Nigel Scullion launches probe into ‘serious allegations’ within the Northern Land Council
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion will investigate “serious allegations” in NLC. (ABC News: Matthew Roberts)
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has launched an investigation into what he has described as “serious allegations” about the governance of the Northern Land Council (NLC).
- A federal official from the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department has been brought in to help audit Northern Land Council governanc
- An audit committee is looking into the relationship between the NLC and the Aboriginal Investment Group
- Interim CEO Jack Ah Kit says executive members have felt “bullied” at the NLC’s Darwin headquarters
At the weekend, the NLC’s executive changed the organisation’s chief executive for the third time in four months, appointing former Territory Labor minister Jack Ah Kit as the interim CEO.
It followed the controversial sacking of the council’s CEO of four years, Joe Morrison, in November.
Senator Scullion was asked by both Mr Morrison and his successor Rick Fletcher to investigate the council’s governance and call a full council meeting so that its 83 councillors could ask questions.
He has not moved to force a full council meeting of the Commonwealth and Indigenous traditional owner-funded land rights body.
But the Minister’s spokesman told the ABC he “strongly supports and advocates for proper accountability and transparency in the governance of the council to ensure the effective representation of Aboriginal people in its region”.
“The Minister has acted to investigate a number of serious allegations that have been made regarding the governance of the Northern Land Council,” the spokesman added.
“It is not appropriate to provide further comment at this time.”
PM’s department oversees audit committee
Senator Scullion has also provided an official from the powerful Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to oversee an internal audit committee investigation that the NLC has launched.
Mr Ah Kit said the audit committee was looking into the relationship between the NLC and one of the companies it was a majority shareholder of, the Aboriginal Investment Group.
Interim NLC CEO Jack Ah Kit says the powerful council has “lost its way”. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Before Mr Morrison was dismissed he started an investigation into the level of rent the Aboriginal Investment Group was charging the NLC for its Darwin, Katherine and Tennant Creek offices.
Some land councillors felt the rent being charged was too high, while the company argued it was fair.
The concerned land councillors also questioned whether some of council’s executive members had a conflict of interest because most also sat on the board of the Aboriginal Investments Group.
Darwin West Councillor James Sing said he had not been able to get any answers from the NLC executive to that question.
“The executive have lost their way and feel they are a power amongst themselves,” Mr Sing said.
“They feel they can do whatever they want and have no qualms about doing it and not answering to us as councillors.”
Mr Sing renewed the call for the Minister to force a full council meeting.
“We’ve been lobbying the Minister and we’re still lobbying the Minister,” he said.
“They are a power amongst themselves,” James Sing says of the NLC executive. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Ah Kit claims ‘no conflict’ exists with board
Mr Ah Kit said there was no problem with NLC executive members also sitting on the Aboriginal Investment Group board.
“The executive have every right to play a role in the direction of Aboriginal Investment Group, because they own it,” he said.
“There’s no conflict of interest whatsoever.
“We don’t believe its necessary at this stage for the Minister to intervene.
“The full council meeting is scheduled for May, let that process take place.
“I’m not here to protect anyone but to help the Council take this organisation back to the people.”
Jack Ah Kit says “no conflict” exists between the NLC and the Aboriginal Investment Group. (ABC News: Lucy Marks)
The NLC executive has not responded to the ABC’s interview requests.
The Aboriginal Investments Group told the ABC it was confident its board members were not conflicted.
“We have considered the position in terms of the conflict and we have independent legal advice to say there’s no conflict,” it said.
“And we will continue to approach the commercial negotiations in relation to the lease in a commercially prudent manner.”
Morrison allegations to be probed
Mr Ah Kit said the audit would also probe whether the former CEO, Mr Morrison, had raised the salary package of his personal executive assistant, and if he had, the circumstances around that.
Mr Morrison told the ABC that he would not comment on that allegation while the investigation was being conducted, but that he had provided original source documents to address it, to the NLC executive several months ago.
He said he also provided documents to address separate allegations put to him in an executive meeting that he had misappropriated funds.
Mr Ah Kit said that although the audit was being conducted internally, the committee included external accountants and auditors as well the Federal Government representative.
“I’ll have a report going back to the executive, and I’ll be prepared to talk to the full council about it, and provide that report,” he said.
“Let me have a look at the files and I’ll come back and I’ll let you who’s an angel and who’s not.”
‘Bullies’ within the NLC ranks: Ah Kit
Mr Ah Kit said he was confident the audit would find that the NLC’s financial processes were “squeaky clean”.
But he said he felt the council had “lost its way” and councillors had failed to communicate enough with bush communities.
“Every organisation or business goes through a cycle where they hit the wall once or twice, and we’re hitting the wall now, it’s the worst time I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
He said he believed executive members had felt “bullied” sometimes when entering the NLC’s Darwin offices.
“They feel uncomfortable coming in here to have a meeting, about coming back into their own organisation and reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs,” he said.