The Territory Business Centre has only one document on file from the Gulf Health Service in its 15 years that was available to the public — its constitution. (ABC News: James Dunlevie)
After mistakenly dissolving a remote health-care service 15 months ago and quietly reinstating it earlier this year, the NT Government has launched an investigation into its affairs — amid accusations it was “hijacked to support an AFL program”.
- The Gulf Health Service was designed to be a “community controlled” health clinic for the Borroloola region
- It was dissolved “in error” in 2016, reinstated in April, and is now under investigation from the NT Government
- The only Gulf Health Service document available from the Territory Business Centre is its constitution
The Gulf Health Service was set up in 2003 to provide access to culturally appropriate heath care and to relieve poverty, sickness, destitution or distress of Aboriginal people in the Borroloola and Carpentaria regions, more than 1,000 kilometres east of Darwin.
But on December 19, 2016, it was dissolved because it was “believed to not be in operation”, according to a spokesperson from the NT Department of Attorney-General and Justice.
It remains unclear how this error was made, but after becoming “aware this was not the case”, the Director-General of Licensing — as a delegate of the Commissioner of Consumer Affairs — reinstated the association 15 months later, on April 4 this year.
An investigation into the association’s affairs was then launched by the Department of Attorney General and Justice on April 26 and is ongoing.
ASIC documents state that Gulf Health Services Incorporated remains registered, and has been since 2003.
Constitution only available document
The Territory Business Centre has only one document on file from the Gulf Health Service in its 15 years that was available to the public — its constitution.
As an incorporated entity, it is required to submit meeting minutes, committee statements and annual accounts including balance sheets, audit opinions and profit and loss statements.
Yet the NT Health Department continued to pay it more than $200,000 in rent for the use of two facilities between 2008-2015, which was likely the bulk of its income during that time.
It is believed these facilities were purchased by Gulf Health Service through a federal government grant of $1.1 million in 2004, provided for capital works.
The service also received a $1.4 million grant from Federal Government in 2004-2005 for primary health-care services.
But the funding was not renewed in September 2005 “due to ongoing governance concerns and service continuity issues”, according to a Federal Health Department spokesperson.
The spokesperson said the funding for primary health-care services was then transferred to NT Health as it already operated a number of health clinics in the region.
But a NT Department of Health spokesperson said a search of its records showed that while it provided $207,527 in rent, there was no evidence it ever provided operational or grant money to the Gulf Health Service.
Then in 2014, the health service went on to sign of Memorandum of Understanding with AFLNT — to fund part of an AFL program forecast to cost $180,000 a year plus GST for three years.
‘We welcome the investigation’
Tony Jack, former Roper Gulf Regional Council mayor and CLP candidate for Barkly, is the chairperson of the Gulf Health Service and said it “welcomed the investigation”.
While he did not want to comment about the compliance history, he said it was now “a priority” to get things back on track.
“That sort of thing happens, unfortunately, but we’ve learned from it,” he said.
“We welcome the investigation and want to be transparent about it.”
The Gulf Health Service was formed with the idea it would be community controlled and this emphasis led to an unusual structure — delegates from a number of Borroloola corporations sat on the board and attended meetings, but only Indigenous corporations were given voting rights.
These included Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Association, Mawurli and Wirriwangkuma Aboriginal Corporation, Borroloola Community Government Council, Rrumburriya Malandari Aboriginal Corporation and Mungoorbada Aboriginal Corporation.
King Ash Bay Fishing Club was given a seat because there were community members with health-care needs.
McArthur River Mining held a non-voting seat.
The Gulf Health Service constitution states its public officer in 2003 was Alison Mary Doyle — a former CEO of Mabunji who left in 2015.
Gulf Health Service chair Tony Jack, pictured in the hat, said the investigation was welcomed. (Supplied)
From screening to an AFL program
Mr Jack said the service had done a lot to help the region over the years, particularly from 2003 to about 2007, when he said it had about seven or eight staff, including nurses, and a mobile screening service.
“One year we set up an old troopy to do a mobile run like an ambulance,” Mr Jack said.
“We sent nurses out to outstations to do screening so people didn’t need to travel.”
But he said once the federal grant money dried up, it dedicated remaining income from the rent to “social programs”, including a men’s health program, travel payments for healthcare and a contract with the AFLNT.
The ABC has seen a Memorandum of Understanding between AFLNT and five other Borroloola associations headed by the Gulf Health Service, signed on April 10, 2014.
It said the Gulf Health Service would pay the AFLNT $180,000 per year plus GST for the program, which was forecast to run for at least three years.
Mr Jack said the other organisations, which included Mabunji, MAWA, Mungoorbada and the Malandari Store, were required to contribute to this funding.
It also said the Gulf Health Service would provide a fully maintained house and vehicle for the use of the AFL program.
“We thought [the AFL program] would be related to health, everyone being fit and all that,” Mr Jack said.
“It just lifted our little community. About 1,200 people would turn up every Sunday to watch.”
But he said after about a year “everyone just started blueing”, other organisations who had contributed funding started pulling out, “the AFL mob were screaming for funding” and the program was cancelled.
AFLNT declined an offer to comment.
While Mr Jack said he’d been hurt when the government dissolved the service in 2016, he was shocked when it was reinstated in April.
He hoped now it would either be restructured to attract the funding from government needed to run a remote health service, or slowly wound down while a new Aboriginal health service was set up through the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.
Mabunji CEO Greg Crofts believes the NT Government should have commenced its Gulf Health Service investigation years ago. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Hijacked to fund an AFL program: Mabunji
But Mabunji Aboriginal Resources Association chief executive Greg Crofts saw things differently, and said he was appalled when the service had been reinstated.
He said after joining the Gulf Health Service board two and a half years ago he quickly realised there were severe governance problems with the service.
“Since joining the meeting I have asked for financials, I’ve asked for minutes, I have asked for contracts and nothing was ever forthcoming,” he said.
In his opinion, the service should have been shut down long ago.
“I think the Department should have put the investigation in place first and established what has been going on with this organisation,” Mr Crofts said.
“Because from our reading of it and our understanding, this association’s income was there to support aboriginal patients and carers who needed to travel into Darwin, Adelaide or anywhere else, for a hospital visit.
“This association from our records and reading of it was hijacked to support an AFL program.”
Mr Crofts questioned why the NT Government had opted to reinstate the service and why it hadn’t launched an investigation sooner.
“Obviously they did nothing for 15 months,” Mr Crofts said.
“We were in shock when we found out that they’d re-established the association and handed the keys back to the same people who ran it so dysfunctionally in the first place.”
The ABC has not been able to make contact with Rrumburriya or the Borroloola Community Government Council, who also had seats on the Gulf Health Service board.
A Mungoorbada spokesperson declined to comment, saying he was new to the role and knew nothing about the investigation.
Similarly, the fishing club said it had nothing to do with the health service for at least a decade.
McArthur River Mine resigned from its position as a non-voting member of the Gulf Health Service on November 1, 2010, so said it was unable to comment on its current circumstances.
Alan Baker, the deputy chair of Mawurli and Wirriwangkuma Aboriginal Corporation, had only been in the role since last year and said he “didn’t know anything” about the Gulf Health Service investigation, except that it was underway.
However he said over the years the health service had helped the Borroloola community, particularly those leaving town to access healthcare.
Dr Peter Fitzpatrick believed the Borroloola region needed a community controlled healthcare service. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
‘It’s what comes next that’s important’
Dr Peter Fitzpatrick, who is now the director of the Wurli-Wurlinjang Health Service in Katherine, played a lead role in starting up the Gulf Health Service — but now believes it should be closed down.
After moving to Borroloola the GP spent years patching together a medical team to support the community through a series of grants and local connections.
When it came time for him to go, he sought to implement a structure to provide “community driven healthcare”, with a focus on prevention and chronic disease.
He said giving the community more control over health services should be the model for all healthcare, not just Indigenous communities.
“It’s just more critical [it is community controlled] in Borroloola and the Gulf,” he said.
“Borroloola gets the raw end of a lot of deals. It doesn’t have many resources and many social problems.
“It’s a really difficult area that’s really been short-changed.”
In retrospect, he said it should have been structured differently, ensuring it had access to more financial support and corporate governance support, and registered on the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.
“In 2018 it’s an organisation that should be wound up,” he said.
“It’s what comes next that’s important.”