Land council should have to answer FOI questions

LETTER TO THE EDITOR

 

Sir – Q: What do Aboriginal land councils have in common with intelligence and defence agencies like ASIO, theAustralian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and Defence Signals Directorate?

 

A: Blanket exemptions to people accessing information from them via the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

 

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has launched another investigation into the governance of the Northern Land Council (NLC), but clans are asking – what’s the point?

 

The ANAO has already raised concerns about poor financial management and questionable governance in investigations 2011-12 and 2012-13, but the reports have done little to improve governance and accountability.

 

The issue for clans who have a financial interest is that you have the ANAO identifying major issues but no way to get better information about what’s going.

 

The reason? The Aboriginal Land Councils are totally exempt from FOI.

 

The NLC is the largest land council and receives millions of taxpayer dollars, but operates as a secret society.

 

We’ve got a few things happening here at the same time that work against efforts by Traditional Owners to secure self-determination or even basic fairness.

 

On one hand you have auditors who every now and then come in, take a look at them, and make a series of recommendations that the NLC does not have to implement or even acknowledge.

 

On the other, if anyone else wants to get information about the way the NLC is operating – they can’t get past the door because the NLC has the same exemptions to FOI that ASIO does.

 

This results in the mad situation where the NLC can tell clans like the Rirratjingu where our borders are, and if we disagree and ask for a map, they can say “no”, and if we FOI it, they can say “no” again.

 

If we want to access their anthropological data on our clan and our history – which in accounting and property terms is the Native Title equivalent of title deeds, they can refuse to provide it.

 

If we believe they are holding money that is ours, they can not only refuse to provide it – an accounting dispute, but refuse to confirm they have it – which is where the FOI Act comes in.

 

It is a joke that the NLC enjoys the same exemptions to basic levels of scrutiny and transparency as our most important national security, defence and counter-terrorism agencies.

 

We have written to Attorney-General George Brandis and asked him to reconsider the exemption and update the Act to ensure basic transparency and better accountability.

 

It’s not just us saying this. In 2012 the Law Council of Australia made the point it is unclear why land councils enjoy blanket FOI exemptions, and for these circumstances to be explained.

 

For one reason or another, Minister Scullion and the Prime Minister have told us they won’t make reforms to the Land Rights Act in this term.

 

Well, a practical thing the Government could do is bring about sensible changes to the way the public can access information to publically-funded organisations, like the NLC.

 

Of course the NLC holds come cultural or commercial information that needs to be protected, but a blanket exemption to the FOI Act for a publically-funded organisation is a bridge too far.

 

Bakamumu Marika

Chairman, Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation 

 

 

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  1. John Bell
    Posted November 22, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Bakamumu Marika identifies a major question to be asked of the Federal Government: Why does the NLC and presumably other Land Councils have this extraordinary exemption from public accountability under the FOI Act?
    My guess is that it started out as a good idea at the time to give Aboriginal Land Councils a fair go to get their fledgeling financial affairs act together before being unfairly over-scrutinised in the wider community.
    Time and competing clan interests have now moved past this protective phase. To keep these exemptions now only fosters partisan interests and possibly corruption.
    It’s now time to review this exemption in the public interest.

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