$136m in grant links revealed

By JODIE BROUGH in Canberra
Date: 10th April 1996
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) granted more than $136 million in public money to organisations in which its elected commissioners were involved during the last two financial years.

A further $1 million was paid out in loans for housing or businesses to commissioners or organisations with links to commissioners, according to ATSIC's financial statements.

The figures illustrate what embattled ATSIC chairwoman Ms Lois O'Donoghue has argued is the in-built "conflict of interest" in ATSIC's structure, which gives elected commissioners and regional councillors power to dispense grant money to Aboriginal groups.

Ms O'Donoghue has been attacked by other commissioners for arguing that the commissioners' power over grants should be rescinded and administrators put in charge of distributing public money.

ATSIC's policy is that commissioners are not allowed to be present during deliberations concerning any matter in which they have declared an interest, nor are they allowed to take part in the decision-making.

More than $3.4 million was granted over two years to three organisations linked to ATSIC's deputy chairman, Mr Ray Robinson, whose claim to succeed Ms O'Donoghue is believed to have prompted the move away from an elected chairperson to a government appointee.

Mr Robinson was accused by the Brisbane Aboriginal Legal Service last week of involvement in a "conspiracy" to take over the service, one of several being audited for possible breaches of their ATSIC grants.

ATSIC's grants to just two organisations in which Ms O'Donoghue has a declared interest, Aboriginal Hostels Ltd and the Commercial Development Corporation, amounted to almost $70 million over two years. Ms O'Donoghue has been a director of Aboriginal Hostels since 1990.

ATSIC commissioners are required by law to disclose the interests of themselves and their spouses in Aboriginal organisations which are funded by ATSIC. An interest is defined broadly but includes any power over the affairs of an organisation, such as sitting on its board of directors.

Among sitting commissioners, the most substantial grants went to organisations linked to Mr Gerhardt Pearson of Queensland ($13.2 million), Mr Steve Gordon of NSW ($3.76 million) and Mr Joseph Elu of the Torres Strait ($9.1 million).

More than $9.1 million was paid to groups linked to Mr Alf Bamblett. Mr Bamblett is a former commissioner for Victoria who resigned last year after an unrelated five-month investigation found he had breached the ATSIC Act and recommended a police investigation.

The allegations related to money paid to an organisation Mr Bamblett headed while it was deregistered and the activities of a private business in which he was involved.


Grants and loans to Aboriginal bodies in which these ATSIC commissioners have declared an interest in years '93-94, '94-95.

Lois O'Donoghue (ATSIC chair)   $69.8 million
Gerhardt Pearson (Qld)                  $13.1 million
Alf Bamblett (Vic)                             $9.1 million
Steve Gordon (NSW)                       $3.76 million
Ray Robinson (Qld)                         $3.4 million