Chapman yesterday told Parliament that she was “surprised” by the spending, given that Equal Opportunity Commissioner Niki Vincent had recently and publicly complained about funding to her office.
“Rather than using the media and communications support that exist in the Attorney-General’s Department, the commissioner has spent nearly $50,000 on a private public relations firm since October 2017,” Chapman said.
“On occasion … the private firm has charged for even engaging with the Attorney-General’s Department’s own media team.
“This is an absurdity, and the use of private public relations companies is not justified or sustainable.
“All statutory officers must manage their budgets and their offices. It is my expectation that the commissioner manages her own office within the existing resources, and my department will continue to assist the commissioner to ensure that she does. ”
But Vincent today defended the outlay, saying she tried but failed to publicise issues using Chapman’s departmental media advisers as she had no power to direct them.
“I tried so hard to get the internal resources to do some proactive public awareness raising work for us – they only work in the reactive space so they respond when media calls and they try to dampen things down,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“They’re really about protecting the Attorney-General, and I’m about getting messages out there that the Attorney-General may not like because you know, and things like funding and stuff like that although the public relations consultant hasn’t been involved in any of that.
“It’s really important for us when we have no other resources to get the message out there, to get stories out there about the level of discrimination in our community, things like disability discrimination, sexual harassment. These are things that are really front and centre of what’s going on at the moment in the equal opportunity space and we need to be able to put stories out there.”
Vincent said the EOC had spent $21,000 on public relations since 2017, with a member-based gender equity group – the Chiefs of Gender Equity – spending $22,000.
“It’s been a real bugbear for the Department. It’s $21,000, it’s a very small amount of money … for important work that is done in terms of public education and community outreach and no, I don’t think it is a bad look,” she said.
“We could never get those kind of resources in-house and in fact, I’ve had executives in the department say to me, ‘we could never provide the kind of service that our communications firm provides to you, internally.’ So that has been what executives have told me.”
Vincent also defended calling for more funding – after Chapman told Parliament that EOC activities were “in decline” with public inquiries down by 65 per cent over five years – saying a comprehensive website now answered many questions without need for further contact.
The EOC had also now partnered with the University of Adelaide to channel inquiries into a law clinic open two days a week, in which final-year law students and supervisors offered free legal services around equal opportunity issues.
“So I find it hard to accept that we get penalised for … setting up these kinds of great alliances because of the lack of funding,” Vincent said.
“I would say that we’ve become incredibly efficient. Our times processing complaints, getting through complaints, have absolutely dropped, gone through the floor because of the service that we provide and people are talking about that – we get incredible feedback about that.”
Vincent, who is three years into a five-year Governor-appointed contract, said the EOC had 5.5 full-time equivalent staff, including herself.
Budget cuts had her salary allotment by 16 per cent this year, and two more budget cuts were in the pipeline.
“(Chapman) said yesterday we haven’t, I haven’t received any cuts under her Government – well, I certainly have,” Vincent said.
“They were foreshadowed by the previous Government but she has the capacity to stop those. We are the lowest funded State Commission in Australia. Even Tasmania which has a population of 550,000 has $400,000 more than we get a year.
“We get … less than a million dollars. Last year $995,000 and this year 16% less than that. So it is really quite a crazy situation … it’s really important that equal opportunity is not put on the backburner when it’s so important at the moment.”
Chapman told Parliament that the Marshall Government had not cut the EOC’s budget, while the former Labor Government had, to the point Vincent herself once described it as “death by a thousand cuts”.
The dispute is not the first time Chapman has crossed swords with independent statutory figures since becoming Attorney-General at last year’s state election.
Last year, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander said Chapman had contravened an express agreement not to mention ICAC in a public statement she made about the controversy plaguing Renewal SA at the time.
She also upset River Murray Royal Commissioner Bret Walker who demanded an apology from the Attorney-General over a statement that he said was “wrong, discourteous and inappropriate”.
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