Government backflip ‘late in the piece’ as uncertainty forces community centres to let lawyers go

Community legal centres say they have already had to let lawyers go in anticipation of budget cuts now reversed by the Turnbull Government.


Attorney-General George Brandis today announced a funding boost of $55.7 million over the next three years, overriding and going beyond a planned $35 million cut over the same period.

“It is very welcome, but it’s certainly late in the piece,” the president of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod, said.

“Some of them would already have been putting in place plans to lay people off.”

Those planned lay-offs have “already happened” in South Australia, according to the head of that state’s Council of Community Legal Centres, Catherine McMorrine.

“We’ve had staff leave and we haven’t replaced them,” Ms McMorrine told SBS News.


Ms McMorrine also works at the Southern Community Justice Centre, which provides free legal advice to disadvantaged people in the southern regions of Adelaide.

One lawyer who left the centre earlier this year was not replaced amid budget uncertainty, she said.

At another South Australian community firm, every full-time lawyer has been moved to a part-time roster.

The managing lawyer of the Central Community Legal Service in Adelaide, David Ferraro, said the reduction in staff hours was due to two successive years of budget cuts.

“[Today’s announcement] is some good news, but we’re still a bit apprehensive,” he said.

Senator Brandis said the government was announcing the measures ahead of the May 9 Budget to give the centres time to adjust.

“We want to send a clear signal about where the Government’s priorities lie,” he said.

Watch: Brandis announces funding for CLCs

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“One of the most important features of this announcement is that this additional funding is built into the architecture of the national partnership agreement. It is not a one off terminating program.”


But the federal opposition criticised the government for creating an atmosphere of uncertainty in the sector.

“The uncertainty faced by the centres in recent months and years has been incredibly damaging, with many already losing experienced staff and unable to plan for the future,” Labor’s shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said.

The uncertainty is amplified for centres in South Australia, which are still waiting on their state government to decide which firms will be allocated money for the new financial year through a competitive tendering process.

A review of the South Australian sector, commissioned by the SA Government and conducted by Earnst and Young, recommended the number of ‘generalist’ community legal centres in the state be reduced to three or four, compared with the current six, in response to the federal budget cuts.

The uncertainty has also taken a toll on the hiring practices of the Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney, according to its acting CEO Jacqui Swinburne. 

“For a few positions, we haven’t been able to offer permanent positions for a couple of years now,” Ms Swinburne said.

Watch: Redfern Legal Centre on the funding challenges

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“It’s very difficult for us to plan proper services to meet the needs of our community when we don’t know what money we will or won’t have.

“You don’t want to raise expectations or even start services that aren’t going to continue a few months later.”


Citizenship changes disappointing: NZ PM

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English has taken aim at Australia’s “disappointing” citizenship changes, flagging concerns the crackdown could affect Kiwis living abroad.


Mr English said there had been no formal contact between the Turnbull government and himself or his ministers before Australia unveiled its immigration crackdown last week.

“The officials are going through a process of understanding exactly what the decision is. It was one that appeared on pretty short notice with very rapid application so we want to make sure that all the implications are understood,” he said in New Zealand on Monday.

“But on the face of it, it’s disappointing that New Zealanders would have to wait longer.”

The changes require New Zealanders and others aspiring for Australian citizenship to be permanent residents for four years before being eligible, up from one year.

It follows the announcement of a pathway to citizenship announced by Malcolm Turnbull last year, which allowed Kiwis who arrived in Australia between February 2001 and 2016 earning more than $53,000 a year for five years to apply for permanent residence from July this year.

Mr English said New Zealand officials were working to ensure Australia’s new citizenship policy wouldn’t affect those taking up the pathway.

One of NZ Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee’s first discussions will be to plead the case for Kiwis seeking a simple pathway to Australian citizenship, Mr English said.

An exemption for Kiwis is one proposal his government may consider putting forward.

However, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed there was no such exemption for New Zealanders tied to the citizenship changes.

“The citizenship changes announced last week come into effect immediately, and will apply to all applications for citizenship received from that date onwards,” a spokesperson for the minister said.

But Mr Dutton said Australian visa arrangements for New Zealand citizens were more generous than those for citizens of any other country.

“Australia and New Zealand have a strong relationship, and will continue working together to enhance bilateral arrangements,” his spokesperson said.

“Last year Australia introduced a pathway to permanent residency for thousands of New Zealanders living in Australia.

“For the past five years, New Zealand nationals have been in the top 10 nationalities of persons who have acquired Australian citizenship.”

Vietnam refuses to lift memorial ban ahead of Anzac Day

In the humid pre-dawn light across Southeast Asia thousands will gather Tuesday at memorials marking Anzac Day.


But Australian officials say Vietnam have refused to lift a ban on official memorials at the Long Tan Cross in Vung Tau province, extending a policy in place since August last year.

The ban took effect hours before a planned 50th anniversary commemoration last August was to proceed.

An Australian consular website notice said Vietnam had refused permission for official commemorations at the Long Tan site, including Anzac Day 2017. But “small groups” for “low key” private visits, and without media coverage would be allowed.

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At the 1966 battle of Long Tan vastly outnumbered Australian troops fought off an attack by Communist Vietcong.

Vietnamese officials were critical of Australians at last year’s Anzac Day ceremonies when up to 1000 people went to the Long Tan site.

Defence analyst Carl Thayer, at the University of NSW, said reports of Australians’ behaviour and large crowd “exceeded past understandings” with the Vietnamese who were “very finicky on breaking protocol”.

Watch: The PM’s Anzac Day message

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Elsewhere, services would take place at lawn cemeteries and Australian and New Zealand embassies throughout the region.

In Thailand, former Australian prisoners of war Harold Martin, 100 years old this year, and 94-year-old Neil MacPherson, are joining up to 1000 people in the pre-dawn service at the memorial along the World War II Death Railway site of Konyu Cutting, known as Hell Fire Pass. Both men worked on the rail line during the war.

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The brutal conditions, starvation and disease claimed the lives of more than 12,600 PoWs, including 2800 Australians, as well as 90,000 Asian labourers forced to work on the line construction between Thailand and Burma.

Mick Clarke, manager of the Australia government-funded Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum, said visitors, especially younger generation, were shocked by the cruelty faced by the PoWs.

“They try to imagine what the PoWs went through,” Clarke told AAP.

In Singapore, memorial services are at the Kranji War Memorial lawn cemetery where thousands of Australians suffered in the notorious Changi PoW camp. Many PoWs from Changi were transported to Thailand to work on the Death Railway.

In Malaysia, the focus of services is Sabah State’s Sandakan war memorial built on the site of the PoW camp during World War II.

The ceremonies mark the remembrance of the more than 2430 Australian and British PoWs and local people who perished under the Japanese Imperial rule.

Sandakan was also the site of the notorious march at war’s end in 1945 when 1005 PoWs perished from malnutrition or were murdered.

Other services are to take place in the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos and Kuala Lumpur.

Martin Stuart-Fox, emeritus professor of history from Queensland University, said conflicts were called by politicians, but the suffering was borne by ordinary people.

“We sent people out there to fight wars wherever it is and they fought them to the best of their ability and they were our representatives in doing so and we should honour that,” Stuart-Fox told AAP.

“These occasions should be celebrations of the discipline and the courage and the honour of those who were thrown into the fight.”

France votes: What impact will Le Pen, Trump and Brexit have?

France will head to the polls not once, but twice, to decide their next president.


And whoever wins will take over from the most unpopular president in French history – Francois Hollande.

The second European country to vote in the ‘super year of elections’, the French election doesn’t start until April 23, but has already seen plenty of drama with allegations of fraud surrounding right-wing Republican leader Francois Fillon – once the favourite to be the next President.

Also in the mix is anti-immigration and anti-Islam National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and former economic adviser to President Hollande turned independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron – who is now seen as a favourite with political analysts.

Running for the Socialist Party is Benoît Hamon, described by his opponents as a “left-wing rebel”, who beat Prime Minister Manuel Valls for the party’s nomination. He has proposed a universal basic income for all French citizens, but is unlikely to make it to the second round of voting.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had been written-off by many, but is experiencing a late surge in popularity. He grabbed attention with his hologram appearance, when he appeared simultaneously at rallies in Lyon and Paris.

The economy, European Union and immigration are key issues this election.

French expats in Australia and abroad go to the polling stations

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The two-round voting system

Because the French presidential election is a two-round system, it opens up the field for a vast range of candidates. Or as a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University, Dr Ben Wellings, puts it: a “diversity of views”.

“Anyone and everyone who has enough money could put their hat in the ring in the first round,” he said.

After the first round of voting on April 23, the two candidates with the most votes will move into the second round, and the French people will vote again on May 7.

This system allows the French people to concentrate on key policy issues, according to the director of the European Union Centre at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Professor Bruce Wilson.

“I like the French system because when you get your two candidates after the first round you’ve got two weeks to have that very focused debate about what works,” he said.

“You know what you’re getting after the second round of the presidential election.”

READ MOREThe Le Pen factor

“There’s a family dynasty there – her father founded the National Front and himself made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002,” Professor Wilson said.

“Take Pauline Hanson out of the equation [with One Nation] and I think it would go the way of the Katter party. She certainly has traction in very particular parts of the country.

“The same goes with Le Pen. It’s more to do with these issues of homogeneity.”

Professor Wilson points out that, around the world, cosmopolitan cities are more likely to reject far-right views, as opposed to voters in remote areas.

“Paris is a melting pot of people from all over Europe, from all over the world,” he said.

Marine Le Pen refuses to wear a headscarf

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President Trump and Populism

“There was certainly talk last year after Brexit and after Trump about the likelihood that seemingly there would be a wave of right-wing governments across Europe, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen at all,” Professor Wilson said.

“Nonetheless, the elections are interesting. France is the most interesting of the three this year.

While the Leave campaign for Brexit focused on immigration, Dr Wellings says it was “more like a tipping point rather than a trigger” in France.

“All the signs were there,” he said. “People will resist the scale and pace of immigration or immigration at all,” he said, pointing out that the Euro zone crisis, austerity crisis, and financial collapse of Greece have all played a part in France.

“It’s not just the white, working class man – it’s also the managerial class,” Dr Wellings said of the growing populist sentiment.

“The signs have been there for the last 10 years and they’ve been growing. Something like the referendum or Trump’s election allow those views to be expressed in ways that may surprise people.”

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warned about the rise of populism when he visited Australia this month.

“Even in Australia populism is alive,” he said.

“Far from being the majority, but they are alive, they are developing, they are using propaganda, using fears, anguish, worries, things like safety, threat of terrorism, migrations, fear of losing the socio-economic model in place – all this are themes far right political parties use extensively.

“We talk a lot about it because of the presidential elections in France, but if you look at other elections other than the French ones… even in Germany, which was a bit less impacted, we can see the far-right climbing there too, Italy too. Most countries are impacted.

“We need to be careful. It is a threat for our democracies. It is a step back in history. It’s the illusion that it just needs to close borders, stop any exchanges between countries to find a solution – it’s just not true.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Australia

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Brexit and the European Union

The day after Brexit, the top Google search in Britain was “what is the EU?”

But Professor Wilson says that problem is not limited to the UK.

“One of the problems for the EU is if you picked a bunch of people in France and Malta and asked them what the EU is they wouldn’t know,” he said. “It’s the same all over Europe.”

Dr Wellings says the EU adds another layer of frustration for many voters in France already disillusioned by politics.

“Political parties are experiencing difficulties in relating to the electorate at the national level but that’s even more difficult for the EU which is seen as more remote,” he said.

“It’s hard for people to see how they can affect change in policies they don’t like. You don’t vote out the government like you do at the national level.

“It’s usually claimed that it’s not democratic, but it’s insufficiently representative.”

Nicknamed the “Innovation Union”, the EU promotes science and industry across countries, Professor Wilson says.

“There’s a very clear embracing of what they call the knowledge economy,” he said.

Economy is key, but don’t mention immigration

“The protection of French workers, how changes to the protection of French workers are handled will be a key issue,” Professor Wilson said.

But as election day nears, Dr Wellings says Le Pen’s opponents will do their best to avoid debating immigration because that’s when the National Front leader will stand out.

“I think that people [in France] are quite aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world,” he said.

“The centre-left and even parts of the centre-right will not want to see another Brexit or another Trump – we really don’t want to see a neo-fascist like Marine Le Pen in charge of France and its nuclear weapons; it’s way worse than Brexit.”

Don’t rule out Fillon

Both Dr Wellings and Professor Wilson tip Macron as the favourite to be the next President of France.

“He’s a bit like the Justin Trudeau of France,” Dr Wellings said.

“He worked in the Socialist Hollande Government but he’s not running as a socialist; he says he’s independent.”

“He’s not identifying with these two major parties,” Professor Wilson said. “He’s got a real level of charisma, he’s able to engage.

“If you just look as his dealings with Theresa May and post-Trump, that gives some people optimism.”

But even though Fillon has been accused of using public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of Euros for fake parliamentary jobs, the Republican leader is still in with a chance this election.

“I wouldn’t rule out Fillon,” Professor Wilson said. “If he gets into the second round he’s got the full support of the centre-right behind him.”

Tune in to SBS French Radio for detailed profiles of each of the candidates in the lead up to the French presidential election.


Labor welcomes legal funding ‘backflip’

The federal government says it’s listened and accepted the need for continued funding for community and indigenous legal services.


But Labor has labelled the decision a humiliating backdown for Attorney-General George Brandis and a win for campaigners across the country.

The government will include $39 million of funding for community legal centres and $16.7 million for indigenous legal services over three years in its May 9 budget.

The money takes funding for the services to 2020, when a national partnership agreement with the states and territories ends.

After 2020, all jurisdictions will have to negotiate a new funding deal.

The new money for community legal centres will be prioritised for services that help domestic violence victims and their children.

Senator Brandis touted Monday’s announcement as a government “investment of unparalleled magnitude”.

“This is new money (and) it represents the largest single commitment on an annualised basis by the commonwealth government to the legal assistance sector ever,” he told reporters in Brisbane.

Senator Brandis also defended the time taken to reach the decision – described as a “travesty” by Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath – as part of the budget process.

“We’re actually announcing this in advance of the budget because we want to send a very clear signal about where the government’s priorities lie,” he said.

The coalition has come under sustained fire from Labor, minor parties and community groups for not guaranteeing ongoing funding to the legal services, with previous commitments set to end on July 1.

Acting shadow attorney-general Katy Gallagher welcomed the news but said it was a humiliating backflip for Senator Brandis.

“Just eight weeks out from these cuts taking effect, for those who have campaigned against the cuts, the victory is theirs today,” she told reporters in Canberra.

But legal centres has already lost experienced staff because of the uncertainty and would take time to rebuild, she said.

The Law Council of Australia said it was a huge relief.

“The scheduled budget cuts would have significantly deepened the funding crisis affecting the legal assistance sector, with enormous downstream costs to taxpayers,” president Fiona McLeod said in a statement.

“It heads off an impending disaster, as many community legal centres, particularly in regional areas, were set to close.”

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie in March accused the government of “sledging welfare recipients with a hammer” and said everyone should have the right to legal representation whether they had money or not.