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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2853

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(11.41) —I raise a matter that relates in a general sense to some of the Aboriginal communities which are found these days right across the length and breadth of Australia. I refer to what I perceive to be the lack of accurate and effective financial accounting of these groups and, particularly, to their lack of accountability. I draw the Senate's attention, for instance to the circumstances of the Oombulgurrie Association Inc. The Association was allocated grants by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for 1986-87 of $1,692,092. As I understand the arrangements, projects are allocated in conjunction with communities and DAA field staff work out programs and priorities. The Oombulgurrie Association is a community of between 250 and 300 people. It is located across the gulf from Wyndham in the far north of Western Australia.

Included in the global amount I have referred to is an allocation of $400,000 for a landing barge. The object, presumably, of providing the landing barge was that the community which was purchasing the barge could transport stock, in the form of cattle, across the gulf to Wyndham to be subsequently sold. As I understand it, the barge has been purchased but not paid for because the community has suddenly found itself without any money. The barge has been repaired, renovated and re-equipped. The bill for that has also not been paid because there is no money. The original project was to cost a total of about $117,000. The amount has now run up to $225,000 with, in the short term, little prospect of creditors receiving the money owed to them which has already been outstanding for some months. Other creditors are also caught within the web of the community's financial difficulties, such as those who have provided fuel, cement and a whole range of items.

To add to that, the community-like most communities-has a local store which has incurred debts in excess of $250,000. These debts are owed to small business people in Wyndham who offered credit to the community in good faith. These small business people have now been owed the very large amount of money I have referred to for many months. Very few small business people in the far north of Western Australia, with their enormous overheads, can afford to carry debts of that magnitude for months. I understand that there is no prospect of these people being repaid this year, although a scheme is presently being structured so that they may receive some payment in 1987. The community's bookkeeping appears to be so bad that the Department has seconded somebody from mid-level management to the community to try to sort out the community's affairs, which are in a very real mess.

It seems, on the surface at least, that there is money, which apparently has been received and paid out by the community, for which there is absolutely no record or account. At the moment it seems to be anybody's guess whether that money has been misappropriated or simply that the books are in such a dire mess that it is difficult to draw a conclusion. It seems to me that much of the difficulty arises because of the employment of white advisers with a question- able level of competence and skill. There seems to be no proper accountability at all. At the end of the day advisers appear to be employed by the communities rather than by the DAA. It is unfair to expect these communities to have the competence or capacity to be discerning and make judgments as to the value and ability of their various advisers, but there ought to be some sort of accountability and some strings attached. Surely these communities ought to be expected to function, at least in part, on a commercial basis.

I was interested to hear Senator Macklin talking about Wiluna. I had the distinction, if one could call it that, of being born in Wiluna. Some years ago the local store stopped credit for the Aboriginal community so they sacked the storekeeper. There ought to be a system whereby there is more accountability by all concerned. If bodies such as the Oombulgurrie Association are to receive taxpayers' money for the purpose of undertaking commercial or quasi-commercial activities both they and the Government have an absolute responsibility to adopt proper and precise commercial management and accounting practices. They have a responsibility, not only to themselves and to the taxpayers but also to their creditors, to ensure that their affairs are in such order that they are able to fulfil their commercial and legal responsibilities with respect to the debts they incur.

As the Government chooses to use taxpayers' money, which is in the order of millions of dollars every year, in an effort, in very many cases, artificially to support community business activities of the type that are undertaken in Oombulgurrie and in many other places, it has a moral obligation to the Australian taxpayers to see that that money is put to the use for which it was intended. From the outset there ought to be some accountability and criteria for the projects that are undertaken. At the very best projects ought to have a long term viability and, at the very least, some long term benefit in terms of providing training, skills and capabilities to members of the Aboriginal community so that they can make a worthwhile contribution to their community. Until now that has not been the first priority of the arrangements that have been made, the allocations that have been given and the projects that have been set up. As long as any community, whether it be black or white, understands that there will be a continuing receipt of funds, irrespective of what happens to those funds and how they are handled, there will be mismanagement, incompetence and there will not be the care and responsibility one would normally expect from somebody who knows that if he mismanages his funds there will be no more funds and he will be accountable to the community and his creditors.

If the Department proceeds in the way it has on a number of occasions-I highlight the case of Oombulgurrie for the moment because it is before me-in my view the Government is letting down the taxpayers, the Australian people and most of all the Aboriginal community. The Department should be more stringent, vigilant and careful in the allocation and protection of the limited resources available to the Australian community.