Scullion’s demands: ‘reasonable request’ or ‘gross breach’?

By Stephen Easton

Monday April 18, 2016

Nigel Scullion
Nigel Scullion

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion (pictured) won’t explain why he demanded changes to the Indigenous Land Corporation’s 2014-15 annual report — and failed to admit having done so despite being asked point-blank in Senate Estimates.

In response to five specific questions from The Mandarin regarding the contents of documents recently released by the ILC under the Freedom of Information Act, Scullion’s spokesperson provided four dot-points:

  • The Minister is not responsible for approving the content of ILC’s annual reports.
  • However, it was reasonable for the Minister to request the ILC Board consider how it might respond to the Chairperson’s report in the 2014-15 report by former Chair, Dawn Casey.
  • The ILC Board made its own decision about whether to respond and if so, how to respond.
  • The content of working documents prepared by ILC staff is a matter for the ILC.

The minister demanded changes, which held up publication of the ILC annual report for six months, the documents confirm.

Staff of the independent body were led to believe the 2014-15 report might not be tabled at all if the Minister’s demands were not met. Scullion won’t comment on whether this kind of stipulation is “normal practice”.

In the end, the report was published with two opening statements from two different chairs: Dawn Casey, who held the role for the entire reporting period, and current chair Eddie Fry, who was not an ILC director during 2014-15.

In February’s Senate Estimates — just days after the disputed report finally saw the light of day — Scullion was asked directly if he or his office asked for it to be changed. He took the question on notice but the written response, provided in early April, avoids answering the yes-or-no question.

The minister is unwilling to explain to The Mandarin why he gave the apparently misleading answer to the Senate Estimates Finance and Public Administration Committee, or why he requested the report be changed in the first place.

The FOI documents reveal Scullion conveyed to the ILC staff and board members he felt that part of Casey’s foreword to the document was inaccurate. The offending passage attempted to summarise Casey’s persistent and ultimately unsuccessful requests for the government to investigate the roles of former ILC directors in the purchase of Ayers Rock Resort for an apparently inflated price.

The Mandarin asked the Minister what he thought was inaccurate about Casey’s summary of her failed attempts to encourage a full-scale inquiry into the transaction and the actions of then-directors of the government corporation, but he did not take the opportunity to explain.

Casey — who requested the FOI documents — became suspicious of the 2010 ARR deal and four former ILC directors shortly after becoming chair of the board in October 2011. Commenting via email, she said they show Scullion overstepped the mark:

“Annual reports are a key accountability document, and for a Minister to seek to interfere in the content of an annual report from an independent statutory corporation is both a gross breach of accepted standards of behaviour and an affront to the Parliament and the Australian people.”

She argues the answer to Siewert’s question on notice seeks to “deliberately obfuscate” the role of the Minister’s office in the process and “suggests that the minister set out to deliberately hide his involvement” in the content of the report, which was submitted while Casey was still in the chair’s role, but tabled after Fry had taken up the position.

Suspicions remain about what happened when the ILC bought the overpriced resort in 2010, only for its value to drop precipitously shortly after, based on dubious due-diligence advice and using a large loan from the seller.

Casey believes her FOI request has unmasked an “attempted cover-up” and wonders why the minister was “so sensitive” about the way she put her fruitless campaign for an inquiry on the record in the annual report:

“The FOI documents make it clear that the issue of concern related to my comments which referred to his actions in refusing to initiate an inquiry …

“The question which no one will answer is this: was Minister Scullion aware of and/or involved in the decision of the previous ILC Board to acquire the Ayers Rock Resort?”

Casey says former prime minister Tony Abbott and new PM Malcolm Turnbull have both refused to confirm Scullion had no conflict of interest, in response to “numerous letters from the ILC” asking them to do so. Those letters, she said, were sent during her time as chair because the ILC felt the minister had “inappropriately requested access to the ILC’s legal advice in relation to the transaction”.

Earlier questions sent to the minister’s office on February 9 by The Mandarin also remain unanswered.

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