NATIONAL: The Australian Greens have called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to clarify whether he will make cuts to Aboriginal legal aid.
The Coalition announced it would slash $42 million over four years from the Indigenous Policy Reform Program during the election campaign.
Eight Aboriginal legal aid organisations from across Australia are funded under the program.
The Coalition claims the funding cuts will only affect the organisations at an administrative and policy level.
But those in the sector claim it will have an impact on service delivery in an environment where Aboriginal legal aid services are already chronically underfunded.
And earlier this week, the Attorney General’s department confirmed frontline services would not be isolated from the cuts, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said in a media statement today.
The head of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council Warren Mundine claimed he extracted a backflip on the funding cut from now Treasurer Joe Hockey during the election campaign.
But as yet, there has been no concrete commitment from the Abbott government about whether it will do this.
Senator Siewert said that the Prime Minister must urgently clarify the government’s position.
“If these cuts go ahead, it’s a sure thing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will end up in jail because they won’t be getting quality advice,” Senator Siewert said.
“Aboriginal people are already shamefully over-represented in our prison system and this Government made a commitment to start addressing it.
“For a man who promised to be the first Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, cutting legal aid is a shocking start,” Senator Siewert said.
Indigenous incarceration rates have soared over the 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Currently, 25 percent of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, a quarter of the total Australian prison population.
First Nations people make up less than 2.5 percent of the national population.
Across the states and territories there have been horrific rises in the level Australia jails its first peoples.
That was revealed in a parliamentary report “Doing Time – Time for Doing” two years ago.
It found that over the past decade, the Northern Territory has had the sharpest rise. In the period between 2000 to 2009, there was a 90 percent increase in Aboriginal people in jail.
This record is followed by South Australia, which saw a rise of 65 percent over the same period.
New South Wales is not far behind with a 57 percent increase, while Western Australia climbed by 54 percent.
Indigenous incarceration rates in Victoria rose by 50 percent in the same period, while Queensland had the lowest increase with 23 percent.
Contrary to popular belief, New South Wales jails the most black Australians, with 2,139 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders filling its prisons.
But Western Australia has the highest jailing rate per capita than any other state or territory.
In fact, it jails its Indigenous population at a higher rate per capita than any other country in the world.
WA is so bad it jails black males at a rate more than eight times greater than South Africa did when its Apartheid regime collapsed in 1993.
Currently, at least three Aboriginal Western Australians are in jail for every 100 West Australian residents.
Australian Greens Legal Affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wright said the Abbott government kept changing its story.
“The Coalition originally tried to claim this money would only affect advocacy services, now they’re creating huge uncertainty by saying it may not happen at all and it’s all still part of the budget process,” Senator Wright said.
“This is despite the fact the Coalition’s pre-election costings had the cuts starting this financial year.
“It’s time for Mr Abbott to state for once and for all that he will not cut Indigenous legal aid and get serious about reducing the shameful incarceration rates of Australia’s indigenous people.”