A guide to free speech in Australia, post-Brandis

This article was published by The Vine on 7 August 2014

The government has (thankfully) abandoned their changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, but don’t think the battle for free speech is over. With far less fanfare, George Brandis laid another brick on Australia’s road to nowhere in July by banning community legal centres from speaking up about human rights abuses and failures of the justice system.

Community lawyers represent the most marginalised and powerless people; often they’re the only way these people’s voices can be heard by the rest of us. But all that is about to change.

How did we miss this? It was smuggled in the back door by a simple change of wording to funding agreements between the government and community legal centres.

It might sound like an administrative trifle, but the impact will be felt with force as other community groups start to toe the line and public debate becomes monopolised by the status quo. In the current economic climate, funding agreements will be a key way the government can quietly gag its opponents. All in all, the prognosis for free speech in this country is pretty grim. So what exactly is going on, and how is the government getting away with it?

Like most things, it all comes back to the mighty dollar. The government funds a lot of things and, at the moment, they’re spending more than they want to. This includes over 200 community legal centres helping women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, refugees, asylum seekers, and disadvantaged communities.

These legal centres play a unique role in the lives of over 350,000 ordinary people every year. The point of community legal centres is that they don’t charge legal fees and they deal with almost everything that comes in the door. Drug possession, a dodgy loan, mounting train fines, serious assault charges – the list goes on.

This means they see a lot of shit but, most importantly, they see a lot of the same shit. Calling out the problems in the system, such as a lack of payment plans for driving fines in the ACT, is a huge part of what community legal centres do. Community lawyers don’t just rock up to court and do their thing then brush their hands off.

Carolyn Bond AO, the spokesperson for Community Law Australia, echoes this: “They think hold on, we need to do something to alert the public or the relevant organisation about what’s happening to try and get the issue fixed. It stops problems happening before they start.”

The government, unfortunately, doesn’t want to hear about the problems of ordinary or socially marginalised people right now. And because the government funds the work of community legal centres, they get the final say on what they will and won’t pay for.

In the ultimate stealth move, the government seized the opportunity to fix things in their favour by redrafting community legal centres’ funding agreements, which expired on 30 June. Previously, four core activities were listed in the agreements including three frontline legal services plus “law reform and legal policy” work. In the new agreement the fourth activity is gone, meaning legal centres can’t use any government money to investigate or speak up about chronic legal problems affecting their clients.

From now on, the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre can’t use Commonwealth funding to alert the government and the public about asylum seekers whose claims are put on hold for years at a time. The Consumer Action Legal Centre can’t look into the practices of dodgy credit companies or door-to-door sales, as they have in the past. For cash-strapped centres, finding other money to do this work is a difficult task.

George Brandis, who as Attorney-General is responsible for this handiwork, has said the change is not about gagging legal centres, it’s a question of priorities. “Where resources are limited, I would rather see that money spent helping individual people in need who cannot afford a lawyer.”

But law reform can fix a broken system to stop the same problems occurring, saving money in the long term. And, as Carolyn Bond points out, we all benefit indirectly when unfair or inefficient systems are changed for the better.

Why would any government want to stop spending money on something that has long-term benefits for everyone? Probably because we haven’t seen half of what the Coalition has planned for welfare, the environment, and anything else people care enough about to kick up a stink. It goes without saying that the people in most need of free legal help are the same people who receive welfare or earn low wages.

“It’s certainly going to close down some public debate on important issues that affect disadvantaged people,” Bond says of the changes.

Apart from something feeling ‘not quite right’ about this ban, it’s also a dangerous sign of what the government has in its sights for our right to free speech. First, there was the now-defeated move to repeal sections of the Racial Discrimination Act that got Andrew Bolt and his big mouth into trouble. That bright idea was only shelved because of a hostile Upper House that was unlikely to pass the changes. The gag on community legal centres represents another significant piece of the puzzle. Check out the precedent that’s been set by Campbell Newman’s government in Queensland, where no one will even speak off the record on ‘advocacy issues’ and a link on your website can get you into trouble.

Every three years, community organisations sign new funding agreements with the federal government. What will happen in the next round of agreements might be called a ‘known unknown’. Whatever the government does define as ‘free speech’, it apparently doesn’t include speaking up for actual minorities, who suffer real human rights abuses. Why would anyone want to do that?

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