International development agency Oxfam Australia is calling on the Coalition not to cut vital legal aid services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, saying it could lead to more Aboriginal people being caught up in the criminal justice system.
Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive Dr Helen Szoke said the $42 million cut – outlined in the Coalition’s policy commitments announced yesterday – was at odds with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s recent positive commitments on Indigenous affairs.
“We welcome that the Coalition has listed Close the Gap as an urgent priority in its Indigenous affairs policy, and its ongoing strong support for constitutional recognition,” Dr Szoke said.
“But it is disappointing the Coalition has targeted the sector that provides legal advice and assistance to some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
“Incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which are 15 times higher than those of non-Indigenous Australians, are cause for national shame and won’t be addressed by cutting funding to legal services.
“Given Mr Abbott’s longstanding support for addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and the positive elements of the Coalition’s Indigenous policy, there is a question as to whether this is another policy mistake.”
The agency said the cut would mean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be left to face court without appropriate advice or representation – something all Australians should have a right to – and would increase the pressure on the justice system.
The funding cut – which represents around 20 per cent of overall funding for the sector – could also increase the likelihood of people going to jail and continue the appalling cycle of over-incarceration.
“These cuts would make it harder for the Coalition to meet its commitment to reduce incarceration rates, and also bring into question whether the move would save money in the long run,” Dr Szoke said.
“In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a 50 per cent rise in the rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, compared to five per cent for the rest of the population.
“These services are already vastly underfunded and they play a critical role by providing access to culturally appropriate legal services.”
For interviews or more information contact Oxfam Australia Media Coordinator Chee Chee Leung on 0412 560 584 or firstname.lastname@example.org