A government funding debacle has hurt the community legal sector across the country, forcing centres to close down and leaving vulnerable people in the lurch. By Royce Kurmelovs.
Funding cuts to community legal sector
No one seems to notice Mark Leahy as he slips into the cafe.
He’s discreet, 58, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a buttoned-up shirt, a pen in his front pocket. But as he sits down at the table, he looks tired.
It’s been almost two years since he lost his job managing the South Australian Welfare Rights Centre (WRC), an organisation that once provided legal advice and advocacy services to those on social security, and a year since he lost his home.
Now he is reliant on the systems he once lobbied to change, counted among 105,237 people experiencing homelessness in Australia. Most of these people are “invisible”, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, couch-surfing or living in their cars.
To explain how this all happened is tricky. Leahy’s circumstances aren’t the sole product of an immediate tragedy, more so the long-term convergence of events beyond his control.
“I’ve gone from having stable employment in a job where I was helping other people, having housing and stability, to having to live on $567 a fortnight and fearing it might be cut off – not having a home, not having a job, not having any sense of security or what’s going to happen in the future,” he says.
The story begins in early 2015 when the federal government rewrote the rules governing how money was distributed to community legal centres.
In doing away with the old “tripartite” funding arrangement, the Commonwealth government sought to withdraw from its active role in disbursing and administering public funding for 150 community legal centres around the country. Under the new arrangement, it would simply hand out the money and leave the states to sort out the detail.
At the same time, a messy patchwork of other funding arrangements formed what was referred to as a “funding cliff”, which forced an effective 30 per cent reduction in overall money for the sector by July 1, 2017.
Nassim Arrage, chief executive of the National Association of Community Legal Centres, says the combined impact of these decisions did not fall evenly across the states.
“Some state and territory governments were okay because they were more resourced, and so responded to that situation quite well,” he says. “Whereas the smaller states and territories like South Australia and the Northern Territory didn’t as they missed out on a lot of funding.”
South Australia, in particular, bristled at the change. The then Labor government announced the dropoff in funding would make the closure of services inevitable.
The personal implications of this announcement were lost on Mark Leahy at the time. The WRC had existed for 35 years and operated on a shoestring budget. The centre was widely recognised for the crucial service it provided to people experiencing unemployment and homelessness.
But once the competitive tender process began, Leahy saw what was coming.
“They employed a consultancy to run the tender which had no idea what the community legal sector was, didn’t understand the value of our services,” he says. “From the outset, their aim was to reduce the number of [community legal centres] in the state in order to save funds.”
To stay open, Leahy says, the WRC needed $400,000. It ended up with nothing.
Fearing public outrage ahead of a state election, the South Australian government found an extra $300,000 to stave off the centre’s closure through the 2017-18 financial year.
The $100,000 shortfall would cost Leahy his job. Two weeks after the grant was announced, the organisation scrapped his position and handed all responsibilities to the principal solicitor, Amanda Tsoundarou.
The WRC and its legal clinic closed for good in July 2019, letting go six paid staff and 20 volunteers.
By that time, the Liberal Party had formed government in South Australia after a landmark election victory. When the WRC’s closure was officially announced, Minister for Human Services Michelle Lensink attributed it to “longstanding concerns with the performance of their service”.
It was a curious statement. A 2016 report by accounting giant EY praised the WRC for operating a highly specialised service with a unique model that over-delivered for the low cost.
“I have no idea where that came from,” says Marg Riley, a former principal solicitor of the WRC. “We had a good report from Ernst & Young and we were closed down anyway.”
When contacted, a spokesperson from Lensink’s office declined to comment except to say the minister’s position on the closure “remains unchanged”.
The community legal sector now finds itself on the eve of negotiating its next funding agreement with the federal government, after a decade of slow decay.
Better-resourced state governments along the east coast have adapted to the new situation well, with Queensland’s collaborative tender process considered an example to follow as it allows for a fairer share of funding.
Meanwhile, the smaller states have struggled. While the Tasmanian government found an extra $500,000 to make up the shortfall left by the federal government, in South Australia the result was the loss of organisations such as the WRC.
“The South Australian example is a warning on how never to do it again,” says Nassim Arrage.
The precarity of funding faced by community legal centres also served as a lesson to other advocacy groups.
Jeremy Poxon, spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU), says his organisation has refused to accept government funding.
“If we did, we presumably wouldn’t be able to campaign as publicly and strongly as we do on issues like Newstart, robo-debt, Work for the Dole and mutual obligation [requirements],” he says.
Poxon says that in the past few years, low-income people have stepped into the gaps left by defunded community organisations – advocating for themselves, although only on a volunteer basis.
Being vocal has catapulted the AUWU to national prominence and has seen the organisation engaged by the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, where the AUWU has sought to implement changes to how the department handles social security programs.
But the organisation still faces challenges to its legitimacy, according to Poxon.
In December, a caller to its advice line informed the union that a departmental employee had told them on a routine call that the AUWU “has an agenda to cause a lot of damage to jobseekers with incorrect information”.
“We’ve been trying to find avenues within the department to build a working relationship with them,” Poxon says. “On an immediate level, to hear that people within Centrelink who are meant to be giving advice are attempting to discredit our organisation is outrageous.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business did not directly address claims about behaviour by front-line staff but said the department considers its relationship with the AUWU “a valuable and positive engagement”.
After losing his job in 2017, Mark Leahy took his redundancy package and a couple of months for a holiday after a stressful year working on the failed tender. But when he began to look for work again, despite the 26 years spent with WRC, he found there was simply nothing out there for someone with his skill set.
“There was a moment there, I woke up one morning and thought: ‘I’m going to become homeless,’ ” he says. “That thought would never occur to me at any time in my life that I was going to be homeless.”
Leahy says his landlord tried to help by using his bond to cover rent, but when no job offers came through, the money ran out. On August 21, 2018, he moved out, salvaging what he could and filling four bags with his belongings. The rest he abandoned, including his treasured book collection.
With nowhere to go, he spent a sleepless night under the porch of a building next to Adelaide’s Thebarton Theatre. The next day he posted on social media and some friends immediately reached out to offer him a temporary place to stay. He has been couch-surfing ever since.
After a year of experiencing homelessness, Leahy says uncertainty has been the defining experience. “I’ve been very grateful for the generous support of people who have been willing to put me up,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”
Looking beyond his own circumstances, Leahy says that Australia’s unemployed have been “abandoned by the major parties”.
“Unemployment rates are high and there doesn’t seem to be any political will to raise the rate of Newstart to a liveable level or to provide decent structural support to the unemployed,” he says.
Talk then turns back to his time at the WRC, and the wins the small team was able to get for those who asked them for help. The organisation had a 65 per cent success rate at appealing robo-debt cases through the tribunal system. Leahy personally appeared before senate inquiries to give evidence and met with ministers to give them briefings.
Today, steeled by personal experience, he believes more strongly than ever in the reforms for which he spent more than two decades advocating.
“You know, one day when we were lobbying,” he says, showing quiet disbelief at the memory, “we had a minister tell us homelessness is a life choice, that people go homeless to get out of paying rent.
“The truth is the opposite. When homelessness happens to you, it robs you of your choices.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Bedevilled advocates".
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