Aboriginal head hits back at claims of corruption cover-up

Age - 28th March 2001
Author: Darren Gray

Australia's top indigenous figure, Geoff Clark, declared yesterday that Aboriginal leaders were not sweeping claims of corruption in their communities under the carpet.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairman's assurance came after a South Australian Aboriginal leader warned that some indigenous communities would be extinct within 15 years if corruption was not wiped out.

Brian Butler, the ATSIC commissioner for South Australia, claimed that unscrupulous managers had robbed at least 10 indigenous communities of millions of dollars.

Mr Butler warned that one community would be wiped out in 10 years, and in 15 to 20 years others would be gone unless corruption was defeated.

Mr Butler said some store managers were paying off indigenous community councillors and charging exorbitant prices for simple grocery items, including milk and bread.

"It is widespread," he said. "We have been trying to focus the spotlight on bad store operations around this country for a long time. Exorbitant prices are being paid for bread and milk - $10 and $20 sometimes for a can of milk," he told ABC radio.

Mr Clark said that ATSIC's own fraud awareness unit was now investigating allegations of bribery and fraud. It was difficult for police forces to investigate allegations of fraud in remote Australian areas, he said.

Allegations had to be traced, investigated and substantiated, and this was often a difficult process, Mr Clark said.

The ATSIC chairman was speaking a day after a national policy conference convened by ATSIC was told that corruption was a problem in Aboriginal communities.

Allegations of fraud in Aboriginal communities was a "serious issue" and they had to be tackled in a "sophisticated and mature manner", he said.

Although not specifying which communities had been affected, Melbourne academic Marcia Langton told the conference on Tuesday that "transient" workers were cleaning out Aboriginal communities. "A lot of Aboriginal money is going AWOL," she said.

Responding to the corruption claims, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock said people with evidence of corruption should come forward.

"If there is evidence there are secret commissions being paid to run businesses in remote communities because they can profiteer, then secret commissions paid to individuals to get those sorts of approvals are a criminal offence," Mr Ruddock said.

Mr Clark said some wrongdoing in Aboriginal communities was at levels no different to the general community.

"I think the hysteria in relation to this issue should be looked at in context, because I think that at the end of the day what we need is good governance, we need to have communities who have the capacity to manage their own affairs," he said.