Congress board members appoint their own successors – stonewalling has started

The serious issues raised in yesterday’s breaking news report about Congress are not new. The leaked letter was dated April 23, 2012. Two months later, what has the Congress Board and / or the Australian and NT Governments done?

Specific questions put by the Alice Springs News Online to the Congress Board President Helen Kantawara have gone unanswered today.

She said the Congress board would issue a statement “in due course”.

Ms Kantawara’s response to our  report yesterday failed to address many of the concerns raised.

The News asked her today, in particular, what action the Board is taking about the apparently acknowledged inappropriate use of a corporate credit card by Congress CEO Stephanie Bell (pictured), to which there was no reference in Ms Kantawara’s response.

The News also requested a copy of the Congress constitution. The auditors, quoted in the Department of Health and Ageing letter obtained by the News yesterday, say that the changes in May 2011 effectively mean that members cannot vote on new directors.

Is that so, we wanted to know. And if so were the changes approved by the members and are the changes consistent with the NT Associations Act?

This is what the Congress website says, in part, on the changes to the Board:

“The term of the Board has been extended from 3 to 5 years, with half the Board retiring after 3 years to ensure fresh ideas and skills are brought to the Board constantly.

“Board vacancies will be advertised and the Board will make an appointment [our emphasis] based on agreed selection criteria which include relevant experience, qualifications and ability to contribute to the aims and aspirations of the organisation.”

The author of the leaked letter comments that members’ ability to vote on new directors has “a direct impact on the extent to which the organisation might be considered as community controlled”.

Among other questions the News asked for specific answers to, based on the concerns raised in the Department of Health and Ageing letter:-

What is the purpose and the value of Congress’ investment in CAAH Nominees (to which it transferred $1m in 2005 but valued its interest in the entity as only $1000)?

Is a senior staff member a shareholder in Centrecorp?

Are other staff or Board members shareholders of Centrecorp?

Has Congress provided to the Department of Health and Ageing, as requested, a list of all transactions with CAAH Nominees and / or Centrecorp?

Were sitting fees to Board members paid using Medicare or OATSIH funds (prohibited under the funding agreement)?

Who went on the $31,688 overseas trip referred to in the letter and what was its purpose?

The News has been given, by a good source, the names of four of the the five people on the trip and we asked Congress to confirm them. We have since been given the name of the fifth person.

The News also asked about the identity and qualifications of the Board’s treasurer.

The News further put to Ms Kantawara questions about the cost of the primary health care service provided by Congress. In her response yesterday she said that in 2010-2011, Congress provided almost 10,000 unique clients with more than 90,000 episodes of care. The Congress annual budget is around $40m, so each episode of care cost the taxpayer $444.44. The cost of an episode of care from a fully trained GP, operating from a fully staffed clinic, is between $50 and $75, is it not? That means Congress is charging the taxpayer seven times as much.

Is that a fair calculation, we asked Ms Kantawara. If not, why not?

In response to all that Emma Ringer, Communications Officer, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, replied: “A statement from the Board of Congress will be issued in due course.”

Warren Snowdon, MHR for Lingiari and Minister for Indigenous, Rural and Regional Health was nominated by the Department of Health and Ageing as the Australian Government person for the News to seek comment from. Repeated requests to his staff in Alice Springs and Canberra, copied to the Department of Health and Ageing’s communications person have gone unanswered.

The News asked him, among other questions, what the government is going to do about Ms Bell’s apparently acknowledged inappropriate use of a corporate credit card?

What does the government know about the purpose and the value of Congress’ investment in CAAH Nominees?

Is he concerned about changes to the Congress constitution that effectively mean its members cannot vote on new directors?

When will the government and the public get the answers to the questions asked by Mr Garry Fisk (in the letter leaked to the News)?

Mr Fisk’s letter refers to events as far back as 2005. How come these issues, funded by taxpayers’ money, are being dealt with up to seven years later?

The News also contacted the NT Department of Justice about the changes to the Congress constitution. Does the department understand that they effectively mean that members cannot vote on new directors. If so, is the department satisfied that the changes were approved by the members?
And, are the changes consistent with the NT Associations Act?

Micheil Brodie, Executive Director, Licensing, Regulation and Alcohol Strategy, replied: “These matters were brought to the Department’s attention in late May.
“The Department is enquiring into the matters raised in accordance with the legislation.

”We will not be making any further comment as enquiries are proceeding.”

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  1. Jason
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Your math regarding the average cost for an ‘episode of care’ needs some serious re-thinking. The funds an organisation like Congress receives are used to also pay for all the staff salaries, superannuation etc. the funding also pays for HR, IT support, equipment and of course, bandages and all the other materials needed to provide health care. The actions of a few within a large organisation does NOT undo the good work done by many.
    [ED – The average cost calculation was put to Congress as a question and we are looking forward to their answer. Secondly, do you think a general practitioner just pockets his $50 to $75 consultation fee, and does not use much of it to pay for staff, superannuation, rent, equipment, power, rates, transportation, keeping abreast of new science, and so on?]

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