Winds of change blow through Turnbull's Indigenous Affairs bureaucracy

By Stephen Easton

February 10, 2017

The federal government has appointed June Oscar as the new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and a range of new faces to the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, while a couple of other senior staffing changes have occurred more quietly in the Indigenous affairs area of Malcolm Turnbull’s department.

June Oscar.

Minister Nigel Scullion said the five-year appointment with the Australian Human Rights Commission “demonstrates the central role Indigenous women play in bringing about social change” and lauded Oscar’s leadership and experience in the policy area, which has included campaigning for alcohol restrictions in the Fitzroy Valley region of Western Australia.

AHRC president Gillian Triggs was “delighted” to welcome a woman into the role for the first time and Attorney-General George Brandis provided a potted biography of his latest human rights appointee. Oscar replaces Mick Gooda, who stepped down to jointly lead the Northern Territory’s Royal Commission into youth justice last August.

The six new members of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council announced this Wednesday are part of a two-stage process, according to Scullion, and will soon meet to advise the government on the final makeup of the council and its terms of reference:

“This will include engaging with other Indigenous Australians who have requested to be on the Council. This is a strong endorsement for the continuation of the Council and demonstrates that Indigenous Australians are very focused on working in partnership with the Government on the issues impacting their communities.

“The refreshed Council reflects the Government’s deep commitment to doing things with Indigenous Australians in a genuine partnership. The Council is expected to work with, and draw in, other Indigenous Australians to ensure the Government has advice from a range of stakeholders and communities.”

Scullion said the six were chosen as they “reflect the expertise and innovation that exist in Indigenous Australia” and “bring strong practical policy knowledge” to the portfolio.

Movements in the Indigenous Affairs bureaucracy

Richard Eccles has moved on from his position as deputy secretary for Indigenous Affairs, where he was working under associate secretary Andrew Tongue in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Eccles, whose brother Chris is head of the Victorian public service, has moved sideways to the Department of Communications and the Arts as deputy secretary for content, arts and strategy. Elizabeth Hefren-Webb is acting in his old role at PM&C.

Richard Eccles

Meanwhile, former Indigenous Land Corporation director Sam Jeffries — who the Australian Federal Police charged with leaking confidential board papers from the federal body in 2014 — is working for PM&C as a special adviser on Indigenous regional governance.

Although the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions told a Brisbane court there was enough evidence to prosecute Jeffries for disclosing confidential board papers to an unauthorised person, the federal prosecutors decided there was no public interest in doing so and dropped the charges, which can lead to a maximum sentence of two years.

Jeffries, the chairman and CEO of Baaka Energy, is working with the PM’s department on the Empowered Communities initiative. A departmental spokesperson told The Mandarin:

“The role of the position is to provide advice to the Department and Indigenous communities that develops and supports the capability of Indigenous people to work in partnership with Government to improve services and programmes for Indigenous people.

“This includes work such as the  Empowered Communities initiative as well as supporting other local decision-making initiatives. This is a single position filled by Mr Sam Jeffries as a non-ongoing member of the Australian Public Service.”

The dropped 2014 charges were part of a series of interrelated disputes between certain former ILC board members and their political supporters in the major parties, most of which have revolved around the purchase of Ayers Rock Resort in 2010.

Jeffries was a director of the ILC between 2004 and 2013 and a director of its subsidiary Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which owns the resort, from mid-2011 to late 2013.

The alleged leak in 2013 was reportedly linked to the sacking of former ILC chief executive David Galvin in 2012. Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion, then in opposition, praised Galvin’s performance and criticised his unexplained termination in parliament.

Other former ILC directors who joined the board after the the Ayers Rock Resort purchase have long argued the way it was financed and the price that was paid indicate there were serious governance issues in the ILC and Voyages boards at the time. Scullion believes it’s all “political games and conspiracy theories” while former director Neil Westbury thinks it shows a need for an independent regulator of public sector corporations like the ILC. Former chair Dawn Casey is of a similar view.

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