Indigenous affairs was the subject of closer scrutiny than usual in supplementary estimates hearings on Friday, with a new secretary in the lead role, governance questions for one independent agency, and no word on when a crucial evaluation report will be finalised.
The Finance and Public Administration committee spent far longer than usual grilling officials from the section of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet now led by a new associate secretary for Indigenous affairs, Ray Griggs, who recently replaced Andrew Tongue as the most senior bureaucrat in an area that has seen about 80% management turnover in about three years.
Another recent appointment, Tony Abbott as the “special envoy” reporting to the Prime Minister, came under scrutiny, as did the relatively new but consistently controversial head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, Gary Johns.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said he first heard of Abbott’s new job in news reports but was grateful for any assistance in improving school attendance rates, which is Abbott’s stated area of focus.
Scullion largely fended off questions about what a special envoy does and how it fits into the existing structure, saying Abbott reported to the PM directly and would neither direct nor be directed by himself as the minister. The committee heard that if Abbott wanted to use departmental resources, however, he had to “go through” Scullion.
The minister also played down several reports of Indigenous communities reacting negatively to a visit from the former PM, who declared Indigenous affairs as a personal interest and oversaw its shift into PM&C. Scullion said he didn’t think there was “any particular kerfuffle in Indigenous Australia” over the appointment that lasted more than a day or so, contrary to several reports emerging from communities like Boroloola and Ceduna.
Scullion said nobody had been ringing him to complain about the appointment, but nor did he cite any public statements of support for the newly created role from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives.
As for Gary Johns, Scullion said he broadly shared concerns raised by Labor senator Jenny McAllister about the ACNC chief removing an “acknowledgement of country” from his official email signature block and encouraging other staff to modify it or do the same. The minister said he could not see Johns’ argument that the statement indicated the commission was biased towards Indigenous charities at the expense of others.
This came after Johns told McAllister in a different hearing that he stood by all of his rather robust past opinions from over the years, which notably included comments that Indigenous families often saw pregnancy as a means to earn income through welfare payments.
The thorny issue of Commonwealth funding for housing in remote communities, particularly an acrimonious stand-off with the Western Australian government, was the centrepiece of the hearing which occupied much of the time, but several other interesting discussions came up as well.
Considerable time was also spent responding to Dorothy Dixers from government senators including chair James Patterson, which allowed various agencies in the area to reel off positive-sounding statistics from the past financial year.
No timeframe for evaluation report
The Greens want the government to release an evaluation report on the frequently criticised Community Development Program before they vote on legislative changes to the CDP that have already been introduced to parliament, but Scullion has refused.
Senator Rachel Siewert questions why the completed report has not been released, but PM&C officials held the line on Friday, declaring they still needed to continue public consultation — about what the report contains — and refused to even put a time frame on when that process will reach a conclusion.
In another classic of the Senate’s faux-inquiry powers, a government-dominated inquiry recommended the bill be passed against all 21 submissions and in the face of strong opposition on the floor of parliament from both Labor and the cross-bench.
“The Minister has also advised that the Department is “engaging with the communities involved in the fieldwork component of the evaluation’,” Siewert said in a statement last week.
“So despite little to no consultation on the entire program they are now using consultation as an excuse not to provide the evaluation?”
The discussion did not move forward much further in estimates.
Remoteness vs governance responsibilities
Scullion was also questioned by Labor senator Kristina Keneally over why a member of the Indigenous Land Council board had kept his seat, after missing a series of meetings without leave. The legislation simply states that if a director misses three or more consecutively without leave, the minister must remove them.
Keneally said she did not want to pry into ILC director Bruce Martin’s personal life and make it a public issue in the hearing, but she noted that from the annual report it would appear Martin had missed eight meetings with only one leave of absence granted, including five consecutively.
According to Scullion, Martin had “some cultural responsibilities, and also some business responsibilities, in a very remote part of the western side of the Cape [York Peninsula]” and not only had trouble attending, but also found it hard to arrange leave beforehand. Teleconferencing appears to be the way ahead.
“So, particular attendance at board meetings has been challenging in these particular circumstances,” Scullion said.
“It is not something that has not been dealt with, and we are trying to provide more flexibility for all board members to ensure … you can still meet your cultural and business obligations, so ensuring we have the level of amenity to ring in, so we’ve made a number of those changes.”
ILC chair Eddie Fry had accepted Martin’s explanations and apparently granted an unusual leave of absence after the fact, and told the minister that “adjustments” had been made to ensure attendance in line with the legislation in future.
PM&C assistant secretary Brendan Jacomb said he understood that Fry had granted Martin leave for the meetings, but agreed to provide more clarity on notice after Keneally pointed out his statement contradicted the annual report.
Scullion explained that no changes to the act would be necessary, in his view, and said the annual report would be amended if inaccurate. The act is quite clear that the minister must remove any director who misses three meetings in a row without leave, and Scullion and Fry appear to have found leeway that is not backed up by the legislation.
The minister said he thought leave was approved after the fact, “because [Martin] wasn’t able to communicate that he wasn’t able to be there at the meeting, but when the extenuating circumstances were provided to the chair, [Fry] understood that leave should have been granted, should he have known beforehand.”
“My concern is not so much with Mr Martin’s actions, it is with the actions of the minister and the accordance to the act … and as you have flagged if there are particular challenges with people being able to attend meetings, or being supported to do so, [it would be appreciated] if you could also provide advice as to what you are doing to address that,” Keneally said.
What ever happened with those recommendations?
A recently released report by Deloitte checking up on progress against 339 decades-old recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in custody also came up.
Scullion said he commissioned the report because he agreed with Labor senator Pat Dodson that neither of them could say how many had actually been followed.
Deloitte reports 64% were fully implemented, and a further 14% were mostly completed, while 16% were only partially done and 6% were not implemented.
Of those requiring action at Commonwealth level, specifically, the report found a combined total of 91% were either mostly or fully complete.
Correction: this article stated the Indigenous affairs area of PM&C had 80% “staff turnover” when in fact, this figure relates to management levels.