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Widening the gap

Georgia Kriz investigates the government’s cuts to Aboriginal legal services.

Photograph by Jennifer Yiu.

The media coverage of the Abbott government’s maiden budget has been dominated by an uproar against the deregulation of universities, the death of free, universal healthcare and the neoliberal restructuring of the welfare system. To an extent, this is to be expected – there are only so many minutes in a news broadcast, and only so many words can fit on a page.

But these aren’t the only stories to tell.

Tucked away in the Attorney General’s Department section of Budget Paper No. 2, somewhere between the cuts to the security at Hobart Airport and Screen Australia, $15 million was snatched from legal aid. Of all the cuts, this was arguably the cruelest. It will directly affect access to justice for the country’s most disadvantaged and underprivileged people. It will make many lives tangibly, truly, and absolutely worse.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) is the principal provider of legal assistance to Indigenous Australians. Overseen by an entirely Aboriginal board of directors, and with offices in every state and territory, every ALS branch currently provides their clients with free legal representation, bail application assistance and help with transitioning out of prison. Supported and welcomed by Aboriginal communities across the country, the organisation is the strongest and most vocal advocate for the legal rights and representation of Indigenous Australians. Its work is now in jeopardy.

“Currently they give us $17 million. If they doubled that funding, we could start to do a good job.”

This is John McKenzie, Chief Legal Officer of the NSW/ACT ALS. I’m sitting in his stylish, yet small, Redfern office on a post-budget Friday afternoon. I have come to hear about how the government’s cuts will affect the provision of legal assistance directly on the ground. As we talk, he smiles a lot, in what seems to be in almost deliberate defiance of the sombre nature of our conversation.

“We’re funded solely by the Federal Government,” John tells me. “Obviously, this means we are especially vulnerable to funding cuts – we literally have no other money coming in.”

Under the Abbott Government’s budget, John and his team stand to lose $650 000 from their working budget over 2014-15. He says they aren’t yet sure what this means in real terms.

“For 12 days after that budget was handed down, the bureaucrats in Canberra couldn’t tell us which of our programs would be affected.” Despite his mild mannered demeanour, I can see how angry this makes him; that smile momentarily disappears from his face.

“What we do know has gone for sure is what we call our ‘throughcare’ program. It has gone from having half a million dollars of funding to literally nothing. Come July 1, it’s gone.”

The throughcare program targets recidivism, which is infamously rife amongst Aboriginal people. More than two thirds of Aboriginal prisoners will return to jail within three years of their release; many spend the majority of their lives behind bars for consecutive, separate offences. This astounding rate of re-offence only exacerbates an already disproportionately high rate of Aboriginal incarceration. Out of roughly 10,200 prisoners currently in jails across NSW, approximately 2,300 are Aboriginal. Nationally, Aboriginal people only make up 2.5 per cent of the population.

John is clearly painfully aware of the weight that these figures hold.

“We are simply unable to hold back the tidal wave that continues to build,” he says. “As well as having to deal with the cocktail of the disadvantaged – poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse – Aboriginal people view police as agents of an invading state. There is this very understandable fundamental distrust and it just exacerbates all the problems.”

In an attempt to combat this dire state of recidivism and incarceration, ALS NSW/ACT have placed six field officers across the state and territory whose job it is to identify prisoners coming to the end of their sentences, connect with them, and assist them in their transition out of prison – this is ‘throughcare’.“To be honest with you, I could only name half a dozen clients who, through the help of this program, stayed out of jail for more than 12 months – but we consider that a huge success,” John says, his smile returned.

“What the policy makers don’t understand is that’s not just six people – that’s six families, six communities. It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond: the ripples spread.”

John tells me he has worked “on and off” at ALS for over 34 years. It must be so hard, I suggest, especially in the face of cuts like these, and the constant interaction with systemic inequality and oppression. What keeps him going?

“I could say because I believe in those big principles like a fair go and access to justice, and I do. But I think, for me, it boils down to the fact that I believe Aboriginal people deserve the very best legal representations in the most difficult circumstances.”

After our interview is done, John walks me upstairs to the main workspace. The bullpen-style office up here is vastly different to the set of offices below. Where John’s looked neat and relatively new, these rooms are bedraggled, and smell musty. Afternoon sunlight streams in through dirty windows. Ragged curtains hang off lopsided curtain rods. Teetering piles of thick manila folders crowd every desk. No-one looks up from their work as we walk past.

John shows me to the office of Sarah Crellin, the Deputy Principal Legal Officer of NSW’s south-eastern zone. She’s young, but she has tired eyes and a soft, flat voice. I take a seat on a battered couch across from her desk and sink a surprising way into it before realising, detachedly, that it has no springs.

“It’s already unfair, and they’re cutting it again.” Sarah kneads her hands together across from me; her knuckles shine white, red, white, red. “It just isn’t fair.”

Although Sarah is technically in a managerial position, she tells me she still has court obligations that can see her crisscrossing the city on any given day to represent numerous clients in a variety of courts.

“We just don’t have enough lawyers to go round. The turnover rate is massive – we more often than not are in the process of recruiting more lawyers.”

Why is there such a high turnover rate?

“Money. Mainstream legal aid lawyers get paid up to 25 per cent more than our lawyers. It’s hard to keep people when other agencies are offering flexible hours, so much more money, less grueling work.”

Tentatively trying to avoid drawing attention to how fatigued and defeated she and her colleagues look, I ask Sarah if she thinks the work also takes an adverse emotional toll. Her response is immediate and urgent.

“Absolutely. There’s so much vicarious trauma. I mean, we’re dealing with really disadvantaged people.” She gestures, with a limp wrist and an effort, to the piles of folders on her desk. “You could pick up any one of these and you could read the saddest story you will ever read.”

She pauses and breaks her eye contact with me. When she looks up again, her tired eyes are angry.

“We get them at the end, when the wheels have fallen off. We know jail isn’t the solution, the judge knows jail isn’t the solution, they know jail isn’t the solution,” she says.“There is no worse feeling in the world than watching your client go to jail. It just happens too much.”

Like John, I ask Sarah about the immediate, real-world impact of the Abbott government’s cuts. The throughcare program is also at the front of her mind. She explains that she had just gotten off the phone to one of the field officers who will soon be made redundant.

“She was telling me that when they called to give her the news that she would lose her job, she was driving a client who had just gotten out of jail to a service provider. She answered the phone on loudspeaker. And this other woman, the client, just said: ‘What am I going to do now? Who is going to help me now?’”

For most Aboriginal people being released from custody, especially in rural and remote areas, the reality is that no-one will be able to help with their specific needs after the throughcare program has been shut down. Although most state and territory Departments of Justice offer transitional support programs, few are tailored to account for the clusters of problems that affect Aboriginal people specifically. In light of this budget, Sarah says that she is losing some hope for the future.

“It’s really unfair. I mean, I don’t know what the grand plan is, but at this rate, we’ll just dissolve. We could just disappear.”

Casting aside my hesitation to draw attention to her personal plight, I ask why she persists with the job when she is obviously so tired and sad. “It gives me joy, it really does,” she says. “And the clients are unendingly, eternally grateful; they are just such beautiful people.”

Although I have only made appointments with Sarah and John, Sarah takes me a few offices down to meet Felicity Graham, the Western Region Principal Legal Officer. It strikes me how open these people are being with me, how freely and frankly they have spoken. I realise they probably haven’t been interviewed much; in amongst the choruses of discontented and distressed voices flooding the media, discordantly clamouring to be heard and understood, they have been all but drowned out. I get the feeling that, caught in the headlights of these cuts, they have little left to lose.

Felicity is a friendly, if reserved, young Sydney Law graduate, who is sporting coke-bottle-thick hipster glasses, an elephant-patterned cardigan and wooden earrings. She explains to me that she is only visiting Sydney – she lives and works in Dubbo, and has been doing a lot of work on traffic law advocacy in rural communities in that region. She tells me that over the last five years in the local courts of Western NSW, around 10 to 12 per cent of the sentences imposed have been for unauthorised driving offences.

“A huge proportion of the Aboriginal people who are getting locked up are getting locked up for essentially regulatory offences – it’s unnecessary. The most common offence that we see is people being sent to jail for driving with disqualified licences.”

Felicity explains that this “disproportionate” incarceration rate comes as a result of the necessity of a driver’s licence in rural and remote Australia; when a licence is suspended, it is almost guaranteed to provoke further crime.

“Out there, we call them ‘licences to live’. If you don’t have a driver’s licence then you’re cut off from participation in society. We’re talking about communities where you need to drive 200 kilometres to go to work, to go to the supermarket, to access healthcare. It just perpetuates. These people break the law again because they have to.”

Felicity recently gave evidence to a NSW Parliamentary Committee on traffic law violations, and she tells me that the subsequently released report was promising and presented positive and constructive recommendations.

“The problem is that it is just sitting on a shelf now. The government isn’t acting on its own committee’s report.”

She lets out a hollow, husky laughs when, as the interview is drawing to a close, I ask her if there is anything she wanted to answer that I haven’t asked.

“It’s a huge topic. I can’t even begin to explain. I think the take-home message is that if we are going to confront the disparity, the gap in our society between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, we need to confront the gross overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody. We need to really well resource our legal services. A cut to resources is only going to aggravate the problem.”

I leave Felicity’s office and walk out past the crooked curtain rods, the bulging manila folders, the dirty windows, and down the stairs. It is no longer afternoon in Redfern – as I step out on to the street, it is dark and quite cold.

The Abbott government’s maiden budget is a blueprint for a vastly different Australia: a leaner, meaner, harsher place. There is no inspirational message to package up nicely here; there will be no reprieve for the ALS staff, nor for the countless number of other good people doing good things across the country who will be affected by these budget cuts.

This budget will create and exacerbate many stories of inequality, suffering and disadvantage. No one story deserves to be privileged above the rest, but they all deserve to be told.