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Monday, 22 November 1993
Page: 3376

Senator TAMBLING (9.08 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Bill that is currently before us. I do so because this evening on the channel 7 news there was a very important feature news item in the section called `Money Matters' that related to the implications that could flow from the native title Mabo legislation and also the current situation with regard to the various audits that are being very properly conducted into the operation of the Northern Land Council and the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account in the Northern Territory. In the context of that interview this evening, the director of the Northern Land Council, Mr Darryl Pearce, made a number of comments that very specifically addressed the issues of audit.

   I was also interviewed in that particular program. I alluded to the fact that it had been necessary very recently, arising from the considerations of the Senate estimates committees during this year, to refer a very important audit reference to the Auditor-General with regard to a number of very unsatisfactory financial arrangements of both the Northern Land Council and the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account.

  During this year, Walter and Turnbull, consultants to ATSIC, have now made two very significant audit reports to ATSIC on the implications of the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account which concern me greatly because they affect many constituents in the Northern Territory. I am sure that Senator Collins would share my concerns about the operation of the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account in the last few years, particularly the issues that have been addressed in that fundamental report of Walter and Turnbull where millions of dollars that is directly the property of Aboriginal people have gone in funny ways and not been properly accounted for.

  The Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account, whilst it flows through consolidated revenue, is really the accumulation of mining royalties that are very properly the private ownership of the Aboriginal traditional owners. Because a certain proportion of those funds flows to the land councils in the Northern Territory for their administration, it is concerning when the auditors then identify that, because of either lousy administration or perhaps more serious considerations, millions of dollars of funds are, in effect, siphoned off and are not then available to the traditional owners directly or for the operation of Aboriginal communities specifically in the Northern Territory.

  I had early discussions with the Australian National Audit Office as it was setting in place the preliminary audit and I know the range of issues it will be addressing. I am very hopeful that the Auditor-General's report will be tabled in this parliament before we rise in December. As I said earlier, that report is fundamental because it goes to the core of millions of dollars that are not flowing properly for the individual benefits of Aboriginal traditional owners and Aboriginal communities for grants.

  In addressing this legislation specifically, I look particularly at page 5 dealing with amendments relating to the functions of the Office of Evaluation and Audit. I am well aware that my colleague Senator Troeth will be moving a number of amendments to beef up this area so that the specific areas of audit should embrace those that relate to a regional council. This is most important. I would like to have seen the whole section go much further, particularly with regard to the audits of the land councils that operate in the Northern Territory under the provisions of the Aboriginal land rights act and also to the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account itself. Unfortunately, at this stage it was not appropriate to move that as an amendment.

  I would certainly urge Mr Pearce, the Director of the Northern Land Council, and Mr David Ross, the Director of the Central Land Council, to very carefully take note of the functions that have now been added to the Office of Evaluation and Audit under ATSIC, to be very mindful of those powers and, in response to the Auditor-General's report that will be tabled here this year, to consider further legislation that may be necessary. As I said in my opening remarks, I was concerned at the exclusive and proprietary interests that Mr Darryl Pearce attempted to take tonight in the debate. I do not think there is any need for any Aboriginal leader or person to get precious on this particular issue particularly where issues have been identified, through the process of audit, as being of very major concern.

  I believe we do have to wait for that report of the Auditor-General in the next few weeks. I anticipate that it will raise very significant principled issues. On behalf of those Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory, I hope that this will be an ongoing process in the further reviews that will be necessary to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Amendment Bill.

  I join with Senator Kernot in expressing my joy at the number of candidates who have offered for election at the ATSIC regional council elections on 4 December. I think it is a very democratic and principled process that has now been set in place. I trust that the new councillors, and subsequent commissioners in the next ATSIC commission, will be very mindful of their audit and evaluation roles.