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Tuesday, 25 May 1993
Page: 1267


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (11.45 p.m.) —I thank Senator Tambling for his contribution. As he has acknowledged, the questions have been answered to the best of the ability of the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Mr Tickner). The Minister has asked me, on his behalf, to read this response into the record. I hope that it will be satisfactory to Senator Tambling. Where I use the personal pronoun `I', it refers to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

  The statement reads as follows:

  Certain issues of concern have been raised in the Senate Additional Estimates process by Senator Tambling regarding the operation of the Northern Land Council and some associated issues. I would emphasise that I have reached no final conclusion on the accuracy, substance or otherwise of Senator Tambling's concerns. In the interests of my continuing commitment to open and accountable government, however, I have decided to take the steps outlined below. It is in the interests of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, including the staff and councillors of the Northern Land Council, that urgent action be taken to clarify concerns and, where appropriate, to remedy any deficiencies and shortcomings. In summary, I propose to take the following action.

  First, I wrote on 3 May 1993 to the Auditor-General after receiving representations from Senator Tambling on certain allegations made to him. In that letter, I sought the Auditor-General's views as to whether further investigations were warranted. Although I have not yet received a reply to that correspondence, I have determined nevertheless to formally request the Auditor-General to undertake an investigation of the matters raised by Senator Tambling and will ask the Auditor-General to put forward suggestions for any improvements in the NLC's administrative systems and management structure as a matter of priority.

  Secondly, I propose to direct that the Northern Land Council, under section 37 of the Act, henceforth submit its annual reports in the format used by the Central Land Council for its annual reports. This will include the requirement to identify all consultancy agreements entered into by the NLC.

  Thirdly, I have determined to withdraw my delegation to the state manager of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's Northern Territory office to approve payments under section 64(7) of the Act for land council administrative costs. That delegation will henceforth only be exercised by the chief executive officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, who will advise me in each case when the delegation is exercised. This is not to be taken as any criticism of the state manager in the Northern Territory, who has always authorised payments strictly in accordance with the requirements set out in section 64(7).

  Fourthly, after obtaining the agreement of the chairperson of ATSIC, Ms Lois O'Donoghue CBE, AM, I am prepared to release to Senator Tambling a confidential draft report prepared by the Office of Evaluation and Audit on the Aboriginal benefit trust account on the express undertaking that the report is a draft and its contents confidential for a period of two weeks to allow responses to be prepared by ATSIC to the report.

  I would emphasise that the final draft version of the report was only made available to the director of the OEA on 13 May 1993, and the OEA has not yet had the opportunity to obtain responses to the report's recommendations. The draft was only provided to my office late yesterday afternoon and I have not as yet had the opportunity to read the document myself. I have consistently stressed that issues of public accountability are non-negotiable. It is my strong view that it is in the interests of the NLC that Senator Tambling's concerns be investigated.

I hope that that constitutes a pretty comprehensive response by the Minister to Senator Tambling. It might be possible under those circumstances for us to be detained no longer on this matter tonight.