The Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University has established a Governors-General Lecture Series to allow current and past holders of that high office to share their insights into Australian society. The next event in the program will be on Thursday, 10 September 2015, and features the Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO, who will address the audience about Young Women and Leadership before taking questions from the floor. Interested students should submit an application form by 21 August.
Fulfilling an election promise, the Victorian Government has introduced new sessional orders in both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council to improve the accountability of ministers to parliament. The most significant change is to end the charade of government MPs from asking Dorothy Dixer questions during Question Time; ministers will instead be given time to make a short statement. Time limits now apply to answers, non-government MPs are allowed to ask follow-up questions to clarify answers, and if the Speaker or President believes a minister failed to answer a question they can be required to provide a written answer by the following day. While proceedings under the new rules have still been rowdy, they have already been used to force a minister to provide an answer.
The federal budget has been criticised for cutting $15 million from legal aid. According to the Law Council of Australia, “In Victoria alone cuts in grants of legal aid over the last three years mean that an additional 11,000 people will confront the legal system without legal aid and without the means to pay for legal representation themselves”, and the new cuts will exacerbate the problem. Law Institute of Victoria president Geoff Bowyer said, “Vulnerable Victorians will be even worse off with this cut. … Denying access to justice is to deny a basic human right to Victorians. It is a disgrace.” The budget also cut another $6 million from community legal centres. Community Law Australia chair Liana Buchanan said, “Having to close outreach offices and stop providing family violence support lawyers at court are just some of the actions centres will have to take because of these cuts.” The Attorney-General has previously stated that public funding for legal services should focus on direct assistance, rather than policy and law reform advocacy; however, a draft Productivity Commission report on Access to Justice last month found that “advocacy should be a core activity of LACs and CLCs” because addressing problems at a systemic level is more cost effective than handling individual disputes.
The Commonwealth budget appears to be using deep cuts to health and education funding to push for a renegotiation of federal responsibilities. “Arguing that the states run schools and hospitals and should therefore have full autonomy, the budget says the cuts will ‘generate momentum’ for funding reforms in health and education, which will be devised by the white papers the government has commissioned into tax reform and federation.” The Victorian and NSW governments have indicated their opposition to the changes. In an interview on 7.30, Treasurer Joe Hockey was asked, “Are you starving the states so they beg you, effectively, to raise the GST?” He replied, “That’s up to them, they are responsible for schools and hospitals.” Under current arrangements, revenue raised by the GST is provided to the States as untied funding, to address vertical fiscal imbalance. The recent Commission of Audit recommended significant changes to the federal structure, including the restoration of States’ income taxing power, which was effectively removed by inconsistent Commonwealth legislation during World War II.
A New York City courtroom stenographer was fired after ruining the official record of 30 criminal trials with gibberish. “He hit random keys or wrote, ‘I hate my job. I hate my job. I hate my job,’ over and over”, instead of transcribing dialogue. Judges have been forced to call everyone involved in the cases to give evidence of what they remember. Criminal proceedings in Victorian courts are digitally recorded as well as being transcribed by the Victorian Government Recording Service.
The Victorian Ombudsman, George Brouwer, has produced a scathing report on safety in the state’s prisons. In addition to problems caused by overcrowding, his report identifies suicide as a significant risk: “there have been six prisoners in the past six years (several of whom had mental health issues) who committed suicide by hanging, nearly all in cells which did not comply with the cell and fire safety guidelines”. Brouwer notes that 38% of cells still have “hanging points”. The Government has responded by pointing out the significant cost of implementing the recommendations; however, the Ombudsman notes that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended the removal of hanging points over 22 years ago.
The Victorian Magistrates’ Court has begun to allow “silent listings”, in which the scheduled hearing of a criminal matter will not be published on any of the Court’s lists. Although this conflicts with the principle of open justice, Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritson explains that “[i]n some cases, it is necessary for the safety of the accused that his or her name does not appear in such listings.” The same is true in other jurisdictions, such as the Family Court of Australia, where the use of pseudonyms is common. However, that solution is not available to the Magistrates’ Court: “Owing to the limitations of its electronic case management system, it is technically impracticable for the Court to use a pseudonym for an accused person.”
An increase in Victoria’s crime rate in 2013 was driven by drug-related offences in rural and regional areas, police say. “Statewide, drug-related crimes rose by 12.3 per cent. Social workers say increasing ice use is fuelling crime against property and causing more mental illness and family breakdowns.” The increase in drug offences detected by police is corroborated by a “major increase” in people receiving drug treatment. Peter Cranage of UnitingCare Ballarat said, “We’re seeing an increase in ice and methamphetamines in all our programs.”