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"Game-changer": Marshall urges major inquiry into Aboriginal self-governance

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A major overhaul of Aboriginal governance in South Australia is looming with Premier Steven Marshall pushing for a broad-ranging inquiry, prompted by “mounting concerns within the SA Aboriginal community about poor governance and alleged corruption” within community-run organisations.

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Marshall, who has ministerial responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs, has written to state parliament’s standing committee on Aboriginal Lands, asking it to consider a “review of governance standards in South Australian Aboriginal community-controlled organisations”.

In a letter sent to the committee chair, Liberal MLC Terry Stephens, Marshall notes “mounting concerns within the South Australian Aboriginal community about poor governance and alleged corruption within Aboriginal organisations”.

“I believe unequivocally that any allegations of corrupt or otherwise criminal activity should be referred to the police – however, I am also strongly committed to the empowerment of South Australian Aboriginal communities to manage their own affairs,” he said.

“In this regard, my preference is for a proactive solutions-based approach to support improvements to Aboriginal community governance…

“I seek the advice of the Committee on ways to support Aboriginal community aspirations for self-determination, and would be especially interested in its recommendations about a comprehensive governance and capacity-building framework to support SA Aboriginal organisations and corporations.”

Stephens told InDaily the request had only been flagged with other members at the committee’s first meeting of the year on Monday, and they were awaiting draft terms of reference before reconvening in a fortnight, “to give all members the opportunity to think it through”.

InDaily has obtained the draft terms, in which Marshall asks the committee to consider “what policies and processes will best support directors and boards to meet their statutory and financial obligations and oversee the management of their organisations”.

He also flags consideration of “governance structures that enable SA Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and corporations to maximise economic opportunities for the benefit of their communities” and “best practice in training and mentor supports appropriate for boards of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and corporations”.

He asks them to consider other examples of “good governance in First Nations organisations nationally and internationally”, including “practical examples of how to implement good governance principles such as accountability, transparency [and] integrity… including management of real or perceived conflicts of interest”.

Marshall invites the inquiry to take “evidence about current governance arrangements in SA Aboriginal organisations”, noting: “Where the committee finds evidence of or allegations of corrupt or otherwise criminal activity they will refer the matter to the SA Police.”

Likewise, evidence or allegations of maladministration will be referred to “the relevant regulatory authority”.

A final report is expected by June, to align with the Government’s “implementation approach” for the national Closing the Gap initiative.

It’s understood Labor members of the committee are yet to be convinced, with member and shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher saying “until we see [the proposed terms] we don’t have a position”.

The move follows recent calls – led by Ramindjeri man Mark Koolmatrie, who chairs the Tribal Owners of Southern South Australia – for a Royal Commission or judicial inquiry into the broader native title regime.

Maher questioned whether the proposed state inquiry would stray too far into matters of federal governance.

However, Greens MLC and fellow committee member Tammy Franks argues it “wouldn’t be the first committee that deals with state and federal issues”.

“Parliaments often try to handball between state, federal and local governments, to say it’s not their responsibility,” she told InDaily.

“I’ll be pleased if the State Government takes the lead and works with other levels of government where needed, and relevant authorities where necessary.”

Franks declared that pending the specific terms of reference to be decided later this month, she was “open to pursuing this inquiry – especially if it can be done in a productive and positive manner by ensuring good governance is applied and bad governance held to account”.

Her support is set to see the inquiry push ahead notwithstanding Opposition objections.

“I think it could actually be a game-changer for communities, particularly those who haven’t been heard – the most vulnerable in these communities who have not been given a voice in the processes,” she said.

Koolmatrie was part of a delegation that met with Marshall in November to air their concerns – a meeting believed to be key to the Premier’s inquiry call.

“I think it’s excellent,” Koolmatrie told InDaily today.

“I’ve spoken to some of the people at that meeting with me, and we’re all in favour…  we went to the Premier to say, ‘hey there’s a problem’ [and] we, as a community, are in support of this [inquiry].”

He said he would be willing to give public evidence about alleged poor governance practices including nepotism and maladministration, saying: “We hope that there’s change.”

“The current model is totally broken… we want to create a future for our young people and the current model is not going to be able to do that.”

He railed against “family dynasties”, insisting “money is not going to fix” the problems.

“It needs a good [governance] model, that allows our people to get back to what we want to do,” he said.

“I grew up at a community where there was poverty, but nobody went without – everybody shared, everybody cared, nobody was higher up than anyone else… today the model is ‘haves and have-nots’ – I’ve labelled it ‘colonisation’.

“We have to break that model.”

Adnyamathanha man and Aboriginal community advocate Malcolm ‘Tiger’ McKenzie also welcomed the move.

“That’s what we’re wanting – we’re wanting change in the Aboriginal community around governance, training, how the people work for the community and that sort of stuff,” he said.

He railed against government-funded agencies “that are supposed to support Aboriginal people moving forward to have a better way of life”.

“They keep getting the funding to make a difference, but we don’t see any outcomes out of that,” he said.

He said other issues included tension between different Aboriginal communities invoking native title to limit employment and access opportunities for other groups.

“There’s got to be a way forward… what irks me the most is I see these young Aboriginal kids [who] think this is their future,” he said.

“[Some of these] non-government agencies have got to be held to account.”

After the November meeting, Marshall said he had not been “convinced about the merits of a judicial inquiry” but noted the delegation “raised some very, very legitimate points with us and some of those we’re following up now”.

“With regards to governance, there were many issues raised – we scheduled our meeting for 45 minutes and I think we went for over two hours… and I think we’ve probably only scratched the surface,” he said at the time.

“The major points that came out of that meeting were some governance arrangements within individual structures that exist, but also capacity-building requirements…

“We’ve committed to looking at what existed previously around developing the leaders that we need for our indigenous-controlled organisations in South Australia – and beyond.”

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