Editorial: Yunupingu must account for cash


FOR 30 years, Galarrwuy Yunupingu has successfully crossed the chasm between indigenous Australian culture and the legal and political systems that shape the circumstances of his people. He chaired the Northern Lands Council for 21 consecutive years, representing his constituents in negotiations with government and mining companies alike, while also advocating the right of Aborigines to live traditional lives. In 2003, Mr Yunupingu attacked Northern Territory legislation forbidding men having sex with underaged wives as overturning the authority of Aboriginal custom in place for millenia. And in April, he opposed the idea of individual ownership of indigenous land, saying such suggestions "attack the very basis of Aboriginal culture – communal title". It was not their values and customs that kept people in remote communities in poverty, he said, rather it was government neglect of indigenous education, health and housing.

But it seems Mr Yunupingu's commitment to communal ownership may be stronger in principle than in practice. As The Australian's Jennifer Sexton has revealed, the Gumatj Association, representing a coastal community 600km east of Darwin and chaired by Mr Yunupingu, receives up to $5 million a year in mining royalties, rents and grants. This is income intended to assist all members of the community, but most of them continue to live in squalor. While there is no suggestion Mr Yunupingu has done anything illegal, there are questions concerning his management of Gumatj's money, such as why Mr Yunupingu, now retired as head of the Northern Lands Council, needs access to a helicopter. Or why $2.6 million in public housing funds have built only four homes in four years. And why auditors noted the absence of information on spending in Gumatj records. Mr Yunupingu's son also asserts it is impossible to account for how $50 million in grants and royalty payments were spent over 10 years.

Mr Yunupingu has long defended the right of Aborigines to live according to their own culture. But, as a man skilled in public administration, he also undoubtedly understands the obligations imposed on all who manage money on behalf of others. The allegations against Mr Yunupingu are now subject to investigation by the Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination. He will serve his own, and his community's interest by answering them quickly and comprehensively.