He said a royal commission should include the federally-funded Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation – which acquires and helps manage hundreds of millions of dollars in land assets – as well as another Commonwealth statutory organisation, Indigenous Business Australia, which invests heavily in Indigenous enterprises.
“They ILSC and IBA should be abandoned,” Mr Koolmatrie said, adding “they are failing the people.”
A Herald and Age investigation has uncovered turmoil on the ILSC board, a loss of confidence in the chair from the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, the appointment of a chief executive despite strong opposition from Mr Wyatt, and concerns by independent assessor Vivienne Thom that the ILSC’s long-term viability was at risk.
Aboriginal community advocate Malcolm ‘Tiger’ McKenzie said billions of dollars go to Indigenous communities and when things go wrong, nobody is held accountable. “Things need to change,” he said.
Adnyamathanha woman and elder Cheryl Waye said it was time to “clean up” the sector after years of abuse, including poor governance and misspending by some entrenched native title hierarchies where benefits get disproportionately directed to certain families.
“This has been going on for years and it’s getting worse,” she said. “If you don’t do what the hierarchies want, you or your family get no money.”
The Herald and the Age can reveal the IBA and the ILSC have struck deals where there is evidence of poor oversight and a lack of due diligence.
In the Coorong region of South Australia a prominent Indigenous organisation, the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Corporation, says it “cannot find any evidence” of how one deal over a pipi harvesting project was struck by the ILSC.
In another area, the IBA is trying to defend its due diligence in the face of criticism of a multimillion-dollar joint venture it entered in 2012 with Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) to buy the Wilpena Pound Resort, which sits inside the Flinders Ranges.
ATLA was put into special administration in March 2020 by the Indigenous regulator, after investigations revealed a range of governance failures, “including a lack of records in relation to meetings, memberships, directorships and spending.”
It is the subject of a police investigation and a probe by a forensic accountant into what the regulator describes as a “labyrinth” of related entities.
IBA said in a statement the Wilpena Pound business venture was run by a standalone governance structure which meant ATLA’s special administration did not impact the running of the resort. The ILSC said it undertook extensive due diligence on assessing the pipi harvesting venture in line with its funding policies and guidelines and the project had “exceeded expectations.”
The sector’s regulator, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), has been under fire by Indigenous leaders, including Ms Waye, Mr Koolmatrie and Mr McKenzie, for being consistently slow to act.
A review of the sector, released last week, recommends ORIC should be handed a far stronger suite of tools to oversee the sector, including enforceable undertakings and the power to issue penalty notices.
Adele Ferguson is a Gold Walkley Award winning investigative journalist. She reports and comments on companies, markets and the economy.
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.