Koori Inc. - A patriarchy, not a party, dominates Aboriginal politics

Date: 20th April 1994
Publication: The Age

Alfred John Bamblett's list of official titles reads like a directory of Victoria's most powerful and influential Aboriginal organisations.

Apart from being a commissioner and regional councillor with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, he is the executive officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Incorporated (VACSAI), the leading government policy advisory body on Koori community development; public officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI), the peak advisory group on Koori education, where his brother, Lionel, is general manager and sister, Mary, is president; a director of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service Cooperative, which has dominated the Mabo issue in the state; and most recently president of the Aborigines Advancement League, Victoria's oldest and most respected Koori organisation.

Mr Bamblett's influence has also grown rapidly on the national stage.

He chaired last year's Federal Government taskforce reviewing the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy, seen as a blueprint for the future economic empowerment of Koories. He headed the ATSIC sub- committee that helped negotiate the $400million package in response to the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. And this year he failed by just a handful of votes to defeat the high-profile Charlie Perkins to be ATSIC vice-chairman.

It was during the ATSIC elections in December, when Mr Bamblett fielded two tickets of four candidates each, including brother Lionel, that the first assault was made on the remarkable power and influence of Koori Inc.

Only Mr Bamblett and one other candidate was successful, although two other Bamblett family members running on separate tickets were also elected to the 37 positions in the state's two regional councils. So low was the turnout that Mr Bamblett was elected after receiving just 30 votes.

The damage had been wrought by Koori Inc's opponents, a collection of candidates running on an ATSIC Justice and Reform Group ticket. Four of its candidates were elected, and in the Melbourne West ward the reform ticket won almost 50 per cent of the votes. Its candidate for Victorian ATSIC commissioner, Ron James, lost to Mr Bamblett by just three votes when councillors elected their leader.

The unthinkable had happened - the balance of power in the Koori community had begun to tip against the Bambletts.

The reformers, mostly independent business people with tertiary qualifications and experience in public administration, had campaigned for an end to the old guard and the dominance of its rough and ready ways in ATSIC.

Simply being black was no longer enough of a qualification to hold administrative positions in Aboriginal community organisations with million-dollar budgets, they argued. It was time to train a new generation of tertiary-qualified Aborigines, not dismiss those wanting an education as selling out their culture.

They also called for an end to the backroom deals and rough-house tactics which, having served the Aboriginal rights movement well in the 1960s and 70s, they claimed had become anachronistic and counterproductive in the 1990s. They publicly called for greater accountability, a more equitable spread of funding and assistance programs that reached where they were needed most.

They were opposed to the ever-expanding and costly management structures in Aboriginal organisations, which they argued had grown fat on increasing government funding.

As one of the reformers said: ``The Aboriginal community had become a mega-buck business, but we weren't getting value for money."

But the reform group's taste of victory was brief. On Friday 10 December, six days after the election, the empire was not only able to strike back but add the elusive jewel of Victoria's Koori organisations - the Aborigines Advancement League - to Alf Bamblett's crown.

The asset rich, 60-year-old Aborigines Advancement League, later proudly described by one of the victorious Bamblett lieutenants as the ``mother" of all Aboriginal organisations in Australia, had always remained tantilisingly beyond the grasp of the Bamblett empire. Led by Graham Atkinson, who with the former Aboriginal businesswoman of the year Sharon Firebrace successfully headed the Reform and Justice Group ticket, it had offered the anti-Bamblett forces a rallying point beyond the empire's reach.

The league, with assets of $5million and an annual income of $1.5million, had already begun to flex its considerable but little- used political muscle. Five months earlier, dissatisfied with the way the Bamblett empire's organisations - including the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service - had been handling the Mabo issue, it had gone outside the normal political channels to call its own meeting of the state's 30 or so Aboriginal groups to coordinate land and compensation claims.

The day before the league's annual general meeting, Mr Atkinson heard whispers that the Bamblett network was preparing to move against him.

There would be, he was warned, a ``stack" - a classic tactic regularly used by Aboriginal political factions for taking over rival organisations.

Accepted practice among Aboriginal organisations is for membership registers to be opened before an annual general meeting. Anyone arriving for a meeting can sign on at the door as a member and vote for committee members. Stack a meeting with enough of your people and you win control of the committee, which in turn votes in the key office bearers.

Mr Atkinson says he knew as he watched people crowding through the door of the league's $2million Thornbury headquarters that Friday morning that the ``stack" was definitely on. According to others present, many of the crowd of more than 200 were staff of or had links with the Bamblett-dominated legal service and VACSAI.

Mr Bamblett denies any stack. He says the community at large was ``disillusioned and angry" by the activities of the league's leadership during the ATSIC elections and wanted a change.

The bloodletting began soon after the meeting started at 10am, with Mr Bamblett launching a personal attack on Mr Atkinson for going against the ``Koori way" and talking to the mainstream white media about internal Aboriginal community disputes and alleged fraud. Six of the league's 12 management committee positions were open for election that day. Koori Inc's weight of numbers won all six. ``It was a pretty convincing takeover," Mr Atkinson admits.

Mr Bamblett was one of those elected to the management committee, although he says he stood reluctantly and only after being repeatedly asked.

At the first committee meeting on 19 January Mr Atkinson, who had not been up for re-election, was replaced by Mr Bamblett as president.

Phillip Cooper, the state manager of the legal service, deputy chairman of VACSAI and one of those who had run on the Bamblett ticket in the ATSIC elections, was voted senior vice-president. The new junior vice-president was Ian Barry, a former league chief executive officer who had resigned after a disagreement seven months earlier and gone to work for VACSAI.

Mr Bamblett makes no apologies for the network's dominance in the Koori community. He says he and others involved in ATSIC and other organisations have all been duly elected. His involvement in so many organisations makes him better able to carry out his role as ATSIC commissioner, he says.

On claims of nepotism, Mr Bamblett argues that the family lies at the heart of Aboriginal culture. His annual report as VACSAI excutive director in December listed four other Bambletts on staff - two sons, a brother and a nephew.

Critics, including members of the reform group, say the involvement of such a small group in so many influential organisations and ATSIC itself - Mr Bamblett's sister, Mary Atkinson (no relation to Graham Atkinson), and niece, Esme Saunders, are also regional councillors - raises a serious problem of potential conflict of interest.

But Mr Bamblett strongly denies any conflict, claiming he has never misused his position as ATSIC commissioner for personal gain or to help organisations with which he or his family have links. If any thing, he says, he has been criticised in those organisations for not advocating hard enough on their behalf.

``Never, at any stage, was there a dollar motive in any of the things I have done," he says. ``Never at any time has there been the seeking of power or glory." Mr Bamblett says he has made all the legal disclosures required of him and dismisses allegations of conflict of interest as simply part of an ongoing campaign of personal attacks by opponents.

He concedes there are problems in ATSIC, which he says is still feeling its way along the road to self-determination. But he maintains that many of the criticisms made about its inefficiencies, lack of accountability and poor performance are thinly veiled attacks on him.

``I don't take paranoid pills," he says, ``but people just want to change who sits in this chair."

Those outside the Aboriginal community who have dealt with Mr Bamblett describe him as a polished performer, able to charm and disarm as the need arises. He switches smoothly between the role of ``simple Aboriginal battler made good against the odds" to ``shrewd, quick- witted politician". In the Koori community he has a hard-won reputation as a tough, uncompromising political foe. He is legendary for a quick temper and his bitter, often personal, attacks on those who speak against him at public meetings.

``He can be very cutting and very, very personal when he wants," says one member of the Koori community who has crossed swords with him.

ALF Bamblett became actively involved in Aboriginal affairs with his sister, Mary, and brother, Lionel, after what he says was a typically tough Koori upbringing. ``We came off a settlement and we did all the hard things. We scrounged for food."

Mr Bamblett describes himself as having been a radical in the early Aboriginal rights days of the 1960s. Those involved in the movement recall him instead as simply one of the crowd, memorable more for his abstemious lifestyle and strong religious beliefs than any radical views.

In 1975 he helped set up the Aboriginal Legal Service in Victoria and in the same year, while a training officer with what is now the Department of Employment, Education and Training, became involved in the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association. Education remained his primary interest and he went on to run VAEAI before, by his own admission, going ``on the grog" in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He stopped drinking, rediscovered religion and by 1989, with the establishment of ATSIC and the move to self-determination for Aborigines, had built up VACSAI ``from scratch" and consolidated his powerbase.

Many Aboriginal activists were cynical of ATSIC, claiming it was nothing more than a lightly disguised Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which it replaced. But Mr Bamblett was one of those quick to see its long-term political significance. He successfully ran for election as a regional councillor in the first ATSIC elections four years ago and became Victoria's first commissioner in Canberra.

He denies having greatly benefitted financially from his broad involvement in Koori politics. He admits his annual ATSIC commissioner's salary of more than $60,000 leaves him ``comfortable", but points out that he lives in a rented house in West Preston and has a large family to look after.

After `The Age' began researching this article, Mr Bamblett published a discussion paper entitled `Victorian Aboriginal Community Politics and Media Involvement', endorsed by the organisations that form the Bamblett power structure. In it he warned ``whitefellas" not to apply non-Aboriginal assumptions and values when looking at the Koori community and to understand the importance of ``family constellations" within it.

He also attacked the role and use of the media in ``fuelling internal political tensions". ``There is an escalating and positively destructive trend for some Aboriginal people to use the media as an external tool to further internal political ambitions," it said.

Later in an interview with `The Age', Mr Bamblett said he did not want to get caught up in mudslinging over ``who is doing what in the Aboriginal community". ``It is better left with us."

The Victorian Aboriginal Education Association and Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association form the core of the Bamblett empire.

In 1991 VAEAI, which has its offices on the fourth floor of Myer House in central Melbourne, received $867,059 in state and federal grants, according to Victorian Corporate Affairs documents. It spent $414,517 on wages, $67,030 on administration and $27,713 on consultancy fees.

The organisation, which is the peak policy advisory body to the state and federal governments on Aboriginal education in Victoria, has a membership of about 400, but is in effect run by an executive management committee made up of office bearers. Immediate members of the Bamblett family hold the positions of president, secretary, public officer and general manager. Other family involved include Mr Bamblett's sister, Rose, listed as an early childhood specialist representative and Mary Atkinson's sister-in-law, Geraldine Atkinson, who is the TAFE specialist representative.

Mr Bamblett denies that the involvement of so many family members in VAEAI gives him influence outside his role as its public officer. ``I have had major public disputes with family members who happen to also be committee and staff members."

VAEAI has come under increasing fire from Koori students in recent months over its involvement in tertiary education. The association provides Koori representation on the Aboriginal Education Committees at Victoria's universities and tertiary institutions, which in turn advise on how about $5million of government funds for Koori education will be spent.

Last year the five VAEAI members on the committee at Melbourne University included Mary Atkinson and Lionel Bamblett. The year before the line-up included Alf Bamblett, Mary Atkinson and another sister, Linda. Linda Bamblett, a committee member of the Goulburn Valley Aboriginal Education Consultative Group and secretary of VACSAI, had served as general manager of VAEAI in 1992 while Lionel Bamblett spent a year at Melbourne University as the coordinator of Koori programs.

The Yuroke Aboriginal Students group at Melbourne University has campaigned for the past year over what it claims is VAEAI's lack of action over high drop-out rates among Koori students and the allocation of Aboriginal education funds to general university revenues. It is also opposed to VAEAI carrying out a $79,000 Commonwealth-funded review of Aboriginal tertiary education in Victoria.

Koori students argue that the review, announced on 24 March, is futile because it will in effect have VAEAI investigate its own performance.

The seven-year-old Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association has its headquarters in an old double-storey bank building in Smith Street, Fitzroy, bought and renovated with a $918,605 Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs grant in 1991-92. It received $1,183,814 in ATSIC funding in 1992-93, of which $150,487 went to meet operating costs. It was due to receive $443,436 this financial year from the Victorian Health and Community Service Department's division of child, adolescent and family welfare division. Of that $107,236 is to pay for staff and administration at VACSAI.

The Koori liaison officer at HCS's child, adolescent and family welfare division is John Gorrie, who is also chairman of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. He helped in Mr Bamblett's campaign during the ATSIC elections in December, officially authorising campaign pamphlets.

At VACSAI's December annual meeting Mr Bamblett, who has gone on leave as executive director because of his full-time ATSIC role, proudly related how the staff had grown from 11 to 33 in just two years. Those staff included Gary Bamblett, his younger brother and a former VAEAI worker employed at VACSAI as a cleaner; his son, Alf; Les Bamblett, his nephew and former Footscray footballer who is also on the committee of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency; and another son, Richard, described as a temporary employee.

Also on the staff list - apart from the Advancement League's vice- president, Ian Barry - was Ken Saunders, a former ATSIC regional councillor who lost at the December elections after running on the Bamblett ticket.

The administrator of VACSAI is Wanda Braybrook, who first worked with Mr Bamblett when he was coordinator of the Aboriginal services unit at the Northern Metropolitan TAFE College at Preston. She replaced him as coordinator when he left and later followed him to VACSAI. She too ran on the Bamblett ticket in the ATSIC election in December and lost.

Mr Bamblett is still involved in the college's Aboriginal unit, which is now run by Wanda Braybrook's daughter, who was responsible for printing how-to-vote cards for the Bamblett ticket during the ATSIC elections.

Mr Bamblett's annual report also detailed VACSAI's purchase of a ``cultural camp" - a 30-bed unit set in bushland close to the beach at the popular holiday resort of Torquay. VACSAI has so far received $629,992 in ATSIC land acquistion funding to buy the property. Members of the Justice and Reform Group have claimed the money could have been better used developing a similar accommodation complex on land already owned by Aboriginal communities throughout the state. Mr Bamblett denies this.

Alf Bamblett junior is the camp's manager and caretaker, a position his father says he earned on merit.

What Mr Bamblett's annual report failed to explain was why it covered 1991-92 and 1992-93. The association was deregistered by Victorian Corporate Affairs between May and November 1991 under section 36 of the Associations Incorporation Act, which covers failure to hold an annual general meeting or lodge financial statements.

The circumstances surrounding the deregistration and ATSIC's continued funding of the organisation during these seven months was raised at a three-day ATSIC regional council meeting at the end of March.

Also raised at the meeting was the unrelated fraud investigation into the loss of more than $100,000 at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

The legal service loss had been revealed by the state manager, Phillip Cooper, a key figure in the Bamblett power structure, who said directors first became aware of it in mid-December shortly after the Office of Fair Trading began a routine review of its accounts.

The legal service he runs does particularly well from government grants. Corporate Affairs documents show it received $1,201,950 from ATSIC in 1991-92 and a further $187,677 in special funding from money made available following the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. The service had a net deficit in 1991-92 of $69,335.

ATSIC budget documents reveal the service received $1,406,211 from ATSIC in 1991-92 and so far in 1993-94 funding totals $1,420,789. It is seeking to lift its recurrent funding to $1,496,248 in 1994-95 and has applied to ATSIC for further one-off grants totalling $467,565 for staff training and building renovations.