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Issue #1731      May 18, 2016

Land council anger over benefits fund

The Northern Territory’s two largest land councils are fuming after Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion moved to reduce their input into how mining royalties are distributed.

Senator Scullion is planning to change the management of the Aboriginals Benefit Account (ABA), which administers grants to Aboriginal organisations from mining royalties on Aboriginal land in the NT. He is moving to reduce the number of land council representatives on the ABA Advisory Committee from 14 to 10 and possibly appoint two business people.

Senator Scullion’s office refused to answer direct questions by the Koori Mail about what exactly the changes are and the information is not on the public record.

But the plan to reduce the number of land council representatives has drawn the ire of both the Central Land Council (CLC) and Northern Land Council (NLC), which each stand to lose two positions.

CLC delegates condemned the move, and chair Francis Kelly said the plan was an erosion of Aboriginal control over the expenditure of the royalties-equivalent-funded ABA community grants program.

“The Minister already has the final say and often overrules our advice. It’s time he handed responsibility for Aboriginal money back to the elected representatives of Aboriginal people,” Kelly, a former ABA Advisory Committee member, said.

“Aboriginal voters in the Territory will not stand for more top-down control over income they want to use to strengthen their communities. It should be our priorities that count, not the Government’s.”

Since the Coalition government was elected, Senator Scullion has frequently been at odds with the two biggest land councils in the Territory, who oppose his strident advocacy for 99-year leases of Aboriginal land.

Senator Scullion has previously indicated he believes the NLC and CLC have too much power and in 2013 moved to devolve some of their decision-making capacity.

The Minister has also been accused of meddling too much in the ABA, overturning grant decisions of the previous Minister, and further muddying an already opaque process.

Last year the government lost a Federal Court case brought by the Machado Joseph Disease Foundation (MJDF) after Senator Scullion overturned a decision by former Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin award a $10 million grant from the ABA.

The government has appealed that decision and the next round of court action was due to start last week. With many Aboriginal organisations in Territory – and the rest of the country – having lost their funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, no-one was prepared to speak with the Koori Mail on the record, due to fear of retribution or losing further government support.

Those who spoke off the record said there was a culture of fear under the present government and a general view that there was far too much top-down interference.

Research professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation Jon Altman writes in the April edition of Land Rights News that there are serious concerns about the lack of transparency and continued erosion of Aboriginal control of the ABA.

“ABA funds have also been deployed, after statutory amendment in 2006 and 2007, to promote ideologically-driven proposals for land tenure changes, most evident in the underwriting of the activities of the Office of the Executive Director of Township Leasing and the push for 99-year leases of Aboriginal townships lubricated with upfront sweeteners from the ABA,” Professor Altman says.

“According to the latest financial statements and annual report of the ABA for the 2014-15 financial year, deeply concealed in the annual report of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, there is equity of over $500 million held in reserve, a massive financial bucket of extraordinary developmental potential. But its use remains at ministerial discretion – one wonders what rabbit-out-of-the-hat grants the Minister might announce in the near future to maximise electoral prospects federally and in the Northern Territory, underwritten by the ABA?”

Senator Scullion refused requests for an interview for this story.

Koori Mail

Next article – Solidarity with Chile’s fishermen – “The mobilisation will radicalise”

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