Auditor-General's Report: Governance of the NLC

Jacinta speech on the Auditor-General's Report in the Senate on 7 September, 2023


I rise today to speak on Auditor-General's report No. 1 of 2023-24, Governance of the Northern Land Council.

This audit is part of a series on the Northern Territory's land councils and is the outstanding piece of this puzzling picture of governance and accountability. This report was returned later than expected, and it is another ANAO report containing alarming recommendations to a land council. This should give this parliament all it needs to shake these organisations upside down. There will be people nervous about what I'm going to say in this place today. There are always people who are nervous whenever I speak on this topic. These organisations have been able to avoid scrutiny that would exist in other sectors.

In a broad observation of the group, the Auditor-General notes:

In the absence of provisions for Freedom of Information under existing Commonwealth legislation, and of appeal and review mechanisms under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the Northern Territory (NT) Land Councils should ensure that adequate means exist to provide transparency over operations, so that trust is maintained among constituents and external stakeholders.

Why does the ANAO have to make such observations? Because confidence and trust in these land councils has eroded. I'm always told, 'If you see something then say something.' Well, let me quote from the report on the Northern Land Council, on their fraud and corruption policy:

The NLC is not fully implementing its Fraud and Corruption Policy … it is not clear if reporting channels are confidential, and the NLC does not have a formal mechanism for recording incidents of fraud or suspected fraud.

Why would you report them if your confidence can't be assured? Finally a report that mirrors back what traditional owners have been telling me! But of course it doesn't stop there. The report goes on:

The NLC's fraud control arrangements fall short of the minimum requirements established in the fraud rule … The Fraud and Corruption Policy is not clearly tied to identified fraud risks and fraud risks are not assessed as frequently as specified in the Policy. There is no confidential reporting channel and no mechanism to record and report incidents of fraud or suspected fraud …

…   …   …   

A Conflict of Interest Policy and mandatory online declaration mechanism were established for staff declarations. Use of the online declaration system by staff is monitored and an online declaration under the policy was made by all sampled senior managers in 2022, except by the CEO. Improvements are required to the completeness of declarations by senior management and the rate of completion of declaration forms by other staff.

It also says:

… Council members who are also employed elsewhere must apply to their employer for leave without pay when attending Council meetings.

…   …   …   

In July 2023 the NLC Chair declared one paid and two unpaid part-time positions. It is not clear to the ANAO that the Chair holding a paid position in another organisation is consistent with the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973. The ANAO did not examine whether the Chair's performance of duties for other entities impacts on his capacity to complete his duties for the Council as a full-time remunerated public office holder.

The role and functions of a land council are quite clear. They are there to represent the interests of traditional owners and act on their behalf through various means, yet I'm told far too frequently by communities that they are not receiving the help that they're supposed to get. We need an inquiry because we need to get to the bottom of all these problems. This is why we've called for an inquiry into land councils and other organisations. We have called not once but twice, and both times we haven't had the support from politicians across the spectrum. At other times we have had Senator Thorpe, another Aboriginal woman who has joined these calls, but not people like Senator Pocock.

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