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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1342

Senator KILGARIFF(10.30) —Tonight I raise a matter which must be of concern to many people, particularly Aboriginal people. I refer to the maladministration of the National Aboriginal Conference which has been so clearly revealed by the Auditor-General's annual report recently tabled in the other place. The goings-on in the NAC have been described by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Holding, as representing severe deficiencies in financial administration. I believe that many members of the NAC-Aboriginal people-are very genuine and perhaps did not realise what was going on. At the same time, I believe that there are members of the NAC who should be looked at very closely.

Individual instances of what has happened in the NAC can be described as flagrant abuses of position and public funds. More than that, they are an abrogation of the Conference's responsibility to represent the Aboriginal people. To take some examples of the sorts of things that have occurred, the Auditor-General has reported that deficiencies included the fact that a significant percentage of the pay claims and supporting invoices which the office of the Auditor-General desired to examine were missing. Four cheque forms had also apparently been taken without authority and fraudulently negotiated. Significant deficiencies were noted in the system and procedures for the processing of payments of travelling allowances. There was a significant failure to comply with directions given by the Minister in relation to the purchase of motor vehicles in 1983-84.

Several amounts approved for payment did not appear to have been authorised by the terms of the Conference's charter, rules and accounting arrangements. They included payments to some employees of accumulated flexi-time. At least 40 payments classified as salary advances were, in fact, in the nature of small, short term, interest-free loans. They included 22 payments of parking and speeding infringements. Perhaps that is minor, but it is part of the list. They included the payment of travelling allowances to members' wives, totalling some $3,150, and the hire of a bus for members of the Conference for a day trip to the snow-perhaps another minor thing, but part of the list. They included the hire of a rent-a-car from June 1983 to approximately February 1984 at a cost of some $4,200 and the payment of membership subscriptions to the Trans Australia Airlines Flight Deck Club and the Ansett Golden Wing Club for the then Deputy Chairman and two staff members. These amounts, approved for payment but which did not appear to have been authorised by the terms of the Conference's charter, rules and accounting arrangements, have been indicated by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. They are only a number of a very long list of instances of misuse of funds which were set aside for the establishment of a body which would provide a national voice for the Aboriginal people.

The NAC was supposed to provide that voice. It had the opportunity to show that the Aboriginal people could manage their own organisation efficiently and effectively. It should have been a vehicle for promoting Aboriginals as responsible and capable people, as most of us know they are. However, the abuses of privileges which have occurred have not done any of these things. They have, if anything, damaged the reputation of Aboriginal people and organisations. I hope that the new organisation which the Government proposes to replace the NAC with, from 1 July this year, will be able to perform the tasks which the NAC was supposed to perform without some members feeling the need to abuse their own people and misuse funds which are set aside for their benefit.

Not just the financial administration has been mismanaged in the NAC. The whole matter of Aboriginal representation has never been satisfactorily resolved. In the Senate last week the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, acknowledged that the electoral boundaries of the NAC were not based on communities and that that had caused some difficulties. That has been obvious from the operation of the organisation. I am pleased to see that this fact has at last been recognised and that the new organisation is to be based upon Aboriginal communities. It has been one of the problems of the NAC that many Aboriginal communities felt that they were not represented by it and that the actions which it took were as a result of political bias. The ramifications of Aboriginal representation on the NAC have been considerable and have caused immense difficulties. The first is the difference between, as I see it, the urban Aboriginals on the NAC who are many generations removed from their Aboriginal tribal ancestors-those urban members of the NAC who have lived to quite a degree as city dwellers and who have been brought up and are used to the sophistication of the city-and their outback cousins whose lifestyle is very different and who have felt out of place to quite a degree in the environment of the NAC.

Because of the electoral system thrust upon them by government, many of the elected NAC representatives did not represent the authority of the tribal elders and were not recognised as their representatives. In that light they did not have the right to speak on behalf of the Aboriginal people. Many of the outback Aboriginal people I speak of-the tribal elders, the landowning group, the traditional owners-felt that they were not represented. Many debates have taken place in this place regarding this matter. They had very strong feelings in this regard. They believed that government did not and is still not heeding them. They believe that they are not being heard. One can go out into the bush into the tribal situation which still exists and hear these very fine old Aboriginal people still say that they are not being heard. They ask government to hear them. Now the Government has that opportunity. Some communities refused to participate in NAC elections because they rarely saw their NAC members other than at election time. Perhaps that also applies to our system of government. It is a criticism that cannot be levelled only at the NAC members. The other problem is that decisions that were taken by the NAC, such as that to boycott the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, were taken without any reference to the Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal people felt very strongly regarding that episode.

Senator Ryan has referred to the NAC as an experiment which has not been entirely successful. I think she will not find much disagreement with that proposition among the Aboriginal people who must feel very let down by the recently revealed details of how their representatives disposed of NAC funds. For that matter the Australian community will not disagree either. I hope that we can all take heart from the fact that it has been seen the NAC has not worked. I hope that we can count on the Government to ensure that the new organisation does not fall prey to the same arrangements, whereby money was spent without control and accounting. I certainly hope that the Minister will ensure that the person or persons responsible for fraudulently negotiating the missing cheque forms referred to by the Auditor-General are, if they can be located, prosecuted. There should be no question of those people obtaining positions in the future as representatives of the Aboriginal people. I believe it is important that the new organisation start with basically a clean slate and that it must not be tainted with the unfortunate and embarrassing misuse of public moneys which has gone on in the past. In the new organisation, I believe that government will need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job.

Senator Archer —The patience of Lot.

Senator KILGARIFF —That is quite true; it will need the patience of Lot. If this new Aboriginal organisation is to achieve results, the Government has much to consider in its organisation, its framework, its responsibility and its representation.