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Monday, 24 May 1993
Page: 1126

Senator TAMBLING (9.15 p.m.) —Mr Chairman, I refer to the running sheet that you have distributed. I note that a number of items listed are similar to, but in a different order from, the reservation that I filed as part of the report of Estimates Committee A. I draw the attention of the chamber and the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Evans) to the comments in the report of the estimates committee, specifically on this program. Clause 17 of the report states:

Senator Tambling sought extensive and detailed information from ATSIC concerning a number of issues, particularly the activities of the Northern Land Council. He drew the Committee's attention to a significant qualification by the Auditor-General of the Council's Annual Report.

Clause 18 states:

Senator Tambling asked whether any additional section 64(7) funding had been approved by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs following receipt of the qualified audit report. This matter was taken on notice by ATSIC officers. No reply has been received to date.

Clause 19 states:

The Chief Executive Officer, Dr P. Shergold, informed the Committee that the Minister took the audit qualifications very seriously and had sought assurances from the Council that it has implemented procedures to avoid overspending in the future. The Minister has also approached the Auditor-General seeking advice on whether any matters in the audit report require further investigation.

Clause 20 states:

The Committee notes that this matter may require further investigation following receipt of additional information.

Mr Chairman, I draw clause 20 specifically to your attention and that of the Minister. This report has been available to the officers and, therefore, they ought to have known that this committee needed the information in order to conduct the process that is going on here this evening. The answers that have obviously been made available to the Minister or the Acting Minister, whoever he or she may have been, in the last fortnight are very important. I do not accept Senator Evans's statement that that is an excuse. Government always operates on the basis that, if the Minister is out of the country, there is an Acting Minister, who, in this case, could have drawn this matter to finality and presented it earlier for the consideration of the estimates committee and of the committee tonight.

  A number of issues were directly related to the activities and responsibility of ATSIC. I separate them from those of the Northern Land Council, and I do that very specifically. In estimates committee last September, I asked similar questions, though not as extensive, with regard to the activities of the Northern Land Council. The answers on that matter which were tabled were received in final form by the Senate estimates committee only in recent weeks. Various draft pieces were dribbled in. The Minister obviously showed that he had no capacity to direct or to offer assistance in any way whatsoever with regard to the activities of the Northern Land Council.

  I refer to section 64(7) funding—and the Minister's credibility is very much at stake here—which is approved by the Minister and which is very necessary for ATSIC to receive additional funding. In the estimates committee two weeks ago, I pursued this matter very deliberately and very intentionally. The Minister signed that approval, whatever it was and for whatever amounts, and, therefore, the available information ought to have been provided within a day or so. I am not worried that the Minister can now wave it under my nose a fortnight later and expect me to respond to it here in the chamber because he has managed to drag it out of the Minister's office or somewhere else. The fact is that it was not provided to the Senate committee or the chamber in an appropriate form.

  I would have thought the seriousness of the issues that I raised two weeks ago, with regard to the Minister providing additional amounts of money and the qualifications that the Auditor-General and the auditors of the Northern Land Council have raised with the Northern Land Council, would have sent bells ringing throughout government as to the serious nature of funding for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory—that it is obviously being perverted or diverted in many ways.

  I would also have expected some sort of formal discussion here this evening about the availability of information from the Northern Land Council. I appreciate the delicate relationship between ATSIC as the intermediary body and the Northern Land Council. I appreciate that in those sensitive relationships ATSIC itself is not responsible for the activities of the Northern Land Council. But the Minister certainly is, and the Minister's agent, ATSIC in this area, ought to have been able within a fortnight to have conveyed the seriousness of this problem to the Northern Land Council and demanded of it all the information to the 30 or 40 questions that were asked on 10 May.

  The questions were all set out very clearly. They were all available in Hansard the next day, 11 May. As we have seen with many other departments, the information ought to have been provided and should well have been provided here. There are many issues in that area that related to Aboriginal employment, to the royalty trust accounts, the funds that flowed to many Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory and the discretionary payments for administration of the Minister from the ABTA.

  The Minister might remember that at the estimates committee there was considerable discussion about a so-called internal audit report into the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account. Mr Miller at first denied that any such report existed and, in questioning at the estimates, it was subsequently ascertained that the report had been tabled and presented to ATSIC. Why have we not got an answer here as to whether that report, in all of its seriousness, was to be made available to the committee for consideration before this stage?

  There was also the matter of the personal debts of the Chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu. It had been alleged to me that he owed some $25,000 as a personal debt to the Northern Land Council. What sort of operation do we think this Government is running in allowing the Northern Land Council to operate as the private banker of its statutorily appointed chairman? I ask the question very deliberately whether any other executive members or council members of the Northern Land Council had their fingers in the till for topping up funds in any way. That personal debt very much raises the whole issue of conflict of interest of the Chairman of the Northern Land Council, his capacity to operate and whether he had received any counselling from ATSIC, the Minister or any other officer of Government on that particular matter.

  There was also the matter that I had raised with the Minister himself in January with regard to fringe benefits rorts by senior staff and management of land councils. These are important issues. It is a very serious matter if, as has been alleged in correspondence to me, the land councils were avoiding considerable responsibility on a comparable basis. The Minister acknowledged that there were some 30 or 40 outstanding questions in this area. What annoys me is that those serious matters, raised now a fortnight ago, are not back here for proper consideration, the only feeble excuse being that the Minister was out of the country. I am not surprised that Mr Tickner wants to look at the answers. He personally signed any forms that made additional funding under section 64(7). As there are serious implications arising from the qualified audit reports of his subsidiary body and as he has subsequently approved additional funding, perhaps there is some personal sensitivity.

   That ought not to be seen in any way as a camouflage for the Minister's responsibility or for that of ATSIC acting as agent, and particularly for the Northern Land Council which has a very direct responsibility to thousands of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory on behalf of whom it has to exercise a care of trust. I am bitterly disappointed. I will look to the Minister for some answers on this issue. If I do not receive adequate answers this evening, there will be no alternative but to move that consideration of the estimates of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet be postponed until such time as the answers are forthcoming.