Questions about Snowdon as Congress CEO quits

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

Congress CEO Stephanie Bell (left) resigned yesterday as claims were being made that Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon (right), the Member for Lingiari, declined to fund another indigenous health service unless it operated under the control of Congress.
Bess Price, who is now the Country Liberals candidate for the Territory seat of Stuart, says she acted as an interpreter about two years ago in a conversation between Mr Snowdon and Yuendumu resident Matthew Egan.
Mr Egan was instrumental in setting up the Willowra Yuendumu Nirripi Health Service (WYN).
She says Mr Snowdon told Mr Egan that Federal funding would be approved for WYN only if it submitted to the control of Congress.
Mr Egan declined, says Ms Price. The organisation has since been closed down because lack of funding, according to a long time Yuendumu resident who did not wish to be named.
As reported by the Alice Springs News, a Federal investigation is now under way into a string of alleged wrongdoings by Congress.
In part, it is alleged that Congress improperly diverted into a special fund 20% from grants and paid it into a special fund, as a fee for administration.
A letter to Congress from the Department of Health and Ageing, leaked to the Alice Springs News, says “a major concern [is] that the amounts deducted from the grants … are allocated to a Core Services budget [which] makes it difficult to identify how these funds are used”.
For example, “interest earned on Funds for other purposes is a breach of the funding agreement”.
The letter from the department says that Congress may have to repay up to $2m in funds used improperly, including air fares and unauthorised use of Ms Bell’s corporate credit card.
In June 2009 Mr Snowdon became the Minister for Indigenous Health, Rural and Regional Health and Regional Service Delivery. He did not respond to a request for comment from the Alice Springs News.
The many still unanswered questions in the Federal investigation notwithstanding, the statement by Congress announcing Ms Bell’s resignation is effusive in its praise of her work.
It quotes Congress board president Helen Kantawara: “On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank Stephanie for her hard work and contribution to Congress throughout almost 30 years of service – the last 11 of which were in the role of CEO.
“We would like to acknowledge Stephanie for her dedication and commitment to the Aboriginal health sector as an advocate for the development and delivery of Aboriginal community controlled primary health care services across Central Australia, the NT and across the nation more generally, including as a long term board member of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.”
Ms Bell’s continuous period of service to the Aboriginal community throughout this time is acknowledged as an important and unique contribution to primary health care in a remote area, the statement says.
“Ms Bell was the 2011 recipient of the Menzies Medallion, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to primary health care and to Indigenous health in the Northern Territory. The Menzies Medallion is awarded annually by the Menzies School of Health Research to honour individuals who have made a national contribution to health, in areas which have benefited the Northern Territory,” says Ms Kantawara.
As reported by the News, the board has appointed Ms Donna Ah Chee to the position of Acting CEO.

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3 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Paul Lelliott
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Minister Snowdon was quite correct in directing that WYN Health Service operates under the auspices of Congress which is a Federal and Territory accredited organisation created to deliver a range of services to remote communities. To streamline administration typically governments tend to prefer to deal with established peak bodies rather than smaller organisations. It remains to be seen how efficiently Congress has acquitted its grants, but to implicate the Minister is really an unnecessary inclusion.

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  2. Maya Cifali
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    When over the years, an organisation becomes too large and develops too many branches and programs, and sub-branches and sub-programs, the central financial control often fails to monitor the fluidity of funds from one program to the other, and possibly beyond…
    CAAC’s scope is to offer an alternative primary health care to the indigenous sector of the Central Australia population. Keep it at that. Additional peripheral activities and therefore additional revenues have generated the intricacies of political pursuit of local power to the detriment of Congress’s core objective. I would suggest to simply go back to the roots and forget the frills.

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  3. Chris Carey
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Thank you for taking a continuing interest in this story.
    Has Ms Bell been made a scapegoat?
    One must acknowledge her contribution.
    All grants would have had conditions which should have outlined how the interest could be spent. Hence the interest is a separate issue to the administration fee.
    There is nothing wrong with charging a reasonable administration fee in order that the organisation can administer the grants. 20% may seem on the high side but not necessarily unreasonable. It would not be that difficult to work out how the administration fee was used. Are McGrathNicol examining this question?
    The suggestion seems to be that it is difficult to work out how the administration fee was spent. Another suggestion is that up to $2m was spent improperly. How are these suggestions reconciled? If the money was spent improperly what was it spent on? Surely not only a few airfares and unauthorised credit card payments.
    If the $2m is accurate, it seems improbable that this would have occurred during the course of a single financial year. If so, why was this not discovered earlier?
    What kind of pressure – if any – was placed on the finance staff to be flexible in its interpretation of the use of the grant funding?
    One reason for the creation of the Shires was the lack of administrative competence held by smaller organisations. Congress may well have been better able to administer – as opposed to control – the Yuendumu Nyirripi Health Service.
    The problem is – as you suggest implicitly – that we will never know the answers to these questions.
    Should we know? (A rhetorical question, drowning in a kind of spiritual weariness.)
    Do we rely on the governance capacity of the organisation, the audit requirements and the wisdom of the funding agencies – and the politicians?
    Can such questions be asked without it being seen as an attack on Congress and its good work?
    Why did this happen?
    Oh – thanks to Congress for the great carry bags handed out at the Show.

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