Federal Labor removes gag on legal aid centres that banned political advocacy | Australian politics

The Labor government has removed the Coalition’s gag on legal aid organisations taking part in political advocacy and lobbying, saying it “is ending this political censorship”.

On Tuesday the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, announced the gag on community legal centres receiving federal funding had been removed from the deal with states and territories regulating legal aid, as part of Labor’s broader commitment to allow social, legal and environmental charities to lobby government.

The gag, introduced by the Abbott government in 2014, prevented legal aid centres at the coalface of social issues including welfare, family violence, housing and consumer law from seeking law reform, including specialist domestic violence and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services.

Before 2014 the national legal assistance partnership stated that federal funding did not restrict the right of organisations “to enter into public debate or criticism of the commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents”.

In a statement Dreyfus said the Albanese government “is ending this political censorship and restoring independence and free speech to the community legal sector”.

“The government, and the Australian community can only benefit if legal assistance providers are able to speak up, and advocate for reform.

“Legal assistance providers are superbly well placed to provide advice on law reform and legal assistance.”

He said community legal centres, legal aid commissions, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services played a “crucial role” in ensuring all Australians could access justice systems.

“They understand better than most the challenges in their sector and the impacts of unmet need on vulnerable Australians.”

Under changes to the 2020-25 national legal assistance partnership, agreed with states and territories, the government has also cut reporting requirements, including time accounting for each matter supported by federal funding.

Dreyfus said this would “ease the administrative and bureaucratic burden” allowing providers to “focus on doing what they do best – providing much-needed frontline legal assistance services”.

In the October budget the government gave $13.5m over three years from 2022–23 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and $12m over four years from 2022–23 to community legal centres in New South Wales and Queensland to assist fire- and flood-affected individuals.

Community legal centres have welcomed the investment but insist more will be needed in future budgets to deal with overwhelming community need.

In June the assistant minister for charities and Treasury, Andrew Leigh, told Guardian Australia that Labor would look to remove gag clauses in future agreements with charities, and would direct the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the sector’s regulator, not to enforce those conditions in existing agreements.

“We need to hear from the anti-poverty charity on social reforms,” Leigh said.

“We need the wisdom of environmental charities in designing climate and environment policies. If you’re a community legal centre, we need to know when the law isn’t working.”

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