A group of Aboriginal leaders has warned that a parliamentary inquiry into Aboriginal governance in South Australia risks causing “great harm to individuals, tearing families apart and damaging communities”.

Key points:

  • A group of Aboriginal leaders say they oppose a parliamentary inquiry into Aboriginal governance in SA
  • Prominent Aboriginal leaders, including Jeffrey Newchurch and Keith Thomas, wrote to the Premier this month
  • But other reform advocates say government intervention in Aboriginal corporations and organisations is necessary

In a letter signed by 12 community elders and sent to South Australian Premier Steven Marshall, the group expresses their opposition to a proposed parliamentary inquiry into the governance of Aboriginal corporations and organisations.

“Allowing and encouraging people to prosecute their personal grievances under parliamentary privilege risks great harm to individuals, tearing families apart and damaging communities,” the letter reads.

“It would be unfortunate if the harm this inquiry might cause was remembered as your legacy in Aboriginal Affairs.”

Prominent South Australian Aboriginal leaders, including Kaurna man Jeffrey Newchurch and CEO of Native Title services Keith Thomas, are among the signatories.

“We want to see the very highest levels of accountability and transparency in Aboriginal organisations,” the letter states.

“Despite almost daily reports of non-Aboriginal companies entering liquidation or administration, we don’t see calls for a parliamentary committee to investigate their governance.”

The group has the backing of Shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher.

Speaking on ABC Radio Adelaide on Friday, Mr Maher said he would be reconsidering an inquiry if he were still Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

“I’d be kind of scared of this mob if I was still the minister and there was a group of very senior and, I think, respected and considered Aboriginal leaders who would form that view,” he said.

Mr Maher said that national watchdog, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), regularly did “deep dives” into Aboriginal corporations.

“It’s been suggested to me that there might be a number of other avenues or vehicles that this could be done by,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone’s disputing better governance is something everybody wants.”

Governance woes lead to watchdog takeovers

In the past two years, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations has stepped in and placed multiple SA native title body corporates into administration, taking over control of the corporations and often appointing new directors once investigations are complete.

Among the key complaints leading to special administration are a lack of financial record keeping and governance issues between members and the board.

An investigation into the “labyrinth” of financial issues uncovered by the regulator in one of South Australia’s largest native title body corporates, the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) is still ongoing after several extensions of the special administration period.

Last year, ORIC head Selwyn Button described the dire straits the organisation was in.

“The special administrators have uncovered an intricate network of related entities and interests within the ATLA corporate structure,” Mr Button said.

“It’s unclear if members even knew of the existence of some entities.”

The next administration extension is scheduled to end in April, when control of the company is expected to be handed back to a board of directors appointed by the special administrators.

Reform advocates call for action

In early February, the Premier announced he would back an inquiry after a long campaign by Aboriginal reform advocates for the government to step in on what they had labelled a broken system.

The proposed parliamentary probe would look into allegations of maladministration and governance issues within Aboriginal corporations across South Australia.

Reform advocate Tyson Lindsay said government intervention was necessary.

“This is needed because of all of the corruption and fraudulent activity and the community suffering from the actions of the so-called leaders,” Mr Lindsay said.

Mr Lindsay is a Mathawi, meaning a “land leader”, from South Australia’s Riverland region.

He said the issues with Aboriginal corporations are holding many nations back from success.

“This has been driven by the community, who have had enough of the same old people telling them the same old lies promising outcomes, which never happen,” Mr Lindsay said.

The Premier met with the Aboriginal Reform SA group last November, during which members aired their concerns that the native title system was susceptible to corruption and communities were suffering as a result.

In a statement, the Premier’s office said he won’t try to influence whether an inquiry proceeds.(ABC News: Nick Harmsen)

“They’re suffering in multiple areas. The health areas, the mental health areas, the psychological wellbeing,” Mr Lindsay said.

“The situation at the moment is absolutely causing so much damage to the Aboriginal people of this land.

“That is just absolutely very troubling.”

The debate between Elders has reached a boiling point, with some reform activists alleging they’ve received death threats over their continued push for change.

They say the only way for there to be true transparency around the allegations of corruption is for all parties to be able to give evidence while protected under parliamentary privilege.

Mr Lindsay said overwhelmingly, Aboriginal people support government reform, and they’re grateful the Premier has thrown support behind their proposed action.

“This is this is really going to help a lot of problems in regards to closing the gap and reconciliation,” Mr Lindsay said.

“This is going to help in a lot of areas.”

In a statement, the Office of the Premier said he won’t be trying to influence the committee on whether they proceed with an inquiry.

The Parliamentary standing committee on Aboriginal Lands will meet on Monday, when it is likely an announcement will be made on whether the inquiry will go ahead.