The Politics    Friday, March 27, 2015

Why was this government policy?

By Russell Marks

George Brandis sensibly reversed his planned cuts to legal services yesterday, but he didn’t explain why it was Coalition policy for 18 months

On the eve of the 2013 election, the Coalition announced that it would be cutting $43 million from Indigenous legal services across the country. Unlike many of its later cuts (to health, education and public broadcasting), these were known when Australians voted on 7 September. Like many of those other cuts, they were abominably short-sighted. Any competent economic analysis of the justice system would conclude that the savings to be made are in reducing the skyrocketing rates of imprisonment, which are now at the highest level since the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps counterintuitively, those savings can be effected by investing properly in “at risk” communities and young people well before they start breaking the law, most often during adolescence.

Prison is an extraordinarily expensive method of social control. And while it does benefit society by containing criminal behaviour during the time a person is incarcerated, in general it doesn’t rehabilitate and it doesn’t deter. On the contrary: spending time in prison actually makes a person slightly more likely to reoffend. And because imprisonment overwhelmingly targets already disadvantaged populations, it has a devastating effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. Indigenous people are up to 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people.

For the last year and a half, legal aid commissions and legal services across Australia have been bracing for funding cuts whose only effect would have been to further increase rates of imprisonment and also, perversely, the budget deficit. In December 2013, the government confirmed that the cuts would amount to $42 million over four years, but would cover non-Indigenous services as well. George Brandis’ last-minute backflip yesterday afternoon – just before legal services were due to begin cutting staff and frontline services – is to be welcomed, but one wonders how the cuts were ever justified in the first place, and for so long. The legal services backflip joins five other policy “barnacles” knocked off since February’s failed leadership spill, two of which – the Medicare co-payment and funding cuts to homeless services – were also likely to have increased the deficit while entrenching existing disadvantage.

I should add a disclaimer: I worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service as a defence lawyer until a year ago – that experience informed my book, Crime & Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System, which is available now. And with that shameless plug, I must also add that this is my last editorial for The Monthly Today before I begin a new role. From Monday next week, Sean Kelly – former adviser to both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – will take over the reins. Thanks to readers for your interest and your correspondence – it’s been fun, and you’re in excellent hands with Sean.

The Round-up

Data retention

Max Chalmers reports at New Matilda: “While you were watching the cricket last night, Labor helped Brandis pass his data retention laws.”

Jackson Stiles repots at The New Daily: “This handful of senators fought for your privacy.”

Paul Farrell’s analysis at Guardian Australia: “The story of your life in metadata is an open book. It paints a picture of where you went, who you spoke with, how long you were there for. What were you doing talking on the phone to the sexually transmitted infections clinic?”

Satire by The Roast via Guardian Australia (video)

NSW election 2015

Peter John Chen’s analysis at The Conversation: “NSW voters are set to back Baird, but the upper house is too close to call.”

Gay Alcorn reports at Guardian Australia: “In vast swaths of rural New South Wales, there's only one election issue: coal seam gas.”

Bridie Jabour reports at Guardian Australia: “The NSW government has refused to rule a Chinese power firm out of the bidding process to privatise the state’s electricity assets despite the company being investigated for corruption.”

Glenn Druery comments in Fairfax: “While the betting markets are already paying out on a Coalition win, that isn’t quite the end of the story. The outcome on Saturday could be a potential win-win for both Baird and Foley.”

Rob Oakeshott comments at Crikey: “Nothing matters in this NSW election.”

Environment and energy


Peter Hannam and Lisa Cox report in Fairfax: “The Abbott government has proposed a major concession to the heavy-polluting electricity industry in its direct action climate change policy by exempting individual companies from caps on emissions.”

Phillip Coorey reports in the AFR: “The large-scale solar industry is fighting growing momentum to agree on a new Renewable Energy Target, fearing it will lose out because its projects are not due to begin until the end of the decade. By then, wind will have used up most of the target.”

Lenore Taylor reports at Guardian Australia: “The final element of the Abbott government’s Direct Action climate change policy will at best mean major polluters continue business as usual and at worst lead to significant increases in their greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Climate Institute thinktank.”

Thom Mitchell reports at New Matilda: “Dredging channels to expand shipping ports is having a dramatic affect on one of the world's greatest reefs, says a government report.”

John Hewson comments at Guardian Australia: “Extensive ‘advice’ from AGL, Energy Australia and Origin on the Renewable Energy Target has been a disaster – except for the companies’ profits.”

Indigenous affairs

Lisa Cox reports in Fairfax: “Indigenous land holders are mounting a challenge to Australia's largest coal project and are calling on Queensland's Labor government to refuse a mining lease to the Indian company developing it.”

Anna Henderson reports at ABC News: “The vast majority of Australians support changing the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while a significant number also support full ‘assimilation’ into broader Australia, according to a new poll.”

Calla Wahlquist reports at Guardian Australia: “The WA premier, Colin Barnett, says he hopes parliament will pass a bill to recognise Indigenous people in the state constitution by Western Australia Day, 1 June, after a parliamentary report found the move would have a negligible effect on existing laws.”


Michael Janda reports at ABC News: “Fair trade and consumer groups say a leaked draft chapter of the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership shows that the Australian government may be willing to trade off health and environmental protections.”

Kyla Tienhaara comments at The Drum: “Forget footnotes, qualifications and special exemptions – if Australia wants to be safeguarded from investor-state dispute settlements it must reject their presence in the TPP entirely.”

Election reform

Lenore Taylor reports at Guardian Australia: “Abbott government ministers have started private informal consultations about highly sensitive changes to the Senate voting system aimed at reducing the influence of minor parties, but bipartisan support is not assured, with Labor deeply divided on the issue.”

Budget 2015

Phillip Coorey reports in the AFR: “The federal Parliament has sat for the last time before the May budget, leaving more than $27 billion in measures from the last budget either blocked, unresolved or abandoned.”

Sue Dunlevy reports at NewsCorp: “Cancer patients will have their out of pocket costs for life saving radiotherapy treble to up to $12,000 under a budget cut that reduces the amount they get from the Medicare Safety Net.”

Satire at The Shovel: “Treasurer Joe Hockey has corrected an earlier statement, conceding that The Age of Entitlement is in fact 49, not ‘over’ as he had previously claimed.”

International relations

David Wroe reports in Fairfax: “Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been too busy to return Tony Abbott's phone call about the fate of the Bali nine pair on death row, Jakarta's envoy in Australia has said.”

John Garnaut comments in Fairfax: “Successive Australian governments have failed to talk with honesty and nuance about China, making challenges posed by the rising power look more daunting than they are.”

Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015

Live coverage of Malcolm Fraser’s state funeral is provided at ABC NewsGuardian Australia and Fairfax.

Dan Harrison reports in Fairfax: “The political party Malcolm Fraser was working to set up when he died was to stand for an Australian republic which was reconciled with its first peoples through a treaty, with a larger population, a more independent foreign policy and a post-carbon economy.”

Van Badham comments at Guardian Australia: “The manifesto of a new political party is a scorching indictment on the major political parties’ abandonment of egalitarianism.”

Latika Bourke reports in Fairfax: “Kevin Rudd is sending his youngest son Marcus Rudd to take his place at the state funeral for former prime minister Malcolm Fraser to be held in Melbourne today.”


Laura Tingle’s analysis in the AFR: “If voters think the Prime Minister is a fool, they don't really think anything of Shorten at all.”

Barrie Cassidy’s analysis at The Drum: “The Coalition has closed gap on Labor in the latest Newspoll, but only once the NSW election and the May budget have passed will Tony Abbott's future be clear.”

Sabra Lane and Lucy Barbour report at ABC News: “The Liberal MP who was first to declare he had lost confidence in Tony Abbott’s leadership says the prime minister’s chances of remaining in the top job are ‘looking good’.”

Alan Stokes comments in Fairfax: “The Liberal partyroom inevitably looks for a saviour. Mike Baird is it! Yes, he's been reluctant so far to countenance a move to federal politics. But a people-power ‘Baird for Canberra’ campaign will soon change that.”

Jason Wilson comments at Guardian Australia: “No politician has aired his weirdness in public more than Tony Abbott. Why didn’t we realise that was a problem until he ate a couple of raw onions?”

Defence appointments

Dan Moss reports at The New Daily: “A reshuffle of the defence chiefs will elevate one of the government’s top advisors to a key role in the defence force. But it’s not the first time the Abbott government has moved to install his hand-picked heads in favour of Labor’s instalments.”

Seeking refuge

Josh Dye reports in Fairfax: “Freed Australian journalist Peter Greste has criticised the Abbott government for denying journalists access to asylum seekers held in immigration detention centres.”


Heath Aston reports in Fairfax: “Parliament is set to examine the ice scourge ravaging communities all over the country following the release of a landmark report into the issue.”


Nassim Khadem reports in Fairfax: “People and companies charged with tax fraud or tax evasion should be granted the presumption of innocence in court, according to a parliamentary inquiry that pushes the federal government to radically overhaul current rules.”

Marriage equality

Shalailah Medhora reports at Guardian Australia: “Attitudes towards same-sex marriage are softening within the Liberal party, consistent with community views, the assistant treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said.”

States of the nation

VIC – Michael Bleby reports in the AFR: “Victoria’s Labor government will alter the key plan underpinning Melbourne's development to focus on climate change, housing affordability and energy efficiency.”

QLD – Joshua Robertson reports at Guardian Australia: “Queensland’s judiciary is in crisis and the role of chief justice Tim Carmody appears increasingly problematic after a colleague publicly revealed the depth of dysfunction in the courts’ top echelons.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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