At least three social service programs crucial to Indigenous Australians and women have had their funding withdrawn or redistributed this year, despite independent reviews evaluating each program’s value to vulnerable communities.

In February 2019, the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) was independently reviewed by Cox Inall Ridgeway for the Attorney-General’s Department.

The review recommended the program be continued as a “standalone, specific purpose funding program with minimum five-year funding terms”.

Despite this recommendation, the Commonwealth has now absorbed the ILAP into the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), a partnership agreement with the States and Territories to be rolled out from July 1, 2020 until 2025.

News of this service mainstreaming emerged during the 2019-20 Federal Budget, causing over 100 organisations to sign a petition protesting the program’s axing.

In an open letter to the Attorney General’s Office in April, Change the Record and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) called on the incoming government to keep the ILAP.

“ATSILS will no longer be able to guarantee culturally safe legal services with control going to States and Territories. This will have a devastating impact on our communities,” said Co-Chair of Change the Record and NATSILS Cheryl Axleby at the time.

As the Morrison Government rolled in for another term, the ILAP was not retained as a standalone program.

In a statement to NIT, a spokesperson for Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the Morrison Government is increasing its funding for ATSILS to over $426 million over the next five years.

“The funding currently provided to ATSILS under ILAP will continue as a separate, quarantined, specific purpose funding stream within the NLAP,” the spokesperson said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will continue to be one of thirteen national priority client groups under the NLAP and will include a formal commitment to self-determination, the first time that these principles have been included within legal assistance arrangements.”


Diverting funds

June 2019 saw Charles Darwin University assess the effectiveness and progress of Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLSs) across Australia.

The evaluation was commissioned by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The only peak body representing Indigenous survivors of family and domestic violence, the recommendations were clear in the need for increased resourcing for the National FVPLS Forum.

There was evidence the Forum and Secretariat were effective in distributing information useful to FVPLSs and it was also noted stakeholders had always seen the need for a centralised body to bring providers together.

It was recommended a project be funded and undertaken through the Forum to investigate and develop alternative services to enable communities and families to address domestic or family violence without having to pursue Western legal action.

Another recommendation also encouraged the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to commission a national consultation with the FVPLSs to discuss issues from the report, including whether the Secretariat should be independent of a single FVPLS.

Despite these recommendations involving the ongoing funding and role of the National Forum, in early December the Federal Government chose to withdraw the minimal funding for the Forum.

National Forum Chair Antoinette Braybrook said fighting for the funding drains the Forum’s already limited resources.

There have been arguments as to whether the Government responded effectively to the CDU report, with both parties choosing to reference different parts of the report’s recommendations.

After wide protest, Minister Wyatt later retracted the funding cut and announced the $244,000 would instead be equally distributed to the 14 FVPLSs over the next three years to support a “co-design process” ensuring the continued role of the National Forum.

Despite actions to the contrary, a spokesperson for the Minister said the Federal Government has “consistently advised the FVPLS sector that it is committed to maintaining support for the National Forum.”


Ongoing funding recommendation ignored

In February 2018, Curtin University reviewed the Women’s Safety Network (WESNET) program, Safe Connections, a program providing safe avenues of communication for women in domestic and family violence situations across Australia.

Commissioned by WESNET, the report also had funding support from the Department of Social Services and Telstra – the program’s mobile phone provider.

The report’s authors, experts in Social Work, Social Policy and Psychology, labelled the program a “shining example of multi-sector collaboration” and concluded the program should have “increased, ongoing funding and resourcing”.

Although another commendable review, in late November, WESNET was also notified their program funding had come to an end.

The Federal Department of Social Services told WESNET to submit an unsolicited proposal to be considered for future funding – although the evaluation report recommended ongoing funding for the life-saving program.

WESNET National Director, Karen Bentley, said WESNET was told the original funding was a one-off, yet other initiatives have ongoing funding.

“The line we’ve been hearing from [the Department of Social Services] is it was one-off funding, we didn’t apply for grants, and we went to the media,” Ms Bentley said.

WESNET now has six months of funding left and must scramble to find alternative donors should their proposal be rejected by the Department.

Minister Wyatt’s Office declined to comment on the issue as WESNET funding falls under the Social Services portfolio.


Contesting claims

When asked about funding cuts to services supporting vulnerable groups like Indigenous Australians and Indigenous women, Minister Wyatt’s Office hit back hard.

The spokesperson said the suggestion funding is being cut from programs supporting Indigenous women is wrong.

“The Morrison Government is steadfast in its commitment to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians through the delivery of culturally appropriate legal assistance services,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to officially comment on the issue, saying Minister Wyatt’s Office had already replied on behalf of the Government.

Questions regarding why the National FVPLS Forum funding was diverted from the peak body were met with silence.

The Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson reinforced that the suggestion funding is being cut from programs supporting Indigenous women is incorrect.

By Hannah Cross