• A road in the Alice Springs area which a legal group has said is being ignored by government. (Fr. Michael Nguyen SVD)Source: Fr. Michael Nguyen SVD
An Aboriginal legal service has lost funding for central desert legal services after it missed out in the tender process.
Rachael Hocking

6 Nov 2017 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2017 - 2:28 PM

The Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, or CAALAS, will lose all government funding in the new year, it has revealed.

It follows a move by the federal Attorney-General's Department to allocate all future legal funds to the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), which will now serve the entire Northern Territory.

Speaking to NITV, CAALAS said the government has disrespected and disempowered Aboriginal people.

“The Northern Territory government and the Commonwealth government have strategic priorities based on local decision making, place-based approach and empowering communities - and this flies in the face of those priorities,” CAALAS CEO Leenane Caton said.

“It’s back to the Berrimah Line again, with decisions being made on central Australia from Darwin.”

The Berrimah Line refers to a belief some Territorians have about the attitudes of people and politicians living in Darwin: that nothing past Berrimah, a suburb on the outskirts of Darwin, matters to them.  

CAALAS was founded in 1973 and was the second Aboriginal legal service to open its doors in Australia, behind the ALS in Redfern.  

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In a joint-statement, Northern Territory Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon described the move to defund CAALAS as a step backwards for the NT.

“Supporting regional growth and development has not been part of this decision by the Commonwealth Government. It has been the opposite,” the statement reads.

“It is a step backwards in the provision of local Aboriginal control, leadership and organisation in Central Australia.”

CAALAS’s funding was due to run out at the end of the year, and was unable to renew its contract when legal services were put out to tender earlier this year.

Instead, NAAJA was allocated almost $12 million under the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program for the southern region of the Northern Territory, from 1 January 2018 to 30 June 2020.

Governance issues

CAALAS acknowledged that in recent years it has struggled with “governance and management matters” but had taken steps to improve, including “a change in the constitution and a new composition of the board”.

But in a statement to NITV the Attorney-General’s Department didn’t make mention of these these steps.

“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,” the statement reads.

“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.”

NAAJA looking forward to working with CAALAS during transition

Speaking to CAAMA radio, NAAJA’s CEO Pricilla Atkins said her team feels privileged to receive the new tender and hopes to work closely with CAALAS during the transition period.

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“The goal is to maintain most of the staff down there, it all really comes down to funding,” she said.

“We’re pushing as hard as we can that no positions get lost there.”

Ms Atkins said the funding from the Attorney-General’s Department only covers operational costs of CAALAS’ offices, with extra funds previously sourced from Prime Minister and Cabinet. NAAJA said it will be speaking with DPM&C this week.

CAALAS CEO Leeanne Caton said her staff will work professionally with NAAJA during the transition.