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Monday, 24 May 1993
Page: 1128

Senator TAMBLING (9.29 p.m.) —If the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Gareth Evans) says that we will have to wait for the production of answers from ATSIC and the Northern Land Council, it might well mean that further consideration of the estimates of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will equally have to wait. That is only reasonable, given that both bodies have had a fortnight in which to respond to the requests made, and also given the fact that last week the committee in paragraph 20 of its report drew specific attention to this, noting that further investigation would be necessary following receipt of the additional information.

  I would have hoped that the matter could have been resolved this evening; unfortunately it seems that that will not happen. Therefore, it will be necessary to wait a couple of days until we can get the answers from both ATSIC and the Northern Land Council in order to approve the estimates of the committee.

  The answer that has just been passed to me by the Minister specifically relates to section 64(7). I note, very importantly, that in the grants to the Northern Land Council in this financial year there have been these additional payments of some $4 million. I am very concerned about that with regard to any changes in the budget approvals of the Northern Land Council. I think its annual operating budget is currently in the order of $8 million. If it has had to be topped up by an additional 50 per cent in this financial year there is a very serious matter going on, and a very serious matter of approvals that need the attention of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Mr Tickner), who has obviously signed each and every one of those approvals. Also, in the normal course of events, any additional expenditure would naturally have shown in the appropriate accounts presented to the Parliament for consideration.

  The fact is that these funds are channelled through the Aboriginals benefit trust account. That means that when they are made available to the land councils for additional administrative expenses, those funds are not then available for general community grants to Aboriginal people in my constituency in the Northern Territory. So it is all right for the Minister to say that there are no additional funds being allocated—there are. The process is just that they are channelled through a trust account and they are specifically being drawn against funds that would otherwise be available for the provision of very worthwhile and necessary benefits for Aboriginal people. Here, by ministerial fiat and approval, they are being syphoned off and used for purely administrative functions of a land council that is under review by the Auditor-General, and that has had a qualified audit report in the last financial year that would certainly have been before the Minister for his consideration before the dates of some of these grant approvals.

  I say to the Minister that this is a very serious matter. I would hope that he would acknowledge that the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory are the people who are missing out on these benefits. They are the people making representations to me as their senator about the concerns of the Northern Land Council—the constituents. There is considerable controversy not only with regard to the administration of this trust account—which is the Commonwealth Government's Aboriginals benefit trust account—but also the unanswered question of the royalty trust accounts that are separately maintained by the Northern Land Council, which I believe are being syphoned off and used for additional and further administrative costs. Those issues need to be very carefully addressed.