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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Landmark victory

A charity that supports Aboriginal people with a rare degenerative disease living in the Northern Territory has won a landmark case against the federal government. Federal Court Justice Flick has found that Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion did not have the power to revoke an earlier decision by former Minister Jenny Macklin to make a $10 million grant to the Machado Joseph Disease Foundation (MJDF) from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA).

The ABA manages and distributes royalty money generated from mining on Aboriginal land in the NT. The advisory committee is made up of 14 members elected by the four NT land councils and an appointed chair.

However, final approval for how Aboriginal money is spent rests with the minister, as specified in the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act. In 2013, the ABA committee recommended a $10 million grant to the MJDF. Ms Macklin approved the money and wrote to the MJDF, saying they had been successful.

However, after the change of government in September, Senator Scullion revoked the decision, advising the MJDF that it was not in line with the policy of the ABA.

In early 2014, the MJDF pleaded with Senator Scullion to change his mind, however, he refused and the matter ended up in court. Justice Flick ruled that Senator Scullion did not have the power to overturn Ms Macklin’s decision.

MJDF chief executive Nadia Lindop told the Koori Mail that foundation clients and staff were feeling positive about the decision.

“The next step for us is to work in a collaborative manner with the federal government to get a funding agreement in place,” she said.

Senator Scullion said he was “reviewing the details” of the judgment and had not yet made a decision on whether to appeal. Machado Joseph disease (MJD) is a rare degenerative wasting condition that mainly affects Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, and is particularly prevalent on Groote Eylandt. People with MJD exhibit clumsiness and weakness in the arms and legs, spasticity, a staggering gait, difficulties with speech and swallowing, involuntary eye movements, double vision and incontinence.

It is inherited and there is no cure.

People with MJD retain their cognitive capacity and the symptoms of the disease worsen with each generation. The MJDF helps look after families with the disease and also conducts research.

Ms Lindop said she hoped the Foundation could now act on the plans it had made in 2013 to expand. “We’d committed, made decisions on strategy on how to roll out services for people living on Elcho Island, in central Australia and other areas and we were really relying on that $10 million so we could invest and use the earnings in perpetuity,” she said.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the decision for lots of reasons. Our board was really brave launching this court action. It wasn’t a fight we wanted to have, but we have real obligations to our clients, people who are suffering now and will be affected in the future.

“We’re just really moved by the decision.”

MJDF chairperson Neil Westbury said the long-term and degenerative nature of MJD meant that individuals living with the disease required care and support throughout their lifetimes.


“Today’s ruling provides a sustainable, long-term source of funding that will give MJD sufferers who have demonstrated, with dignity and against all the odds, a consistent preparedness to truly help themselves,” he said.

“It provides the certainty they need to be able to continue to manage their lives. It also removes an apparent disjunction between the government’s constant calls for less welfare dependence and greater self reliance.”

Mr Westbury also played tribute to law firm Gilbert and Tobin, who ran the case pro bono.

Koori Mail

Next article – Will the “drugs war” strategy work?

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