Budget overview: Cuts to justice and human rights
15th May 2014
With the Federal Budget announced on Tuesday night, commentary has spread far and wide. Here, we provide a snapshot overview of some of the suggested changes that impact on human rights review, legal assistance, Indigenous rights, asylum seeker rights and human rights education.
We also have provided another overview of how the Federal Budget may affect the injured, with a special focus on cuts to health and welfare, which can be viewed here. These cuts will also prejudice Indigenous Australians, individuals who are struggling financially and those living in rural and remote communities.
Removal of one of the Commissioner roles at the Australian Human Rights Commission
The Budget papers state that one of the Commissioner roles at the Australian Human Rights Commission will be removed, following the next vacancy in July 2014, just a few months away. An existing commissioner will take on a dual appointment.
The role likely to be affected is that of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Graeme Innes, who has held the position since 2005, tweeted on May 14 that:
'Last night's budget papers indicate that when I finish in July my position at the commission will not be filled.' - @GraemeInnes
The move is surprising, especially given the government’s apparent commitment to the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Abolition of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor
The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) was announced by the Federal government in 2008 and passed the Senate in 2010. Its function was to independently review national security legislation, and provide an annual report to the Parliament. In the UK, such a body has existed since 1981 and has proved to be an important safeguard on human rights.
Without the INSLM, current arrangements in Australia are not sufficiently transparent and interconnected to ensure effective holistic review of relevant legislation.
A Senate Inquiry is currently examining the proposed repeal of this mechanism. Our submission on the issue can be viewed here. The Senate Inquiry has not yet completed its report, which is due for release on 2 June.
The Federal government has estimated costs savings of $1.3 million over four years via abolishing the INSLM.
Merging of merits review tribunals
The Government announced that it will amalgamate all of the Commonwealth merits review tribunals with the exception of the Veterans Review Board, from 1 July 2015.
The amalgamated body will take on the functions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, the Refugee Review Tribunal and Migration Review Tribunal, and the Classification Review Board. Details of the new arrangements will be developed in consultation with key stakeholders.
Cuts to Legal Aid Commissions
The Government announced it will provide $204.4 million to Legal Aid Commissions in the states and territories in 2014‑15 to extend the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services (NPA) by one year to 30 June 2015. The Agreement was designed to facilitate reform in the legal assistance sector and provide access to justice for disadvantaged Australians through the delivery of legal assistance services.
However, this funding dedication is marks a $15 million cut on funding proposed in the 2013-14 Budget. The 2013-14 Budget allocated $15 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15 to State and Territory legal aid commissions.
The Parliamentary Library notes that ‘as a proportion of total national legal aid funding, the Commonwealth’s contribution has decreased overtime from over 60% in 1994 to as low as 32% in 2010, while increasing slightly in the 2013-2014 budget to approximately 35% of total funding.’
Therefore, following the 2014 Budget, it would appear that this percentage has again reduced.
Meanwhile, the Productivity Commission continues its inquiry into Access to Justice in Australia, with its Draft Report released in April 2014. In its Draft Report, if offers a critique of the current NPA, stating that ‘with the NPA on legal assistance services expiring on 30 June 2014, there is an opportunity for a renegotiation of the agreement.’ [at 689]
The Draft Report also notes that ‘in late 2013, the Commonwealth Government announced a cut of $43.1 million in funding over four years from 2013-14. This cut removed funding support for policy reform and advocacy activities provided to the four legal assistance providers. The Government indicated that funding for the provision of front line legal services would not be affected.’ [at 601]
The cut of $15 million for 2014-15 alone is slightly harsher than that deployed in 2013 for $43.1 million over 4 years and aggravates the current uncertainty surrounding Legal Aid funding.
Cuts to the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme
The Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme (IAAAS) provides free, professional migration advice and visa application assistance to people who have arrived in Australia with a valid visa and who meet specific eligibility criteria with respect to disadvantage.
The IAAAS therefore can provide advice to asylum seekers that arrive by air, but not by sea.
The Government proposes to save $2.1 million over four years by axing assistance for merits review of a negative primary protection decision: essentially, any appeal on the merits of a failed refugee determination.
The IAAAS will remain in place for primary processing, i.e. the initial application stages of the claim.
Indigenous affairs has taken some severe cuts.
Cessation of funding to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples is the peak body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia and is a membership organisation.
The Government has announced it will save $15.0 million over three years by ceasing funding for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. Funding will be ceased from 1 July 2014.
Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Kirstie Parker, described on Twitter:
'Budget confirmation of flagged funding cut to Congress a bad blow for self-determination but by no means a knockout punch.' - @kirstiecongress
Cuts in funding to Indigenous language programs, while beefing up school truancy programs
The Government has announced it will cut $10 million in funding for Indigenous language programs over 4 years.
A federal parliamentary inquiry in 2012 noted that evidence was received that ‘demonstrated positive links between incorporating Indigenous languages into schools and improvements in school attendance rates,’ and that studies carried out in Queensland and New South Wales indicated that the inclusion of Indigenous language learning at school did lead to an increase in school attendance.
However, while Indigenous language funding has been cut, a school truancy office program will be introduced in 74 schools at a cost of $18 million.
Speedier removal to offshore detention
The Government has announced that it will upgrade ‘essential infrastructure on Christmas Island which will support the rapid transfer of [asylum seekers who have arrived by sea] to Offshore Processing Centres within 48 hours. This measure includes funding for health infrastructure which will reduce the need to transfer detainees to the Australian mainland for assessment and treatment of health issues.’
This budget measure aims to remove people as quickly as possible from Australian soil, with little to no access to lawyers. This budget measure will cost $217.6 million over five years.
Further information can be found in the Coalition's Policy for a Regional Deterrence Framework to Combat People Smuggling.
Reforms targeting compliance, removal and network management arrangement
The Government has announced that it will provide $149.9 million over five years to fund ‘a range of reforms to compliance, removal and network management arrangements for Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) who have remained in Australia. This measure will increase the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's removal and compliance capability by extending mainstream compliance and removal functions to the IMA legacy caseload.
This unclear policy directive points to the Coalition's Policy to Clear Labor's 30,000 Border Failure Backlog for further information, which may provide clarity as to where this funding will be allocated. This document outlines a number of policies, including establishing temporary protection visas; abolishing appeals to the Refugee Review Tribunal and not providing refugee and special humanitarian visas to anyone who has arrived by boat.
In addition, the ‘benefit of the doubt for those throwing their documents away’ is proposed to be removed: ‘where an assessor makes a reasonable assessment that an applicant for asylum has deliberately discarded their identity documentation, there will be a presumption against awarding refugee status.’
It remains unclear as to which of these policies will be funded by this budget measure.
Cutting allocation of places for asylum seekers’ families
The Government has announced it will achieve savings of $305.2 million (including a reduction in revenue of $112.9 million) over five years, by modifying the size and composition of the 2014‑15 Migration Programme.
The Government will remove 4,000 places allocated to Illegal Maritime Arrivals in the Family Stream, thus reversing the Mid‑Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2012‑13 measure titled Response to the expert panel — Permanent migration programme — additional family stream places.
Supervision of unaccompanied minors
Funding of $20.2 million over two years ($12.2 million in administered costs in 2012-13) will go towards the supervision and support of unaccompanied humanitarian minors. The program provides settlement services to minors who arrive in Australia without a guardian and who are the recipients of a Humanitarian Visa.
Closing nine out of sixteen detention facilities in the onshore detention network
The Government has announced it will ‘consolidate the onshore immigration detention network by closing nine detention facilities (Aqua and Lilac; Curtin; Darwin Airport Lodge; Inverbrackie; Leonora; Northern; Pontville; Port Augusta; and Scherger). There are currently 16 detention centres in Australia, including the Christmas Island detention centre, thus half of all onshore immigration detention facilities will be closed. Leases will be extended on Blaydin Point and Wickham Point facilities. At Blaydin, accommodation is in shipping containers 2.4m x 6m. Wickham Point, which is 45 kilometres from Darwin, was questioned in its suitability for human accommodation due to the number of midges and other insects in the swamp like conditions.
Advocacy organisation ChilOut has noted that some of the detention centres to be closed are among the most humane.
‘Darwin Airport Lodge: this fenced off motel is the least oppressive of Darwin's huge detention capabilities. Whilst we are completely opposed to indefinite detention, particularly of children, this site is far less prison-like than Blaydin Pt and Wickham Pt where children in Darwin are held. ‘
'Inverbrackie: this facility is one of the more humane in that people have 'house like' environments, not tents or shipping containers. Families can cook for their children, there is an incredibly supportive local community who visit and children attend local schools.’
The Northern Immigration Detention Centre is the detention centre which, since 2005, has often been used to detain fishermen from Indonesia and the surrounding regions who have been charged with foreign fishing offences. Prior to this, fishermen were detained on board their own boats strung up to wharves in Darwin. This practice was abandoned in 2005 following two deaths in custody. We question where foreign fishers will now be detained and have ongoing concerns for their safety.
This move will save $283.3 million over four years and will also partially offset by expenditure associated with increasing cooperation between the Commonwealth and the Australian Federal Police and State and Territory Police services.
Cuts to ABC will mean no more ABC Ramp Up
The ABC’s budget will be cut by $120m over the next four years as a result of decisions made by the Federal Government in [the] budget. (See the ABC Budget response)
In addition to the funding cuts, the ABC will also have to manage the cessation of funding for the online disability website, ABC Ramp Up, at the end of this financial year. (See article in The Guardian and @ABCRampUp)
Cessation of human rights education programme
The Commonwealth Human Rights Education Programme will be scrapped, ceasing from 1 July 2014.
The Federal government estimates savings of $1.8 million over four years.
The program previously provided grants for community organisations to fund programs educating the community about universal human rights, including Indigenous, disability, refugee and LBTQ rights.
Here, we have provided just a small snapshot of justice issues within the Budget. There are many more initiatives suggested that will impact significantly on individuals’ rights and lives.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).