Tuesday 17/12/2013 Tom Arup, The Age
Australia’s environmental legal centres have lost their federal funding in a move that could see the closure of some of the nine offices around the country.
The federal government has immediately cut an estimated $10 million boost over four years quietly given to Environmental Defender’s Offices in the dying days of the former Labor government.
The government is also planning to end a long-standing annual payment – which for all but one office was around $90,000 – from July 1, meaning the legal centres will no longer receive any federal funding from mid-next year.
The impact of the cuts will differ around the country with each office having a different reliance on federal funding, with some receiving state government contributions and private donations. But the move is expected to put real pressure on smaller offices in places such as Darwin, Cairns, Perth and Hobart to stay open.
Environment Defender’s Offices provide legal advice and representation to individuals and groups on conservation issues, while also advocating law reform.
In Victoria the Environmental Defender’s Office recently took the state government to court to force it to prepare recovery plans for four endangered species, which it was required to do under threatened species laws, but had failed to do so over many years.
Defender’s Offices are also often used by community and environment groups fighting major developments.
Brendan Sydes, chief executive of the Victorian office, said the cuts would mean about a 45 to 50 per cent reduction in his organisation’s funding.
He said the office was set to receive its next payment under the former federal government’s boosted funding next week, but instead had received a call from the Attorney-General’s department on Tuesday afternoon saying the Coalition government was not honouring the commitment.
‘‘This decision by the federal government demonstrates the hostility that this government has for the many Australian communities using the law to stand up for the places they love,’’ Mr Sydes said.
‘‘We are extremely disappointed that they are terminating a four-year funding agreement only six months into the term.’’
A spokesman for the NSW Environmental Defender’s Office said the decision would mean a reduction of 20 to 30 per cent in its funding.
In October the NSW Minerals Council publicly called for Attorney–General George Brandis to stop funding the NSW Defender’s Office, saying it had always been concerned about the way it had helped stall project approvals.
Environmental Defender's Office NSW executive director Jeff Smith said: Many Australians who care about protecting the environment will be alarmed about losing their EDOs.
He pointed to the high profile case in which NSW office represented residents of Bulga in the Hunter Valley who won a court challenge against the expansion of a nearby coal mine.
The cuts to environment legal services came as part of the government's mid-year budget update released in Tuesday. In the budget update there is an overall cut of $43.1 million over four years to ''Legal Policy Reform and Advocacy Funding''.
That includes reductions of $6.5 million to Legal Aid Commissions, $13.3 million to National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, $3.66 million to Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, and $19.6 million to the Community Legal Service Program, out of the Environment Defender's Offices were funded.
In the budget papers the government says the funding cuts would not affect the provision of frontline services.
Fairfax Media has sought comment from Senator Brandis’ office.
Senator Brandis told a senate committe last week federal government funding should be focused on frontline legal-aid services, not legal advocacy work.