federal funding to legal aid and community legal centres.

Ms Weste said, “ The fundamental rights of equality before the law and access to justice are indispensable to Australian democratic values and our way of life. An adequately funded legal system, with adequately funded legal assistance services, ensures access to justice and maintenance of the rule of law. Our justice system needs more funds to better resource our federal courts, not less. ALHR is concerned that any cuts to courts and legal services will impact frontline services and mean fewer people, often the most vulnerable in our community, have access to justice. We call on the Federal Government to clarify its position on funding for legal aid and community legal centres beyond 2020” Ms Weste said.

“The most recent census showed a 14% jump in homelessness in Australia yet this budget contains no plan to address this. Further, the Government has ignored calls for even a modest increase in Newstart and Youth Allowance – which do not even come close to covering the costs of the basic essentials for living. Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention of Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the Turnbull Government is obliged to take appropriate steps to ensure the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions for individuals and families,” Ms Weste said.

The government has sought to achieve $68.1 million in savings over four years by delaying refugees access to JobReady services, increasing the waiting period from 13 to 26 weeks. It has further sought to save $202.5 million through to 2021-22 by increasing the Newly Arrived Resident’s Waiting Period from three to four years. “These measures will have significant impact on refugees’ ability to integrate into Australian society,” Ms Weste said. “It is disappointing that these measures are only offset by $5m given to community organisations assisting newly arrived migrants to integrate into society through the Fostering Integration Grants Scheme . ALHR is also concerned at the $30 million in cuts to regional cooperation, refugee and humanitarian assistance.”

“While ALHR welcomes the allocation of $550 million over five years for a new agreement with the Northern Territory Government for remote housing, we are deeply concerned that the Federal Government has failed to commit to continue a number of measures aimed at assisting Indigenous Australians – to the tune of a $54m cut – just one month after the most recent Closing the Gap report

identified continued failures to reach targets in school attendance, life expectancy, literacy and numeracy and employment outcomes,” Ms Weste said.

“The Federal Government has an enduring responsibility to ensure Indigenous Australians are supported to achieve the most very basic human rights such as health, education and employment. Any financial cut to any program that could help achieve these goals is penny pinching at best, harmful at worst,” she said.

ALHR welcomes budget initiatives including $1.2 million over four years for the implementation of the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and $3.6 million in funding over four years for the establishment of an Anti-Slavery Unit to manage the implementation of an Australian Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement. However, further resourcing will be required to ensure the effectiveness of the Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in December 2017.”

“ALHR finds it astounding the Federal Government has taken a decision to cut funding to assist some of the most vulnerable people on the planet just months after taking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Australia should be leading by example, not duplicitously shirking our responsibility to help those most in need,” said Weste.

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