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Wednesday, 26 June 1996
Page: 2256

Senator BOB COLLINS(3.27 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), to a question without notice asked by Senator Bob Collins today, relating to funding for the Community Development Employment Projects program of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

The minister said a number of things in that answer. First, he said, `It will only take a phone call to fix this problem up.' What concerned me most was that he made a number of other assertions. He said that all the people involved, including the ATSIC officers, were engaged in `mischievous behaviour'.

Senator Herron —Some.

Senator BOB COLLINS —It will be in the Hansard . Mr Peter Boothman from ATSIC will be interested to know that he is a mischief maker. The minister also said that the only reason this organisation Junjuwa could be having this problem was that they must have a serious budget problem.

I want to correct the record. I said that they made two telephone calls this morning. The first of those calls was yesterday afternoon, which makes this story even worse. I will present the facts fairly to the Senate as I understand them. All of this was totally unsolicited by me. This is the sad and sorry track record of this matter with this organisation.

Junjuwa is the largest Aboriginal community in the Fitzroy Valley. The chairman of the ATSIC regional council, Dick Bedford, yesterday signed the decision papers for CDEP grants to the local communities, including this one. Normally the money would start flowing from today. This community first faxed a letter to Senator Herron on Monday morning this week. All these letters, I might add, are not confrontationist; they are letters pleading for help. The council was hanging on every word Senator Herron said in this place.

They wrote to him first on Monday morning. They wrote to him again yesterday morning. Junjuwa spoke to an adviser in the minister's office yesterday afternoon and was told there were transitional arrangements. The adviser in the minister's office yesterday afternoon said that if they had no budget problems they would be cleared and would have access to those transitional funds. I acknowledge that that is exactly what the minister said in here today. That was yesterday afternoon.

They then informed the adviser that this was in direct contradiction to what the local ATSIC office was telling them. You could imagine the confusion on the ground here. They then relayed the answer of the minister's adviser to the ATSIC office and asked them, not unreasonably, to put their advice in writing. The ATSIC office did. I seek leave to table the letter.

Leave granted.

Senator BOB COLLINS —The letter is self-explanatory. They wrote to the minister again last night. I seek leave to table this letter.

Leave granted.

Senator BOB COLLINS —The letter is again self-explanatory. It pleadingly says, `Please help us. We will be on the phone at 6 o'clock this morning.' They were, because I checked. They said, `Please ring us and tell us why we are getting written advice from the ATSIC office that conflicts with what the minister is saying in the parliament. Ring us. We have a deadline.' The officer in the minister's office said, `Fine.'

They waited until the last possible minute—the time difference meant that it was 11 o'clock this morning—to ring the minister's office, only to be told that no-one was available to take their call. They then had a meeting of the Junjuwa council and put all this information and correspondence before the council. The council regrettably took a decision today that they would have to terminate. I do not think the termination has taken place. Why did they take it? Because they did not want to be in breach of the audit regulations and have people work for money they did not have. That is all in the letter.

They then wrote a letter addressed `To whom it may concern' advising of the action that they had to take and faxed it to the minister's office today. I seek leave to table that letter.

Leave granted.

Senator BOB COLLINS —In conclusion, as I said before, the minister has made assertions that the people who wrote these letters must be mischievous and that this organisation is in trouble because it must have serious budget problems.

Senator Patterson —He did not say that.

Senator BOB COLLINS —I do not know. I want the truth.

Senator Patterson —He said serious trouble.

Senator BOB COLLINS —Serious trouble, yes. They assure me that they were not in any trouble. They were audited by KPMG, your special auditors, 18 months ago and got a clean bill of health.

They have written three letters to the minister, all of which have been faxed to his office. They had at least one conversation with an adviser in his office yesterday. Minister, they have been pleading for three days with your office to get this problem clarified. Having listened to what you said in parliament, their frustration was that they could not get it translated into action on the ground in the Fitzroy Valley. When they rang this morning, no-one would talk to them. What heartless treatment! (Time expired)

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs)(3.34 p.m.) —by leave—There is an explanation for this, and it is consistent. I understand Senator Collins getting worked up about it, because he is acting on information given to him that is incorrect. I checked with ATSIC immediately after the end of question time. They advised me that funding will be released next week when it is due. They cannot understand why the CDEP program would be terminated in these circumstances.

Senator Bob Collins —Did they have an explanation for their own letter?

Senator HERRON —Yes, they did. That is what I am about to read to you. There was a letter sent out. This explains the apparent confusion and Senator Collins's position. I appreciate that he has taken it in good faith. It is based on misinformation. A letter that went out on the 25th is the incorrect piece of information that that regional council acted on. This has occurred, as I said in my response—ATSIC provided it for me, by the way—in relation to mischievous behaviour. Perhaps `mischievous' was the word ATSIC used. It may have been that it was a failure of interpretation by a director of ATSIC.

This is the incorrect statement. I will not read the first part of it. It says that organisations in most desperate need will be first looked after by the special audit. It then says:

However, you should note that there is a process that must be followed in addition to the attendance of the Special Auditor before funding can be released. This includes sending out the letter of offer and waiting for the signed letter of acceptance. Consequently, it would not be possible for funding to be released on the 1st July 1996. It is hoped that funding can be released within that week.

That is incorrect. It went out from an ATSIC office to another office. They acted on that. That is how it occurred.

Everything that I said has been consistent with my responses to questions. I can under

stand Senator Collins, in his chagrin, at the apparent—

Senator Bob Collins —Not my chagrin, Senator.

Senator HERRON —Well, his being concerned.

Senator Bob Collins —It is these poor buggers.

Senator HERRON —Yes. I agree. Senator Collins will appreciate that ATSIC is also unaware how it occurred. I repeat that ATSIC advised that the funding will be released next week.

Senator Bob Collins —Why didn't your office straighten it out? They had three days notice of it.

Senator HERRON —I have a liaison officer. We have had only one phone call.

Senator Bob Collins —Yes. That was this morning. Not yesterday afternoon?

Senator HERRON —We have no record. I will check that again. I will report back to you. The officer concerned is the departmental liaison officer with ATSIC. He is a very competent Aboriginal person. He handed that on immediately to ATSIC. That is the response we got.

Senator Bob Collins —This morning?

Senator HERRON —Yes.

Senator Bob Collins —Before or after question time?

Senator HERRON —After question time in relation to it.

Senator Bob Collins —No regular phone call yesterday afternoon?

Senator HERRON —I will have to check that. You said during question time that there were two telephone calls this morning. That is what I checked.

Senator Bob Collins —The first one came this morning.

Senator HERRON —Yes. You did that a few minutes ago. I will check that out for you.

Senator Bob Collins —The bottom line: will they get their money?

Senator HERRON —Yes. The bottom line is that they will get their money. I would appreciate it if you would ring them and tell them straight away, as you seem to have a direct line to them. I will terminate my remarks there. In order to be absolutely certain about it, let me say that CDEP funding to those bodies will go ahead. Let us stop the misinformation, albeit done with the best intent.

Question resolved in the affirmative.