The director of NSW Community Legal Centres (CLC) Alastair McEwin flew into Lismore yesterday to discuss a looming funding crisis with staff at the northern rivers office.
Echonetdaily reported last week that the state Attorney-General warned the eight NSW centres in April that under new guidelines their funding could be at risk if they engage in any law reform or advocacy critical of government.
The centres are jointly funded by state and federal governments, and while the federal government has clearly voiced its opposition to the proposed guidelines, Mr McEwin said the centres urgently needed clarification from both attorney-generals.
‘We have contacted both the federal and state AGs as of last week for an update on their intentions because, as you can appreciate, this is the last week of May,’ he said.
‘We have four weeks of our current funding agreement to go and we have absolutely no idea what either of them intend to do in finalising the shared funding agreement.’
A spokeswoman for federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told the Sydney Morning Herald last week that the not-for-profit sector should be ‘free to engage in policy advocacy and political debate regardless of sources of funding’.
‘The NSW government’s attempt to gag advocacy is opposed to the freedom of political communication characteristic of Australia’s robust and open democracy,’ he said.
‘Community legal centres are at the front line of service delivery and are often able to provide insights and contributions to policy development in their areas of expertise. They often provide a voice to those who are less able to advocate for themselves.’
The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre manager Angela Pollard said the funding crisis cast a shadow of uncertainty on their work in the community which includes advocacy for victims of institutional sexual abuse wanting to tell their stories at the current Royal Commission, and landowners and protestors campaigning against coal seam gas development.
Mr McEwin added that the gag on advocacy could be rolled out across the entire community sector.
‘There’s a very real potential the government could apply the ban to all community organisations like health and welfare,’ he said.
‘The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre has been very active and works very closely with many people in the community, particularly in areas they’ve identified that could become problem areas for the government later on, which is what the new guidelines are trying to do, they’re trying to stop individual centres like the Northern Rivers from going out into the community, raising concern and then working with those people.
‘If the CLCs know what the concerns of the community are, and if the government doesn’t want to hear those, these funding restrictions are very much designed to stop that kind of work.
Mr McEwin said the centres held two days of meetings last week where all agreed law reform and advocacy was central to the work they did.
‘So the members resolved that the funding guidelines should be rejected in their current form – we need to remind the government of the value of law reform including lobbying and public campaigning,’ he said.
Should the state government decide to play hard-ball, Mr McEwin said the centres would have to seriously reconsider how they deliver services after July 1.
‘We would hope it doesn’t come to that – if there is no funding from the state then that will create a funding crisis situation for virtually every CLC in NSW,’ he said.
‘It is also worth noting that CLCs have a holistic service approach, the work they do is not only legal work but also assists clients to find other support services such as community support, welfare or counselling.’
Meanwhile federal finance minister Penny Wong has sponsored the Not for Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill designed to stop similar undermining of federal funding to advocacy groups.
She announced at a speech to the not-for-profit community sector in Brisbane in March that she had the ‘deepest respect for the work’ their organisations did.
‘We will introduce the Not for Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill during the next sitting of Parliament. This Bill embodies a belief in freedom of speech. It is predicated on the principle that advocacy from the not-for-profit sector is important and should not be restricted,’ she said.
‘It will protect the voice of your sector, banning gag clauses from all Commonwealth contracts. It recognises and supports the independence of the not-for-profit sector and declares that your advocacy cannot be impinged upon by the Commonwealth.’