The long-running battle over the ministerial diaries of Attorney-General George Brandis is back in the news, a long way from where it started.
Both Senator Brandis and his Labor counterpart Mark Dreyfus have been locked in a three-year public fight over the diaries, with Labor now pushing to see Senator Brandis found in contempt of court.
But with so much of the political spectacle making headlines, it’s easy to forget where it all began.
Where did all of this start?
The answer lies in the Federal Government’s decision in the 2014 budget to cut $6 million from community legal centre funding, $15 million from legal aid commissions and $43 million from advocacy services nationwide from mid-2017.
The decision was in spite of a Productivity Commission report that year which found the sector would need $200 million each year just to meet growing demand.
As Attorney-General, Senator Brandis is responsible for the department that oversees funding to the community legal sector.
His Labor counterpart Mark Dreyfus requested Senator Brandis’ week-by-week ministerial diaries under FOI laws to see if Senator Brandis had consulted with the sector leading up to the 2014 budget, a request Senator Brandis has repeatedly refused.
Labor has long maintained that community legal funding cuts should be reversed, a position the sector almost unanimously holds.
Mr Dreyfus argues that if made public, the diaries would back up claims from the sector Senator Brandis never made time to meet before announcing the cuts.
However, it’s important to understand that what is allegedly contained in the diaries isn’t the actual problem.
Who is affected by the funding cuts?
Community legal centres provide invaluable services to the country’s most vulnerable on matters including domestic violence, tenancy, child protection and migration.
Their funding is distributed by the states and territories, with a large part provided by the Commonwealth through a national partnership agreement.
What is a community legal centre?
- Community legal centres are non-profit organisations providing free legal advice and casework often to the disadvantaged, vulnerable, or groups with special needs
- They can often specialise in one area, for example migration or housing
- Some centres also advocate for law reform and equitable access to the Australian justice system
Since the 2014 budget cuts were announced, there have been relentless warnings of a looming crisis in the community legal sector’s ability to continue providing services.
The Government did walk back some of the cuts in 2015, reinstating $25.5 million to the sector over two years, but many argue it’s still not enough.
It’s important to note that it isn’t just the community legal sector opposed to the cuts — every single state and territory attorney-general is too, even those from Senator Brandis’ own party.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has “implored” Senator Brandis to reverse the cuts he said would lead to a “funding cliff”.
Without reliable funding, centres are turning to other sources of revenue to survive, and it’s unlikely the release of Senator Brandis’ diaries will provide any direct remedy to this.
However, his refusal to hand them over does point to another important problem.
Why won’t Brandis hand over the diaries?
Senator Brandis has argued in court that Mr Dreyfus’s request for his diaries would take too long to process.
The matter ended up in the Federal Court, where a full bench ruled against Senator Brandis and ordered the Commonwealth to pay court costs amounting to $50,000 (it’s not hard to see the irony in the situation).
But there are a number of difficulties in using FOI laws to access ministerial documents, partially because ministers themselves are responsible for deciding whether to release information.
Ministers’ diaries are considered fair game under the FOI Act, which was introduced in the 1980s to promote government transparency.
But with the fight becoming so drawn-out and expensive, critics say the laws themselves are in need of an overhaul.