Black graft endemic, ATSIC told

Australian - 27th March 2001
Author: Megan Saunders

CORRUPTION and bribery are widespread in indigenous communities, and an amnesty should be granted to whistleblowers, the first national policy conference convened by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was told yesterday.

Prominent Melbourne academic Marcia Langton claimed funds were going missing and Aboriginal communities were being ``cleaned out'' by corruption, triggering a debate that dominated the conference and took organisers by surprise.

``People are being cleaned out by transient staff. Let's face it ... a lot of Aboriginal money is going AWOL,'' Professor Langton said.

There was a flawed belief among many Aboriginal people that ``white people know what they're doing and black people don't know what they're doing'', she said.

South Australian ATSIC commissioner Brian Butler told the conference that in some communities most people in positions of power were being bribed.

He called for ``zero tolerance'' of graft, and said there should be an amnesty for people caught up in corruption to encourage them to come forward with information.

``In some cases -- the communities I'm talking about -- most of the prominent people in authority are being paid off,'' Mr Butler said.

ATSIC chair Geoff Clark last night refused to buy into the debate on corruption, saying he did not want it to detract from ``main issues''.

He accused government bureaucrats of ``terrorising'' indigenous communities with red tape.

There were people who ``tend to fritter in and fritter out of communities and make a far greater mess'', he said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock threw his support behind efforts to stamp out corruption, but said that such cases had to be dealt with by appropriate authorities, such as the Director of Public Prosecutions.

``I have seen it is a problem in particular communities,'' Mr Ruddock said.

``Wherever there are allegations of that sort, they are very serious. If it's occurring, people need to present the evidence.''

Acting ATSIC chief executive Geoff Scott downplayed the claims of widespread fraud, saying that while fraud had a great impact on indigenous communities, there was no evidence to suggest corruption was more prevalent than elsewhere in society.

ATSIC organisers had planned yesterday's conference to engage indigenous representatives in debate about a treaty and native title, and were not expecting the issue of corruption to dominate the discussions.

In recent years, reconciliation and rights issues have been at the centre of ATSIC's policy agenda.

But as ATSIC commissioners, including Mr Clark, stand for re-election to the commission in October, the body is focusing more on partnerships with governments and local communities.

The Government spent $2.3billion on Aboriginal affairs last year.

Professor Langton called for an education program to teach people to avoid being exploited.

``In my opinion, there is not as much corruption within indigenous communities as there is corruption by transient staff,'' she said.

Mr Ruddock used the conference to launch a five-point plan for indigenous affairs in the federal Government's third term, saying that the approach reflected a new sentiment on Aboriginal issues, with more people prepared to ``call it like it is''.

His five-point plan included a greater focus on improving access to services available to the wider community, and reserving indigenous funding for the areas of greatest need.

It also proposes shifting the policy emphasis to individuals and families rather than community organisations, more help for indigenous primary school students, tackling the ``victimhood'' mentality and making substance abuse the focus of health programs.