Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon discussed the outsourcing of government legal work at their recent debate at NSW Parliament House. Below are edited extracts of their views.
Question to Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, then asked of the Attorney:
On outsourcing of legal services, you’ve said that it should be possible to reallocate tens of millions of dollars in government spending away from private law firms and towards community legal centres. You’ve also said you are confident that some outsourcing of legal work can be done more efficiently in the public sector and that your starting point on legal outsourcing is that taxpayers are not getting value for money. Does that mean that a Labor government would increase the number of public sector lawyers in order to take work away from private law firms? Do you believe that the decision to expose government lawyers to competition from the private sector was a mistake?
I think competition has been good. I don’t think, and the Labor Party doesn’t have a view, that no legal work should be outsourced. What we do have a view about is that the current system does not provide transparency. It means that when I ask the Attorney for information about legal expenditure, that he has to refer me to every other department because he has no idea of the expenditure in each department; that something has gone wrong with the way that we manage and make information available about legal expenditure in the public sector.
I think governments in the legal sector have as much obligation as anywhere else to ensure they are getting value for money. I think the extraordinary increase in expenditure in the private sector is something that means we should address whether we are getting value for money.
If I am the incoming attorney-general after the election, I will look forward to getting a proper briefing, which is not now available to us, on the way that legal services are contracted out and whether or not there are more efficient ways for us to do this.
A decision was made by this government to contract out most legal services for philosophical reasons. And they did not put in place safeguards to ensure that departments would adhere to any particular guidelines and they did not put in place any procedure for proper reporting.
The Labor Party is committed to making sure that if it becomes such a huge expenditure item for government, that that money is being well spent. If we can make savings we will commit them to community justice programs who have sorely missed out under this government.
Well I am disappointed in [Roxon’s] answer because I would have liked to have heard some evidence. And I would have liked to have seen where that evidence would support the proposition that legal aid funding could be increased and community justice centres could be better resourced from funds that would be freed up.
Essentially I think if you are going to free up funds what you are arguing is that the Commonwealth, in relation to those areas in which it has responsibility to respond on behalf of the taxpayers — that is, where somebody has initiated some legal action against the Commonwealth — that the Commonwealth should not defend it. Or there should be limits on which matters will be defended.
I think it is also suggesting, in relation to major contracts, and if you look at the areas in which funding is provided, say in defence, that the Commonwealth should not have the best advice available to it in its contracting in relation to spending public money.
Now I think it is very clear in relation to the system we have in place that we are getting best value for money. Competition has produced that outcome.