Port Augusta financial probe now 'test case' for Native Title groups around Australia

COMMUNITY MEMBERS: Reg Wilton, left, of Mallala, and Charlie Jackson and Joey Hull, both of Port Augusta, gathered for a meeting in Port Augusta to discuss progress in seeking financial information from their Native Title corporation.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS: Reg Wilton, left, of Mallala, and Charlie Jackson and Joey Hull, both of Port Augusta, gathered for a meeting in Port Augusta to discuss progress in seeking financial information from their Native Title corporation.
Crisis meeting of members

Crisis meeting of members

An investigation into an Aboriginal corporation based at Port Augusta is being watched by Native Title groups, indigenous leaders and lawyers around the nation.

The probe is taking place under the special administration of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association and has taken on the mantle of "test case" for similar inquiries that might be launched into corporations elsewhere.

Australian Community Media, publisher of The Transcontinental, reported more than a year ago that indigenous people around Australia were concerned at the financial operations of some Native Title groups.

The Adnyamathanha association, in particular its Rangelea trust which handles millions of dollars in mining royalties, has attracted the attention of the federal Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations which put it under administration and review.

The process is being led by Registrar of Indigenous Corporations Selwyn Button, a Gungarri man from western Queensland who was raised at former mission settlement Cherbourg.

After spending time as a school teacher, he worked in policy roles for government before championing the rights of Native Title holders and traditional owners.

He agreed the investigation into the association could be likened to a "test case"

"There are circumstances where administrators and trusts hold matters closer to their chest and don't share the information with beneficiaries," he said, referring to the battle to have Rangelea outline its financial records.

Commenting on the effects of the investigation, he said: "This is one we are very interested in. We are trying to progress down pathways to ensure common law and traditional owners are aware of their entitlements."

He said other Native Title groups and other organisations would "certainly" be looking at the case.

"Part of the office's role is to ensure Native Title holders and traditional owners are aware of what is happening with their trusts and what economic benefits are being derived from the trust fund for them," he said.

He hoped Rangelea directors would take up an offer of mediation with special administrator Peter McQuoid.

"That is the next step and we will see how they respond," he said.

The drama surrounding the Adnyamathanha began with a meeting of the Aboriginal Reform Group of South Australia in Port Augusta two years ago.

Community members led by Charlie Jackson called for "transparency" in the financial affairs of their association.

Calls were also made for a Royal Commission into Native Title organisations around Australia.

Last year, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations put the association into administration to investigate its affairs and this will continue until the end of this year.

Later "certain family groups" among the community were thrust into the spotlight in a report for the then joint administrators about the handling of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Advisory and investment firm KordaMentha found that $1.4 million was paid to directors and other people by the association.

"The payments to directors and other individuals have largely flowed to certain family groups," according to then joint administrator Bevan Mailman.

"There is no evidence that those funds have been invested or applied for the benefit of association members as a whole."

The report was outlined to about 90 community members at an information meeting called by the administrators in the gym at Flinders View Primary School earlier this year.

The crisis intensified when former association chairman and elected representative of the Adnyamathanha Native Title Holders Vince Coulthard accused the office of being "racist".

"The administration has achieved nothing. The office's system is racist and paternalistic and is a prime example of colonialism. They think they know what is best for us, the traditional owners," he said.

"They are ignoring our cultural traditions and our instructions from our old people by not having meetings, that discuss our land, back in our country.

"I call on Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt to sack the administrators and to hand back the association to the Adnyamathanha people so we can hold our elections and get on with doing our business our way."

One of Mr Coulthard's supporters even described the situation as a "family squabble".

For many months, community members have been waiting for the outcome of a police investigation into the association.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from entities, including the Beverley uranium mine in the outback, were frozen by new special administrator Mr McQuoid until the association's trust, Rangelea, outlines its financial affairs to him.

Mr McQuoid said the trust had $4.7 million in royalties since the start of last year.

In a truce gesture, the administrator has now offered mediation talks between himself and the Rangelea directors.

Mr McQuoid said he had never seen the books or an audit of the body's financial affairs.

"The directors, auditor and accountant are the only ones who would see it," he said.

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