Economic Justice Australia welcomes the budget announcement that will boost funding for its NSW and Queensland community legal centre members to support their work with disaster affected communities.
The announcement of $12.0 million over 4 years from 2022–23 for community legal centres in New South Wales and Queensland to enable people in flood-affected communities to access free legal assistance, including on social security entitlements, is very welcome – part of a funding investment package promised pre-election by the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus.
“The issues that impact people relying on income support who have experienced a disaster, whether an extreme weather event or a disaster like COVID-19, can be complex and require specialist social security legal assistance to resolve”, said Katherine Boyle, Deputy Chair of Economic Justice Australia and Executive Director of Welfare Rights Centre NSW.
“For example, we have seen inconsistent decisions made by Centrelink re whether a disaster can be taken as a ‘special circumstance’ that will enable people subject to a compensation preclusion period to access Centrelink support earlier. We’ve seen cases where disasters like bushfires, floods, the COVID pandemic, or a combination of all three, have only been taken into account with the help of a lawyer appealing Centrelink decisions to an Authorised Review Officer or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal”, said Boyle.
“While this injection of funds is very welcome, the chronic under-funding of social security legal services means that a top up like this one does little to address the longstanding need to enhance access to specialist social security legal assistance – particularly for people in regional, remote and very remote communities”, said Boyle.
Robodebt is a prime example of the long-standing need for a substantial boost to ongoing funding for specialist social security legal assistance. In the aftermath of Robodebt, Economic Justice Australia has been advocating for greater transparency and human rights protections in Centrelink decision making – as well as legislative reforms to improve the support the social security system provides to victims/survivors fleeing family and domestic violence. Economic Justice Australia has also been advocating for reforms to enhance access to social security for people with disability in vulnerable cohorts, including people in remote and very remote communities.
“The Robodebt debacle highlights the risk to vulnerable people when under-resourcing makes it challenging for the organisations meant to hold government accountable to do their job. Assisting clients, identifying problems with the system and effectively advocating for change, is vital to ensuring that the system is working as intended for those who need it most”, said Boyle.
The announcement of an additional $560m over four years for government-funded community organisations, is also very welcome. However, there is as yet little detail as to which organisations will be eligible to apply for access to this “pool” of funds, or re the application process.
“We know that there will be an allocation for social services”, said Boyle, “but we don’t yet know whether this may be a source of much-needed funds for specialist social security legal help”.
Despite the signs that the Government is seeking to strengthen its engagement with the community sector, Economic Justice Australia is disappointed that apart from a substantial injection of funding for Disaster Payments, the budget has provided little if any relief to people reliant on social security income support.
“We call on the Government to heed calls from the community and business sectors to raise the basic rate of JobSeeker Payment to at least $73 a day, the same level as pensions. The rising cost of living affects everyone, but those with the least are hit hardest. It is impossible to cover the basics of a home, food and health care while living so far below the poverty line on $48 a day”, said Boyle.
MEDIA CONTACT: Katherine Boyle (Deputy Chair, Economic Justice Australia and Executive Director, Welfare Rights Centre NSW) M: 0430 306 823 E: firstname.lastname@example.org