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Finance and Public Administration References Committee
16/11/2016
Commonwealth funding of Indigenous Tasmanians

SCULTHORPE, Ms Heather, Chief Executive Officer, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc.

Committee met at 08:58

Evidence was taken via teleconference

CHAIR ( Senator McAllister ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee inquiry into the Commonwealth funding of Indigenous Tasmanians. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. We are also streaming live via the web at www.aph.gov.au.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all witnesses appearing today for their cooperation with this inquiry.

I now welcome Ms Heather Sculthorpe from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre via teleconference. Ms Sculthorpe, information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement, if you wish to do so, and then at the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Ms Sculthorpe : The suggestion that Tasmanian Aboriginal people and programs are overfunded is clearly false when you compare the funding that comes into Tasmania to, for instance, the amount of money that goes to Noel Pearson's group in Far North Queensland and the amount of money that goes to the Torres Strait Islands. Overall, Tasmanian Aboriginal programs are underfunded, not overfunded, even more particularly given that the state government provides practically nothing for Aboriginal-specific programs.

There is a tendency at both the Commonwealth and state levels to claim that a certain percentage of overall funding should be considered to go to Aboriginal people. I think the percentage used by Prime Minister and Cabinet, and perhaps by the state government, is something nearing five per cent. We consider it just an absurdity to claim that five per cent of the population of Tasmania is Aboriginal.

We as an organisation—and I am aware that we have been targeted in Senator Lambie's Senate speeches—account financially and in great detail to our funders for our performance and for our expenditure. We cannot account for the fact that governments give most of their Aboriginal money to non-Aboriginal organisations and to other organisations that claim to be Aboriginal but are governed by non-Aboriginal people.

What we have done in our submission is try to show you that there are false claims, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to Aboriginality by a lot of people who control organisations in Tasmania at present. We have tried to show you that the processes that claim to be judicial have not dealt with a matter in a proper judicial manner and, in the only case where that has happened, the applicant was shown not to be Aboriginal. We have tried to show you how easy it is for people to wrongly claim to be Aboriginal and, therefore, to get control of Aboriginal money. There is a significant proportion of money that goes to those sorts of organisations. The money that goes to Aboriginal organisations such as mine is clearly legitimate, and we deal with as many Aboriginal people as our funding allows. I think that is a summary of our case. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Ms Sculthorpe. You mentioned in your remarks your concern about the way that state and Commonwealth agencies describe the level of funding for Aboriginal people. I think the implication of your remarks is that you consider tallying up the generalist services funding that goes to all citizens, regardless of their Aboriginality, to be an inappropriate inclusion in that amount. Is that true? Am I understanding that correctly?

Ms Sculthorpe : Yes. That is exactly right. If there were not to be Aboriginal-specific programs maybe that would be one way to guesstimate it. But whilst budget figures are put out to say, 'This many billions is being spent on Aborigines and this many millions goes to Aboriginal organisations,' and that sort of talk is around then I think it is incumbent on those providing the money to show that it is, indeed, being spent on Aboriginal people, not just some theoretical formula that says, 'X per cent of our budget must be for Aborigines.' Aboriginal services are around because the formula was previously shown not to be accurate in the 1970s. Aboriginal people were not getting equal access to services. That is why Aboriginal-specific services came in. So it is not enough for people to say now, 'Oh, yes. They are X per cent of the population, so that is so many dollars.' I think that needs to be proven rather than just asserted.

CHAIR: The Tasmanian government's fact sheet which they put out in 2014—sorry, I have that in front of me and you may not—indicates that targeted Indigenous expenditure constitutes only nine per cent of overall expenditure on Indigenous people in Tasmania. Do you consider that figure to be too low?

Ms Sculthorpe : I am sorry, but I do not know what they mean by nine per cent.

CHAIR: I think they mean that they spent $70 million on Indigenous-specific services and $731 million on mainstream services which they suggest go to Indigenous people.

Ms Sculthorpe : All I know is that we as the largest service provider for Aboriginal people get less than $200,000 a year from the state government. That is a very small percentage in anyone's book. I do not know what they are including. I should know, but I do not. Certainly, as far as we are concerned, that is an overestimate.

CHAIR: You will know that our terms of reference require us to consider, as your submission does, eligibility for Indigenous-specific services. Could you outline for the committee how your organisation approaches that question.

Ms Sculthorpe : If we do not know people to be Aboriginal, we ask them to establish that they are Aboriginal. We are one of the few places these days who actually follow the law of Australia, which requires firstly proof of Aboriginal descent. You have to show that you have Aboriginal ancestry not just self-identification and communal recognition. How people want to prove that ancestry is up to them. Most often they can point to some reference in some history book. Sometimes family trees can be useful. They can say, 'I am part of this family,' or 'I am part of that family,' and we can say, 'All right. We can see that you are.'

We have seen this approach that anyone who comes through the door can say, 'I am Aboriginal,' casts an absurd and impossible onus on the service provider. That is why a lot of organisations then chuck in the towel and say, 'All right. If you say you are, you are.' They are not in a position to ask any questions about that or to contest it because they do not know the community and they do not have the knowledge. In some of the court cases you will see that people had to disprove those assertions. If you do not know someone, it can be impossible to disprove it. If the person asserting Aboriginality is not required to say anything about who they are or put up any evidence which can be contested then you have an impossible task.

I see that Prime Minister and Cabinet says that that three-part definition is commonly known as self-identification. They are wrong about that. That is not what the High Court said in the Franklin Dam case. Self-identification is just making an assertion. But if you have to establish that you have Aboriginal ancestry that is a lot more than self-identification. So I think there is a lot of confusion about the purpose for which the question is asked. In the census, for example, people do not have much choice; they make an assertion: 'Yes, I am of Aboriginal descent.' I think that is the question. The question is Aboriginal descent, not 'Are you an Aboriginal person' or something like that. Anyway, they cannot ask any questions. But, if you are a service provider, you can and should ask a question to establish that you are not spending Aboriginal money on people who are not entitled to it.

If governments want to change that and say people should not have to establish that they are in fact of Aboriginal descent, why are they putting the money in the bucket called 'Aboriginal'? There are plenty of Aboriginal people who need Aboriginal services, but, if those services are not going to be confined to Aboriginal people, maybe governments need to look again and what they are actually funding.

CHAIR: Thanks very much. Senator Lambie, did you have questions?

Senator LAMBIE: I certainly do. Ms Sculthorpe, first of all, what would be your qualifications?

Ms Sculthorpe : My qualifications generally? I have an honours degree in law. I have a postgraduate diploma in environmental management. I am a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors—that sort of thing.

Senator LAMBIE: So you have got no qualifications in history?

Ms Sculthorpe : I have read every Aboriginal history book that there is and I have spent 25 years poring over people's genealogies that they submit. I have been through two or three court cases having to do exactly that.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you have any qualifications in that Indigenous area as a historian though?

Ms Sculthorpe : No, I have not.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay. Can you explain why the federal government recognises 26,000 Tasmanians as Indigenous while the Tasmanian state government only recognises about 6,000 Tasmanians as Indigenous?

Ms Sculthorpe : No, I cannot. I am not the state government and I do not know that the state government even says that. You say that. I do not know if the state government says that.

Senator LAMBIE: It has been very well documented in his Australia Day speech this year. He said, under Tasmania laws as they stood for many years, unless the TAC recognised someone as Indigenous, those people seeking Indigenous recognition in Tasmania had no hope of being recognised as Indigenous Tasmanians.

Ms Sculthorpe : That is incorrect.

Senator LAMBIE: In the TAC, who makes the decision on whether or not you are Indigenous? How many of you?

Ms Sculthorpe : The TAC has about 150 staff. People generally apply to the front-line staff, who are the community workers and who have a large network of people that they refer to us. They do not know the people. If it becomes a difficulty of looking at family trees, I will have a look at it to see if it is a new family tree. Generally it is pretty easy because the staff are Aboriginal people who know the Aboriginal community.

Senator LAMBIE: Apparently, but apparently not; that is why they have missed 20,000 Indigenous Tasmanians on their paperwork. Who has the last, overriding decision on whether or not someone can be identified as Indigenous Tasmanian?

Ms Sculthorpe : Oh, that is a completely different question than the first one you asked me. You asked me about how the Aboriginal centre does it. How the state government does it is up to them. I do not know how they do it. I think they require family trees—

Senator LAMBIE: Is it not the TAC that decides whether or not you are an Indigenous Tasmanian? That does not come from Will Hodgman as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs; that comes from your pack.

Ms Sculthorpe : No, it does not, and please—I am not sure that my 'pack' is a way to describe my organisation.

Senator LAMBIE: Who makes the decision? Who knocks back when they put in their Indigenous paperwork and ask for Indigenous recognition in Tasmania?

Ms Sculthorpe : Please follow this line. If you apply for Aboriginal housing then you apply to the housing department. If you apply for a job with the state government, you go through the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which is part of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. If you apply for an Aboriginal health service then you apply to the Aboriginal Health Service. Our organisation is not the decider for all purposes—only for the purposes of our own services.

Senator LAMBIE: Who decides on whether or not you can be a participating member of a Tasmanian Aboriginal land council?

Ms Sculthorpe : The Tasmanian Electoral Commission decides that. It is nothing to do with the Aboriginal Centre.

Senator LAMBIE: Is that on recommendations from the TALC such that, if they knock someone back and that is put through the Electoral Commission, that is exactly how it stands?

Ms Sculthorpe : No, you have got that wrong too. The Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania—which is not the TALC but the ALCT—is a statutory body established by Tasmanian parliament. The Tasmanian Electoral Commission runs their elections. Often the Electoral Commissioner will say, 'I want advice on this,' so he—generally he—will establish a group of Tasmanian Aboriginal people to advise him. The centre is not part of that body that is established, and all different sorts of Aboriginal people are put onto that advisory body. So that is not the centre either.

Senator LAMBIE: So where does that advisory body come from? None of the TAC members are on that advisory council?

Ms Sculthorpe : Everybody is a member of the TAC if they are an Aboriginal person. No members of our state committee are. No members of our staff are. Each committee is different. Each time an election is called, he establishes a different committee. I cannot say that never, ever has one person that has been on an advisory committee been closely aligned with the TAC, but they have not been a staff member or a committee member.

Senator LAMBIE: Isn't it a fact that, because Leslie Dick was not recognised by the TAC as Indigenous Tasmanian even though a federal tribunal on 18 October found the opposite, Mr Leslie Dick was prevented by Tasmanian electoral laws from standing for election to an Indigenous body?

Ms Sculthorpe : He did not stand for anything with us. He tried to involve us in a racial discrimination claim against us, and that was dismissed, so I do not know what purpose he was doing it for. We said he was not Aboriginal, because he did not establish that he was Aboriginal, but it was not us who stopped him doing whatever it was he wanted to do. And his claim was dismissed by Dr Jocelynne Scutt, the then Anti-Discrimination Commissioner of Tasmania.

Senator LAMBIE: When it comes to Mr Dick, it is alleged that he put in to have voting rights on the TALC. Those voting rights or his recognition as Indigenous went to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, but that had to be approved by the TAC, and the TAC said, 'No, he's not of Indigenous background.'

Ms Sculthorpe : I have just told you that is not correct. It did not have to be approved by the TAC. If he was applying to vote in an ALCT election then it was to ALCT that he had to apply. It may be—sometimes, you see, the centre as an organisation does get the voting lists of different groups, goes through it and says, 'Yes, we don't know this one or that one; they should prove it,' so maybe he was on one of those. I am not sure.

Senator LAMBIE: So you are telling me now you do go through those lists, you do check on whether or not those people are Indigenous and you have a massive input on who goes onto that land council.

Ms Sculthorpe : No. There is a big difference. If there is a legislative scheme which enables people to lodge objections and you lodge objections for someone else to consider then we are not the decision-maker. Our say is the same as any other member of the public who can have a say by saying, 'I don't believe that person to be Aboriginal.' Then the decision-maker has to decide about that. It is not us deciding it.

Senator LAMBIE: So you put in the rejections then. How many rejections in the last five years have been done about anyone who has put in for the Tasmanian Aboriginal land council on a position of recognising them? How many rejections has the TAC put in?

Ms Sculthorpe : I do not know.

Senator LAMBIE: Can you take that on notice please?

Ms Sculthorpe : Well, listen. The question is wrong. You are talking about ALCT, not TALC. I am not sure if there has been an election in the last five years. If there has, there would only have been one because there were other objectors—which were not the centre—who held up that process through the Supreme Court. I have seen that Mr Dick accused us of having those elections postponed. It was not us; it was other people who took the matter to the Supreme Court that delayed the election. So, unfortunately, everything that happens in Aboriginal affairs that someone does not like is shafted home to us whether it is ALCT, TAC, the Electoral Commission or anybody else. I think people should be clear about exactly what it is they are objecting to.

Senator LAMBIE: So, along with CHAC members and the hundreds of Tasmanians, like Lesley Dick, who recognise Indigenous Tasmanians by federal tribunal, and myself, who you do not recognise as being Indigenous, what is the total number of Tasmanians who TAC say are fraudulently claiming to be Indigenous? Is it a couple of thousand, 5,000 or 20,000?

Ms Sculthorpe : I do not know.

Senator LAMBIE: I guess what I am asking you is this: now that you have up-to-date figures—as you would know, they are now saying that they recognise 26,000 Tasmanians—are you saying that 20,000 Tasmanians are fraudulently claiming to be Indigenous because they failed the TAC test for Aboriginality?

Ms Sculthorpe : Twenty thousand people have not sought to TAC's services and so have not had to be subject to our test. Up-to-date figures is another funny thing. As you said previously in the year, 19,000 people put down in the last census that they were Aboriginal and then the Bureau of Stats estimated the extra 5,000 to make it 26,000, or whatever it is—25,000. So no-one knows how many Aboriginal people are in Tasmania. They do not even know how many people claim to be of Indigenous origin. I do not quite know why it is meant to be the Aboriginal centre who is meant to have all these figures when the most resourced place in the land, which is the Bureau of Stats, does not have them.

Senator LAMBIE: I would like to turn to the government funding that TAC receives from the government. I know you have submitted financial statements. Can you give a brief overview of the government funds you receive, broken down into state and federal funds?

Ms Sculthorpe : I said that in the submission. The state gives us about $260,000 or $200,000 a year and the rest is from the Commonwealth. The figures in my submission are all Commonwealth funds.

Senator LAMBIE: What about the state government?

Ms Sculthorpe : As I said, it is about $260,000 or $200,000 a year.

Senator LAMBIE: Is TAC ever subject to independent financial audits?

Ms Sculthorpe : Every year since 1973.

Senator LAMBIE: Who does those audits?

Ms Sculthorpe : Whoever our auditor is, which changes a bit.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you pay for that auditor to come in or is this done by the government, where they send an independent auditor in? How is that done?

Ms Sculthorpe : Every auditor is an independent auditor because they are a member of whatever it is—company things. They are independent and they have to sign to say they are independent. Like every other organisation, we pay a firm of accountants to audit our books yearly and we submit those figures to the regulatory bodies and to all of our funding bodies.

Senator SIEWERT: I would like some clarification of your submission. One of the comments that you made in your submission was that the proliferation of organisations and individuals wrongly claiming to be Aboriginal can be shown to be connected to electoral politics, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Could you explain that a little bit more?

Ms Sculthorpe : I think that is the only feasible explanation for that vast jump in Aboriginal identification that is shown in the chart in our submission. There are jumps of 50, 40, 30 per cent, from five years to five years or whatever it is. The first jump was around the elections to the National Aboriginal Conference, where people organised to get elected. New organisations were set up and people were enrolled to vote in Aboriginal elections. Then, when ATSIC came along with its regional councils, more people got involved and found people to sign up, and they got elected to the regional councils and they distributed money to new organisations. They bought buildings in various parts of Tasmania. I should not say it, I guess, but politicians seem to do deals: 'You vote me and I'll vote for you and we'll work out some deal and go forward from there.' That sort of thing seems to us to clearly have been going on with a proliferation of organisations and with the big jumps in numbers of Aboriginals around the time of elections. The increases in the Braddon Aboriginal population seem to have quite a bit to do with elections to the Commonwealth and Tasmanian parliaments, about whether they were going to elect Labor or the Liberal Party. I referred in my submission to Will Fletcher, who, poor man, is a landscape gardener. I meant Tony Fletcher, who is a senior Liberal person. The numbers in Circular Head, say, in the Braddon electorate, seem to be associated with who is wanting votes at forthcoming elections. We can see that happening now with both Liberal and Labor in Tasmania spending time in Braddon. That is what I mean.

Senator SIEWERT: What I understand from both your submission and from the answers to questions from Senator Lambie just then is that what you are saying is, in order to get your services, you have to be identified as Aboriginal through the process that you set out and that your process then does not govern any other of the funding made available through other services and through the state.

Ms Sculthorpe : That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the quantum of funding that you get, how is that process determined by the Commonwealth?

Ms Sculthorpe : I am not sure.

Senator SIEWERT: What is your understanding of the basis of the funding and the numbers on the basis of the funding that the Commonwealth gives you?

Ms Sculthorpe : We have never had to say, 'We have this many members,' or that sort of thing. We do a submission—it is submission based funding—where we show the need that we can see in our community. I suppose we would need to say, 'The census says there are this many Aboriginal people,' but we do not get funding on the basis of how many people are in the census. As far as I know, that has never been the basis of how the Aboriginal Centre gets funding.

Senator SIEWERT: I will be asking the Commonwealth about this as well, but you understand that you get funding on the basis of need?

Ms Sculthorpe : That is my understanding, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: On how many people come to you for assistance, to access your services?

Ms Sculthorpe : It depends on what we are applying for. With new funding, we could not say, 'We had this many people last year who wanted to do this, that or the other.' I imagine that we would have said, 'The census shows X number of Aborigines in this state,' because that is the sort of format that many funding bodies want to know. But I do not think it is ever decided on the basis of that census figure.

Senator SIEWERT: We can check that with the Commonwealth. Can you tell me the number of people—and I apologise if you have said this; I could not see it in your submission—that come to your centre for services that you would not be able to support because they were not identified as Aboriginal?

Ms Sculthorpe : No. Until the Attorney-General took the legal service funding off us, we kept them, because that was part of what we need to account to the department—and the number was extremely small. The Attorney-General, however, had a different view of how many people we declined, because people would ring him up, or his office, without even coming to us and say that we had refused them, when we had not at all. So, no, I cannot give you any such figure, because it is very rare.

Senator PATERSON: Ms Sculthorpe, I notice in your submission, on page 2, that you refer to how only very recently systems were established to keep count of the number of individuals that you service. What is the reason for that change?

Ms Sculthorpe : I think because of these sorts of accusations, probably, and also because we wanted to make sure that we were not looking only under our noses. Because we are located in the major population centres, sometimes it can be too easy to forget that there is somebody at Dover or somebody on the east coast. It was also to try and make sure that we are getting out of the major population areas and into the sparsely populated country areas where people we have overlooked may want our services—to see that we are not overservicing a few people.

Senator PATERSON: But do any of the departments that you work with have an expectation of this kind of reporting? Did they require you to give any of this kind of detail?

Ms Sculthorpe : No. More recently, they have wanted stories about successes we have had. They are trying to move from process indicators like 'how many people from which area' to outcomes like: 'What changes have you been able to make?' They are concentrating more and more on how we are changing lives for people rather than how many people we are looking at.

Senator PATERSON: Have there been any changes with the addition of the advancement strategy in terms of the reporting and monitoring you are required to do?

Ms Sculthorpe : They are the ones that are mainly looking at outcomes rather than outputs. They are not looking at individual numbers. They are not looking at process—like numbers.

Senator PATERSON: You are saying not aggregate statistics, but stories or vignettes of people's lives that have been affected by your services?

Ms Sculthorpe : That is mostly it. I am pretty sure I am right in saying that, although we would also say that 'our playgroups have 35 children in them' or whatever it is or 'we see 75 mothers'—something like that. It is not individuals, but the numbers who come through.

Senator LAMBIE: I will put my questions on notice.

CHAIR: Ms Sculthorpe, thanks very much for your time this morning. A number of senators might have some follow-up questions that we will provide to you in writing. When we do so, we will give you an indication about when an answer would be helpful. But if you were willing to provide any follow-up information for senators, that would be really appreciated.

Ms Sculthorpe : Thank you. I am not sure whether Senator Lambie's question is something that I need to be following up. I did not entirely understand it. I think it was wanting the number of people we have objected to in elections.

CHAIR: Senator Lambie, you were interested to understand on how many occasions and for how many people Ms Sculthorpe's organisation had made a communication to the Tasmanian Electoral Commission?

Senator LAMBIE: That is right. This is for the Tasmanian Aboriginal land council, because, obviously, the AEC comes to the TAC and they say whether they are of Aboriginal descent.

Ms Sculthorpe : I just told you that is not right, but I think I know what you mean. That is incorrect—what you said.

Senator LAMBIE: What is the correct way? Obviously the AEC goes to somebody. What body does it go to?

Ms Sculthorpe : For a start, the AEC is not the Tasmanian Electoral Commission.

Senator LAMBIE: Sorry, I mean the TEC—the Tasmanian Electoral Commission.

Ms Sculthorpe : The Tasmanian Electoral Commissioner oversees the elections for the statutory Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania—the ALCT. The Tasmanian Electoral Commissioner establishes advisory committees. I do not know how he chooses the individuals, but he does not come to us to ask us.

Senator LAMBIE: So none of those people who belong with the TAC that go into those advisory committees are yours?

Ms Sculthorpe : We do not put them there. I cannot remember who was on it. I can remember some names who had nothing to do with the centre, but, if they are members, we do not put them there.

Senator LAMBIE: Are they members of TAC?

Ms Sculthorpe : Everyone is a member of the TAC if they are an Aboriginal person.

Senator LAMBIE: So they are the same ones that decide whether—okay, that is what I wanted to know.

Ms Sculthorpe : That is a misrepresentation.

CHAIR: The Tasmanian government have indicated they are willing to answer questions on notice as well. We might follow up with them about the process they follow for eligibility for voting in the land council elections.

Ms Sculthorpe : Thank you. That would be good.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Sculthorpe. We appreciate your time.

Ms Sculthorpe : Thank you.