In late 2013 Federal Attorney General George Brandis announced that funding to community legal centres would be cut. Most cuts were deferred until July 2015 but the cuts to the Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs) took effect immediately.
On March 29 the Attorney-General announced the restoration of $25.5 million in funding to Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal Legal Services but expressly excluded EDOs from his decision.
While welcoming the restoration of funding to Community Legal Centres, EDO Australia spokesperson Jeff Feehely said that EDOs were stunned that they had been excepted. Mr Feehely said, "There is no basis to distinguish between EDOs and other community legal services delivering access to justice. In fact, the Attorney-General's decision contradicts recent recommendations of the Productivity Commission to restore EDO funding, in the light of our critical role in protecting public health and matters of national environmental significance."
Environmental legal services to communities around Australia have suffered as a result of the federal Coalition Government's cuts. Offices in the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory , South Australia, Tasmania and North Queensland have been particularly affected.
"Without the expert legal services provided by EDOs, many Australians could not afford to get advice about their rights or challenge major development projects which threaten the environment, public health, endangered species, productive farmland, clean air and water supplies, Indigenous traditional lands and other cultural heritage," Mr Feehely said.
In an article in The Guardian
following the initial announcement (in December 2013) that EDO funding would be cut,
Alexander White stated that EDOs are "a small but highly effective group
of lawyers who make sure that Australia's environmental lawa are
upheld. Since thay were founded in the 1990s, they've held governments
and big business accountable when their actions would threaten species
like the fungi-eating potoroo."
He also said, "While
multi-national mining companies and cashed-up developers can plough
nearly unlimited funds into running roughshod over our environmental
laws, everyday communites rely on organisations like the EDO."
EDOs have been under attack from developers - and in particular the mining industry. Obviously the conservative Federal Government's action is in response to the complaints by the mining/development industry about the EDO's championing of community concerns .
A report in The Australian quoted Stephen Galilee, head of the NSW Minerals Council, saying it was "ridiculous" that taxpayer funding should be used to appeal and reject projects which had already been approved. (Galilee conveniently ignored the fact that mining companies get around $10 billion in fuel subsidies courtesy of the taxpayer.) In the same article Mark Vaile, a former National Party State MP and now Whitehaven Coal chairman, accused green groups challenging the company's Maules Creek mine of economic vandalism. These large mining companies with their links to compliant governments object strongly to effective community opposition to their environmentally damaging projects.
Given that Governments are only too willing to approve projects without proper scrutiny, the role of EDOs is of great importance in giving an effective and expert voice to local communities who have valid concerns about developments governments are foisting on their localities.
For more information see EDOs of Australia or EDO NSW