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Aboriginal governance inquiry set to proceed despite warning of "great harm"

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A state parliamentary inquiry into Aboriginal governance in South Australia is set to proceed despite fierce opposition from Labor and a plea from several Aboriginal leaders warning Premier Steven Marshall the hearings risk causing “great harm to individuals, tearing families apart and damaging communities”.

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A letter from 15 prominent Aboriginal community leaders sent to Marshall warns against “allowing and encouraging people to prosecute their personal grievances under Parliamentary privilege”, declaring: “It would be unfortunate if the harm this inquiry might cause was remembered as your legacy in Aboriginal Affairs.”

It follows InDaily revealing last week that the Premier had written to parliament’s Aboriginal Lands committee seeking a broad-ranging inquiry, prompted by “mounting concerns within the SA Aboriginal community about poor governance and alleged corruption” within community-run organisations.

Labor’s shadow minister for Aboriginal Affairs Kyam Maher, who sits on the committee, has confirmed he will vote against the inquiry, telling InDaily: “Having received the views of many senior Aboriginal leaders – from the APY Lands to Mount Gambier, and all lands in between – Labor won’t be supporting the call of Steven Marshall for this particular inquiry.”

He said the Opposition was “absolutely committed and keen to see the highest levels of accountability in Aboriginal organisations” and was “happy to do what we can”.

“We’ve previously suggested if the Premier wanted to set up some sort of joint taskforce with the Commonwealth, we’re happy to be involved – but the potential harm of people under parliamentary privilege airing individual grievances risks doing great harm,” he said.

But with the Liberals holding sway on the committee along with Greens MLC Tammy Franks, who has signalled her support for the inquiry, it appears set to proceed.

Marshall today told InDaily: “It’s really up to the committee to respond to my suggestion, and I’ll await their decision.”

Signatories to the letter include Professor Peter Buckskin, chair of the SA Aboriginal Education & Training Consultative Council, SA Native Title Services CEO Keith Thomas, Eunice Aston, the First Female Chair of the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation chair Jeffrey Newchurch, APY Director Rex Tjami, Davenport Aboriginal Community Council CEO Lavene Ngatokorua, Tauondi Aboriginal College CEO Doug Milera and inaugural Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement SA Klynton Wanganeen.

InDaily attempted to contact two of the signatories, Buckskin and Thomas, before revealing Marshall’s inquiry call last week, but neither responded before deadline.

Native Title SA boss Keith Thomas, however, has since told InDaily he was “uncertain about the basis on which [Marshall] called” for the inquiry – but stopped short of the strong rhetoric of the later correspondence.

Marshall sought the inquiry after a meeting late last year with a group of Aboriginal elders, including Ramindjeri man Mark Koolmatrie.

Thomas told InDaily: “I understand he’s been getting approaches from different people [and] Mark’s entitled to his view.”

But he noted a “lack of depth of evidence” cited, saying he had not heard similar complaints to his organisation “as the Native Title body”.

“I think if people had complaints, they’d be complaining to us about some of these things [and] we’re not hearing that,” he said.

“There are a couple of organisations in administration but from my point of view, I take the positive view they’re going to come out stronger, with stronger governance structures in place.”

He said “we’re all for the state getting involved… but they ought to put funding into capacity building and good governance”.

Native Title SA is federal funded, but Thomas said “if the State Government was to look at how to improve pathways and provide funding, that would enable us to look at improving governance for organisations outside the Native Title sphere”.

The subsequent letter was also signed by Ngarrindjeri Elder Major “Moogy” Sumner, a former Mayo by-election and senate candidate for the Greens.

Asked whether her party’s former candidate’s opposition was problematic, Franks said: “I’d encourage Moogy to take a look at the terms of reference.”

She maintained “individuals won’t be targeted” by the inquiry, saying: “No individual will be able to be named in the report without their permission.”

“There are ways to ensure privilege is not abused,” she said.

“We’ll be taking submissions [as] the starting point… we don’t have to publish all the submissions.”

Another signatory to the new letter is Umeewarra Aboriginal Media Association CEO Vince Coulthard, the former longstanding head of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association.

ATLA was last year placed under “special administration” by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations [ORIC], which declared it “in need of overhaul”.

Registrar Selwyn Button said in a statement at the time that ATLA’s issues were “systemic”, declaring: “An examination of the corporation’s books in November 2019 revealed a range of governance issues, including a lack of records in relation to meetings, memberships, directorships and spending.”

“In its current form, ATLA’s problems are chronic and severe… It has no office, no staff, poor record-keeping and a board of up to 30 directors, which makes it difficult to make decisions.”

The letter to Marshall states: “We want to see the very highest levels of accountability and transparency in Aboriginal organisations, however we are concerned that your proposal seems to suggest Aboriginal people or organisations are less capable of managing their own affairs than other South Australians.”

“Despite almost daily reports of non-Aboriginal companies entering liquidation or administration we don’t see calls for a Parliamentary Committee to investigate their governance,” the signatories say.

“Like with all levels of Government and governance, those with concerns are encouraged to get involved with the affairs of their own organisations and seek support for election to their own boards or committees.

“Aboriginal organisations are often subject to higher levels of scrutiny and regulatory checks than others.”

The Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia welcomed the concept of an inquiry “into how Aboriginal organisations could be better supported in self-governance”, but said it was “cautious about the possibility of mistakes of the past being repeated”.

AHCSA chief Shane Mohor said the inquiry “should not be an excuse to deprive Aboriginal organisations of their right to self-determination, and control of their own affairs”.

Mohor said he was “concerned that a parliamentary committee with only one Aboriginal member would be making findings into the Aboriginal community”.

“We have great respect for the parliament… but when an investigation is to be made into Aboriginal matters, Aboriginal people need to have a key role,” he said.

“Aboriginal people are almost always the victims of corruption and poor governance in Aboriginal organisations, and we cannot forget that…

“But we also know that community-controlled service delivery and self-governance has been proven to lead to the best and most effective results for our people.

“Corruption and poor governance is not isolated to Aboriginal communities. Just like in the broader community, mainstream organisations and even governments, there are bad people in our communities who take advantage and cause enormous harm.

“What we don’t want is for all Aboriginal people and all Aboriginal organisations to be stigmatised and labelled as being corrupt.

“Yes, there are egregious examples of fraud and maladministration in some organisations, just as there are some incredible, highly functioning, well governed and transparent organisations who make a positive difference for our communities.”

This response was echoed by SA’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, April Lawrie, who told InDaily the inquiry call was “a bit perplexing”.

“I’m on several Aboriginal boards, which are actually quite successful boards,” she said.

She cited the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation, saying: “That’s got fantastic things happening… it doesn’t rely on Government funding, it’s self-sufficient, it makes money and it puts the money back into the community [but] no-one talks about the success of that community Aboriginal-controlled independent organisation.”

“We know that there are problems across organisations and that’s just something that isn’t unique to Aboriginal organisations – it’s widespread [and] that’s why we have institutions like ICAC and regulatory bodies,” she said.

But Black Lives Matter organiser Janete Milera took a different view, telling InDaily: “I’m so glad there’s going to be some investigation around it.”

“We’ve been talking to the Premier about governance structures… some of the boards don’t have skills and ability to do this work,” she said.

“These companies not always beneficial to the wider community…

“It’s great it’s being shaken up… it should have happened a long time ago.

“We’re advocating for the unheard voices – the more voices behind this, maybe people will hear us.”

In response to the letter, Koolmatrie posted on Facebook today, saying its signatories “want to stop SA and our taxpayers looking at better models of governance and transparency”.

-Additional reporting by Stephanie Richards

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