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Issue #1805      November 29, 2017

CAALAS under threat as government cuts funding

One of the oldest Aboriginal community controlled organisations in the country, the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS), is likely to have to close after the federal government decided to no longer provide funding.

CAALAS staff and board members were left reeling after receiving the news that the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department had decided to award the contract for legal services for the Northern Territory southern region to another Aboriginal legal service, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) from next year.

CAALAS chair Terry Tilmouth said the decision demonstrated disrespect to, and disempowerment of, Aboriginal people.

“This is another slap in the face or Aboriginal people by the Commonwealth government, who are showing their true agenda of creating disharmony, division and contradicting their supposedly community-led decision making reforms such as ‘Empowered Communities’ and ‘capacity building of local Aboriginal people,’” he said.

“It again shows the true spirit of the Commonwealth government to neglect Aboriginal affairs, which was recently demonstrated through the rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council’s recommendation for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.”

CAALAS, formed in 1974, said that since January 1 this year it has conducted 7,631 legal matters.

“Aboriginal culture is not homogenous, one size does not fit all,” Mr Tilmouth said. “Our service delivery recognises this. Aboriginal people in central Australia see themselves as a distinct desert group, separate from the rest of the NT.

“Our culture, languages and kinship systems are different to the NT and other states.

“We are deeply disappointed and upset that one of the oldest Aboriginal community controlled services, that our old people from Central Australia fought hard for, has been undermined by the Attorney-General’s Department and other non-Central Australian organisations.”

In 2015, the Attorney-General’s Department found serious irregularities regarding travel payments to CAALAS board members and use of a credit card by chief executive Patricia Miller.

Issues

CAALAS directors said they acknowledged there had been issues with governance and management in the past, but said recently they had taken significant steps, including a new board and changes to the constitution.

The decision to put out to tender Aboriginal legal services and then award the contract to an out-of-area Aboriginal legal service mirrors an earlier decision for Tasmania. Tasmania’s Aboriginal legal services are now provided by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

The Attorney-General’s Department did not answer a question from the Koori Mail about whether the approach of pitting Indigenous legal services against each other for funding would now be a national approach.

“With funding for the CAALAS expiring at the end of this year, there was an opportunity to re-examine the provision of Indigenous legal assistance services in the southern region of the NT,” a spokesperson said.

“This would ensure the most efficient, effective and culturally appropriate service would be in place from January 1, 2018. As CAALAS acknowledged in its media release, it has had ‘issues with governance and management matters’ while delivering Indigenous legal assistance services in the southern region of the Northern Territory.

“In contrast, NAAJA demonstrated a strong track record in governance and financial management and was the most capable organisation to deliver culturally appropriate legal assistance services.”

The Attorney-General’s Department also did not answer questions regarding when, how or who made the funding decision, whether any Aboriginal stakeholders were consulted, what program the funding would come from, or if CAALAS has any way to ask for a review of the decision.

NAAJA chairperson Ruby Stanley said the organisation would work closely with the CAALAS board, management and staff, and the Central Australian community, to ensure a smooth transition.

“Our priority is to ensure Aboriginal people have access to a range of Aboriginal legal services to meet their needs and help our communities stay strong,” she said.

CAALAS acting chief executive Leeanne Caton said the 45 staff members were devastated.

“It’s a slap in the face for Aboriginal people,” she said. “The quality of our legal work has never been in dispute. It’s like the government has a divide-and-conquer approach to Aboriginal organisations.”

Koori Mail

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