Royalties divide Yunupingu family
Jennifer Sexton

GALARRWUY Yunupingu, the Northern Territory's most powerful black leader, is at the centre of a deep family rift over millions of dollars in mining royalties.

Many of his own clan, in their remote coastal homelands 600km east of Darwin, live in squalid and impoverished conditions while Mr Yunupingu has the use of a helicopter, four houses and a fleet of cars, including a Range Rover.

His fourth son, Sammy Yunupingu, sister Gayili Marika (nee Yunupingu) and cousin Dhanjah Gurruwiwi say that only some members have benefited from Mr Yunupingu's distribution of up to $5million a year in royalties, grants and rents.

Audit reports obtained by The Weekend Australian have, for the past four years, warned that there is no evidence to prove that "clan distributions" have been properly allocated through the Gumatj Association, which receives royalties and other funds and is chaired by Mr Yunupingu.

While the Northern Territory Justice Department, which administers the Gumatj Association, has failed to act, the Howard Government launched an investigation last week.

Traditional Arnhem Land owners say that they are missing out because the money is supposed to be shared.

Instead, many live a subsistence existence devoid of hope and filled with alcohol and physical abuse.

By contrast, Mr Yunupingu is regularly piloted in a helicopter, which cost the Gumatj Association $169,949 in "repairs and maintenance" last financial year. The chopper absorbed $20,592 in fuel and is used to reach one of four houses at Mr Yunupingu's disposal, at Ninyakay outstation in western Arnhem Land.

The accounts also reveal income from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other grants worth $2.09million, plus rents and royalties worth $2.05million.

Of that, clan distributions worth $1.822million and "community support" worth $5,345 were paid last financial year.

In an independent audit report dated October 14 last year, chartered accountants JC Smith & Associates said: "The recipients of some payments for 'clan distributions' and 'ceremonies and community culture' were not identified in the association's transaction records. Therefore (we are) unable to determine if all these payments were made in accordance with the objects of the association."

When The Weekend Australian caught up with Mr Yunupingu at the Gove Yacht Club this week he laughed at suggestions that his people were unhappy and were asking questions about royalties and other grants worth up to $50million.

Mr Yunupingu initially said he had "nothing to do with royalties", but then said: "It's family money. How we break it up is our business ... It's none of your bloody business. And as far as we're concerned, it's peanuts."

He said he owned no houses and had not misused funds.

"You can hunt as much as you like, but you won't find rope to hang me on."

Sammy Yunupingu says in a statutory declaration that at worst it is unclear how almost $50million worth of grants and royalty payments have been allocated in the past decade. That declaration has been sent to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Amanda Vanstone and the Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin.

Sammy says the situation has been allowed to fester through a cultural reluctance to question elders, a fear of reprisal and an inherent lack of accountability in the distribution system, which has implications for both Ms Vanstone and Ms Martin, whose governments are intertwined in a complex network of funding provision and monitoring.

"Most people are afraid to speak out, but I want the information out because I think (that's) what my grandfather wanted for the future and what will happen to my sons and the next generation," Sammy says.

Senator Vanstone said she was aware of the allegations, and deemed them serious enough to last week launch an investigation through the Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination, the new body which steers Aboriginal policy.

As Ms Martin heads for the polls next Saturday, her retiring Minister for Community Development John Ah Kit says he too has received the allegations and has recommended the aggrieved parties call in the police.

"We have received a fax that contains serious allegations. Minister Ah Kit has advised that they should refer the matter to the police as they are the proper authority to investigate these matters," a spokesman for Mr Ah Kit said yesterday.

Mr Yunupingu has fathered eleven children by four women but it is the family of three with his second wife, Margaret Kantawarra, who live the most privileged lifestyle. They occupy the newest of about 40 houses on Ski Beach, on the turquoise waters of the Gove Peninsula.

A few kilometres away lives Mr Yunupingu's sister Gayili in a tin house with a leaking roof and a fridge perched on the verandah.

She lives just metres from Alcan's bauxite mine processing plant, which pays part of the royalties, and says for years new houses have been promised.

"We need the Northern Land Council to realise that you have to direct it to the senior people ... for education, for schooling, for the younger generation -- activities and proper projects. Without this we have accidents, suicides, the sickness that brings alcohol," Marika Yunupingu said.

"It makes me angry and scared inside."

Mr Yunupingu's cousin Dhanjah Gurruwiwi lives at the eastern end of the beach in similarly poor accommodation with her brother Djalu Gurruwiwi, the legendary yidaki (digeridoo) carver and player. "In our culture family, kinship system ... everything in the Yolngu (people of Arnhem Land) society is shared. Because of the Western influence people are stonehearted. It's turned them into something else."

She would like to have the funds to set up a yidaki workshop to manufacture and distribute the traditional instrument.

As chair of the Northern Land Council, one of the nation's richest and most powerful indigenous organisations, Mr Yunupingu was paid $160,000, while his fellow directors' fee was $10,000. He resigned from the position last year after 28 years in the job.

© The Australian