Barefoot lawyers find true cost of advice


By Adele Horin

October 7 2006

YOU would think a bunch of community legal centres that dispense advice to the down-and-outs might lie beneath the Federal Government’s radar. It has a war on terrorism to wage, a war on drugs, on the unions and on the Labor Party to execute.

But no, the redoubtable Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, found time from his musings on torture to kick the boot into these barefoot lawyers who earn half the going salary of their private sector counterparts. Their alleged crime is to dare to dissent from the Government on aspects of family law and anti-terrorism laws and its Achilles heel, industrial relations.

Their punishment, he indicated, is likely to mean future funding contracts will prohibit the centres from engaging in advocacy, community education, or law reform.

The Government withdrew its usual funding of the centres’ annual conference because the tenor of it caused displeasure. "Centres must focus on serving clients, not running private political agendas," Ruddock has said.

There are 180 legal centres, dispensing advice on an array of topics from credit and debt to environmental law, and thanks to a lot of volunteers, they cost the Government only $22 million a year.

But the power of a few pamphlets, an annual conference that featured the ACTU’s Sharan Burrow, and a single centre’s "industrial relations" data base made Ruddock see red – indeed reds under the bed. Fortuitously for the Government, the Office of the Employment Advocate has also decided it will no longer fund the legal centres to give advice to clients – mainly non-unionists – on industrial relations issues. It can handle all matters, from workers and bosses, in-house from now on.

Bit by bit the Government is snuffling out the last flares of opposition, wherever it spots them, however feeble. Having won four elections, control of the Senate, the devoted support of the Murdoch press and talkback radio, the Government is still not content. It has planted hard-right warriors Keith Windschuttle, Janet Albrechtsen, and Ron Brunton on the ABC board to change its culture. It has undermined the independence of academics with its broad-brush sedition and anti-terrorism laws that have caused researchers to abandon studies on terrorism lest they be spied upon or detained.

And now the Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, is planning to take over school curriculum. She does not like what children are being taught, claiming "ideologues" have "hijacked" the syllabus. It is not just the wrong history that is being taught, as the Prime Minister regularly asserts; it goes well beyond that.

The Government, it seems, will not stop until all Australians are singing from the same song sheet. Unswerving approval of the IR changes, welfare-to-work, "staying the course in Iraq", detention without trial, and a white armband view of Australian history is not called ideological; it’s called correct.

The Howard Government is in fact ideologically combative to a startling degree, forcing dissenters to toe the line through fear, funding partnerships and confidentiality clauses in contracts.

A blanket of silence has fallen across Australia since the Government came into office in 1996, flexing its muscles against dissenters.

It quickly de-funded several groups representing poor and disempowered Australians – the Australian Federation of Pensioners and Superannuants, National Shelter, the Association of Civilian Widows and other women’s groups, and the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition. In its stead it gave money to groups that have never caused a ripple, a rotating and occasional "youth round table", for instance, which to its credit once called for the restoration of a permanent body that might have some teeth.

By 2002 a survey of peak groups in social welfare, aged, disability, and migrant issues, found half had lost significant funding and 20 per cent had lost all funding. Their role as advocates was a major reason for the clamp-down.

A 2004 report by The Australia Institute showed non-government organisations had become more fearful of "biting the hand that feeds" them. Ninety per cent of the 290 surveyed believed their funding could be at risk if they criticised the Government. As the UNSW academic, Joan Staples, reminds us in a recent paper, the attitude to feisty non-government organisations was once different.

A House of Representatives committee brought down a report in 1991 that said an important role of the these groups was "to disagree with government policy where this is necessary in order to represent the interests of their constituents". Howard, instead, sees them as single-issue groups and elites, with no role as advocates, or in policy formation. The Business Council of Australia, and such, are exceptions.

He has shut the big charities up with multimillion-dollar Job Network contracts, and praises those that fill the gaps created by the withdrawal of government services. As long as they feed the hungry and house the poor but refrain from comment or advocacy, they are in the fold.

Academics, likewise, are increasingly tied up doing contracted research for government departments, sworn to secrecy, even as their findings languish for months or years on a minister’s desk.

It is only in the letters pages of some newspapers and on the internet that forthright dissenters can be found. The liberal MP Petro Georgiou has emerged as an unlikely hero because his viewpoint on asylum seekers and multiculturalism is so rarely expressed by any public figure, Kim Beazley included.

Until now the legal centres, which include the Welfare Rights Network, have tried to reflect the views of their clients, bringing problems with welfare reform, family law, and industrial relations to the Government’s and public’s attention.

They are out of tune with the times, and discord won’t be tolerated.

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