Monday, December 23, 2013

Aboriginal body investigated over misuse of funds

Misuse is absolutely routine for government-funded Aboriginal welfare schemes  -- JR

The Australian Crime Commission has been investigating financial dealings associated with one of the nation's most important Aboriginal organisations, which delivers services to an area bigger than Britain.

The Global Mail and Fairfax Media have learnt that two men who have worked closely with Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation, which is based in the remote Northern Territory town of Tennant Creek, have recently assisted a commission investigator inquiring into the use of corporation money.

Although an ACC spokeswoman said that her organisation "cannot comment on who it is or is not investigating", the commission's national indigenous intelligence taskforce probes abuses of power and trust as part of its brief, alongside its main job of gathering intelligence on child abuse.

Controversy over the management of Julalikari, which services the massive Barkly region, where four out of five people are indigenous, is central to a rift within the Aboriginal leadership in Tennant Creek, 1000 kilometres south of Darwin.

A series of complaints has led several Canberra agencies to take a closer look at the operations of Julalikari, a housing body which also runs aged care and night patrols, work-for-the-dole and training programs, and delivers municipal services to Tennant Creek's town camps and remote communities. The two most serious complaints that have come to light are that:

In a town with a severe housing crisis and chronic overcrowding, demountable buildings purchased by Julalikari three years ago with $2 million of public money for housing and community centres, are lying unused and, in at least one case, trashed. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said it was "aware that the project has not been delivered properly".

Monies spent by Julalikari have allegedly been mismanaged. The Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations earlier this year commissioned a special audit of Julalikari's accounts, following serious allegations of mismanagement by a former employee. ORIC says it is not now investigating Julalikari. But Julalikari's management declared, in a newspaper advertisement it took out in October this year, that ORIC has carried out an audit which found there had been no wrongdoing under any law or under Julalikari's own rules.

Within Julalikari, there have been moves to oust its charismatic general manager, Pat Brahim, who sits on numerous government committees. She chairs the advisory body for the Aboriginals Benefit Account, which (under federal government scrutiny) grants money from royalties paid by resources companies on the proceeds of mining indigenous lands.

Brahim has strenuously defended Julalikari against allegations that the organisation has suffered significant financial loss through nepotism and corruption. She says opposition to her organisation's management was driven by non-Aboriginal people in the town.

However, in the course of an investigation conducted over several months, we have found that Julalikari's critics were correct in at least one respect: Canberra has failed to ensure public monies were properly spent. At Tingkarli town camp, for instance, we found children playing inside a ruined demountable, which had been intended to serve as a community centre but is now a wreck of smashed windows, pocked fibre walls and gaping flooring.

Barefoot kids jumped from joist to joist, dodging the exposed nail heads in this flimsy building which, unconnected to utilities, has not hosted one community event since it was erected more than three years ago.

The children's only alternative playground is the street, or a dirt field, which people often drive across as a back road to the camp. When we visited, about 12 youngsters, aged from three years to teenaged, were playing house in the tattered demountable. They had made the skeletal remains of one room a kitchen and hung a makeshift curtain. But even as we watched, a little boy cut his foot. A small girl grazed her leg. Their siblings carried them away.

"It's not safe there now. The fibres are ripped apart. Sharp things stick out. Bricks are hanging down; what if they fall on top of them [the children]?" says Tingkarli resident Kelisha Green, 19.

Four other community centres and three bedsitter flats in kit form, which Julalikari bought using a June 2009 allocation of $2 million from the Aboriginals Benefit Account, also remained uncompleted.

None of these buildings "meets the needs of Aboriginal people and I doubt they'd meet the needs of anybody, including non-indigenous people", says Barb Shaw, the Barkly Shire Council president. She adds that people in the blue-ribbon Melbourne suburb of Toorak would never tolerate such small, hot quarters.

"To me they looked like temporary public toilet blocks that would have been put up for a festival or a carnival," Shaw says.

The Tingkarli demountable, plonked on a site without services, next door to the worn-out cement-block community centre it was meant to replace, symbolises government failure to track proper use of public funding, says Linda Turner, chairwoman of the local Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation.

Brahim says the demountable debacle was not Julalikari's fault. She says the Northern Territory government had failed to connect the buildings to services because of timing; it cut short a contract with workers who were meant to do the job.

She says Julalikari has asked the Territory government to pay for the power and water to be connected to the bedsits.

"The damage that you saw at Tingkarli, that was family members that allowed their children to do that," Brahim says.

"We've gone back to talk to them, to say that what we're going to do is take the demountable away and demolish the old community centre, the frame that's up there, and we're not going to put anything back there because … families are allowing their kids to go in and do the destroying, so there is no pride."

Shaw says it is unfair to blame the families.  "Government have to take this responsibility. They have to be accountable for it," she says.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet responds: "We have been working closely with Julalikari to ensure the matter is resolved and the buildings are able to be used by the community as intended. The department expects the demountables to be properly completed and fit for use." However, Turner and Shaw believe that the federal government needs better checks to ensure funding produces results, including actually going to see how funds are being spent.

Tennant Creek has been divided on questions relating to Julalikari's money management since an unsigned copy of a December 2012 letter, written by Colin Gilson, a former Westpac bank regional manager who had worked as the organisation's director of community wealth, began to circulate early this year.

This letter, a copy of which we have obtained, was sent to former federal Aboriginal Affairs minister Jenny Macklin. In it, Gilson alleges that the dealings of Julalikari have been compromised by mismanagement, nepotism and corruption.

He alleges that such malpractice resulted in a "state of chaos" in the organisation's construction arm, and on spending money from the federal government's CDEP "work for the dole" scheme on items that were outside the government's regulations. He also alleges that equipment, including 20 generator sets and a $120,000 roller, had been stolen by Julalikari insiders. Gilson stands by his allegations.

Brahim has rebutted all such allegations. She said Gilson was motivated to try to discredit Julalikari by the fact that he was "an ex-employee, disgruntled, and he'd been terminated".

Shaw says it is "critical" that Tony Abbott, who has declared himself the "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs", visit the Tennant Creek town camps.

"I don't see a federal minister coming to Tennant Creek and going out and visiting these Aboriginal families and seeing what's actually on the ground," she says.


Private ownership works for Aborigines too

Almost 10 years ago, the leader of an East Arnhem Aboriginal community arrived unannounced at CIS asking for help. His community’s children were not receiving any education so he feared that they would be condemned to a life on welfare. This plea led to the CIS finding practical assistance for the community and the development of our Indigenous program.

Since then, with volunteer helpers, the community has moved forward in parallel with CIS’ Indigenous policy development. Our research exposed the failure of ‘culturally appropriate’ Indigenous education while the Baniyala community now has an excellent school with the highest Indigenous school attendance in the Northern Territory.

From education, the focus has moved to housing. The community wants decent homes instead of the sub-standard dwellings into which they have been crowded. In keeping with the CIS’ liberal philosophy, we support home ownership as an alternative to public housing.

Over the last 50 years, 20% of Australia has been returned to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership. Few know that this land was returned without the provision for individual land title. Australia’s Indigenous lands are the largest area on earth where you are not allowed to own your home. All prosperous societies combine good governance of communal assets such as roads, parks and hospitals, with private ownership of homes and business. On Australia’s vast Indigenous lands, communal governance is poor and private ownership is non-existent. The misery of remote communities on Indigenous lands is the result.

This East Arnhem community commenced negotiations with governments and their statutory organisations to introduce 99 year leases for private housing. Progress has been slow.

To move private housing along, two modest houses have been built in Baniyala for private rental. These houses have kitchens and bathrooms - unlike the public housing provided in remote outstations. Two families now rent these houses. One family – parents plus children – was previously ‘housed’ in an 18 feet ‘donga’ container. The other family shared bedrooms in a dwelling that would be condemned as ‘unfit for human habitation’ outside Aboriginal Australia. In their new houses, these families are planting gardens and taking advantage of ‘quiet enjoyment’ – the right of a tenant or landowner to undisturbed use and enjoyment of property. When leases over the housing blocks are issued, the tenants have the option of getting a mortgage and buying these houses.

These first two houses built for private rental and ownership have easily disproved the mantras about housing on Indigenous land. For years it has been claimed that construction costs are too high and Indigenous incomes too low, and that unlike other Australians, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders do not want to own their homes. These are excuses used to hide the discriminatory state and federal policies that deny individual property rights on Indigenous land. The CIS and a handful of volunteers are helping a remote Northern Territory community to drive changes in these policies


PM Tony Abbott pledges to ease the way for overseas adoption

Tony Abbott says he wants to make it "much much easier" for Australian couples to adopt children from overseas, saying tens of thousands of babies could be brought to Australia from orphanages.

The Prime Minister invited Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman and his wife, the adoption advocate Deborra-Lee Furness, to Kirribilli House on Thursday to announce that his government would deliver "reform on overseas adoption" within 12 months.

"There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents," Mr Abbott said. "And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia.  "And we need to make it easier for that to happen."

Mr Abbott said that "for too long, adoption has been in the too-hard basket".  "For too long it has been too hard to adopt and for too long this has been a policy no-go zone," he said. "That must change . . . And it will change within 12 months."

Mr Abbott said he did not underestimate the complexity of changing laws to make it easier for Australians to adopt children.

He has ordered the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to establish an interdepartmental committee on overseas adoption.

Mr Abbott said the government would work with premiers and chief ministers through the Council of Australian Governments process "to try to ensure overseas adoption is working in the best way possible".

"The committee will consult extensively and report to me in March 2014 including on the immediate steps that could be taken to make inter-country adoption easier and faster for Australian couples," Mr Abbott said.

The committee's report will be discussed at the next COAG meeting in April 2014.

Mr Abbott was also joined at Kirribilli House by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and NSW Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward.

Ms Furness, who founded the National Adoption Awareness Week, is a globally-recognised adoption advocate. She is the executive director of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, patron of the Lighthouse Foundation for homeless youth and the International Adoption Families of Queensland.

Bureaucratic hurdles around Australia's adoption process have been a key focus of Ms Furness' advocacy, after she and her husband decided to adopt their children, Oscar and Ava, through the United States system.

In a speech to the Press Club earlier this year, Ms Furness slammed Australia's "anti-adoption culture" and said that extreme bureaucratic hurdles and invasive process deterred many would-be parents, leaving Australia with one of the lowest adoption rates in the world.

Adoption campaigners have also lobbied for a streamlined adoption process for the 18,000 children in Australia's care system, whereby adoption would be made available to foster parents after six months.

Ms Furness said on Thursday she was ecstatic, after years of adoption advocacy, to have support from the highest levels of government.   "We always knew we needed a champion and a leader within government to bring about change," she said.  "So let's aim for the top. I'm thrilled to have the Prime Minister on board."

Yet despite Mr Abbott's enthusiasm, a leading adoption advocate says the last thing Australia needs is another review into the adoption system when the federal and state governments had not "implemented the recommendations from the last one".

Ricky Brisson, the national coordinator for the Australian InterCountry Adoption Network, said the Abbott government should already know what it needs to do to fix the broken adoption system.

A 2005 review of the adoption system launched by Bronwyn Bishop, had identified the problems being spoken about today, she said.

"Each state has different legislation, policies and criteria", Mrs Brisson said, adding that varying requirements around factors such as age and length of marriage meant that people who started their assessment in one state would be forced to reapply when they moved states.


Why Jaydon can't read

In the most recent international assessment of primary school literacy achievement - the Progress in Reading Literacy Study 2011 - Australian and New Zealand students were at the bottom of the rankings for English-speaking countries. One in four Year 4 students in Australia and New Zealand failed to achieve the international benchmark for literacy that allows good progress through school.

This is not a new problem. Other international assessments and national testing programs like NAPLAN show an entrenched proportion of students with low reading levels after four or more years of formal schooling. Millions of words have been written and billions of dollars have been spent on government programs trying to fix this problem, to no avail.

The one thing that has not been tried is the one thing most likely to work - effective, evidence-based reading instruction in every classroom. A robust body of scientific evidence finds that effective reading instruction has five essential components - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. For early success in reading, these skills must be taught explicitly and systematically.

Numerous reviews, surveys and inquiries have found that teaching degrees in Australian universities are not preparing teachers sufficiently well in these reading instruction strategies, based on scientific evidence of 'what works.' Education academics often argue that there are other kinds of evidence, such as case studies, qualitative research and action research. Such studies can provide useful information, but cannot be considered in the same league as studies using scientific methodology and which provide measurable and replicable results.

Reliance on poor quality evidence is not confined to university education faculties; it also plagues government policy development. Literacy policy has been routinely undermined by a failure to understand that reading research, especially as it applies to the early years and for struggling readers, is a highly scientific and specific discipline. Generalist educators and bureaucrats do not have the expertise required to guide policy in this area.

The new Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, plans to establish an advisory committee to guide policy development. The committee will have a strong document to work from - the report of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Hopefully some of Australia's internationally-regarded reading experts will be called upon to finally put it into action.


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