$42 million land rights dream in ruins

Sydney Morning Herald
7 March 2005

An Aboriginal community's wish for self-sufficiency is mired in conflict, writes Ben Hills.

It was hailed as the greatest deal in the history of the land rights movement, one that would set a new model for Aboriginal self-determination in the 21st century.

Last year, after a decade of negotiation, the 800 members of the Darkinjung community agreed to sell 41 hectares of their heritage, beachfront land on the Central Coast to a developer for $42 million. The money was to be secured in a watertight trust and invested in businesses. The proceeds would provide low-cost housing loans, aged-care facilities and funeral costs for the needy community.

Now that dream of self-sufficiency - and freedom from what the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has called "the poison of welfare" - is in tatters. Angry in-fighting and allegations of violence have riven the community. The independent directors appointed to safeguard the money, including the former City of Sydney councillor Kathryn Greiner, have resigned. More than $1 million, almost the community's entire income for 21 months, has been spent on legal costs. A QC has said the transfer of the community's money to the trust was unlawful, and a court has frozen the assets.

And last week the NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Andrew Refshauge, appointed an "independent investigator" to look into the council's finances, sometimes a precursor to sacking a council and appointing an administrator to run the business.

The trouble has been simmering since Darkinjung became Australia's wealthiest land council in February last year when the developer Mirvac agreed to pay $42 million for the land, on which it is building the luxury Magenta Shores resort and golf-course. The first instalment, $18.5 million, has been handed over, with the balance due over the next three years.

It came to a head at a rowdy meeting of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Council on December 14. According to Jack Smith, an elder and co-founder of the council, there was uproar when he questioned the "dictatorial behaviour" of the council's chairman, Jeff Bradford, and called for an investigation of its finances by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

During a break, Smith says, the council's chief executive, Damien Aidon, "rushed at me like a mad dog with his fist raised, accusing me of numerous things". Aidon denies there were any threats or actual violence, and Bradford says "it's bullshit".

But Smith went to the police, and in Wyong Local Court was granted an interim apprehended violence order against Aidon. The allegation will be fully argued in court on April 29.

A week after the tense meeting, the two independent directors of the company established to act as trustee for the money, Darkinjung Pty Ltd, Greiner and the land rights lawyer Stephen Goddard, quit. In her letter of resignation, on file with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greiner said Bradford "persistently and for nefarious reasons" refused to call a board meeting to discuss investment strategies for the money, and legal advice she believed questioned the validity of the trust.

She accuses Bradford of "an arrogant attempt at obfuscation" and "dereliction of duty". Greiner and Goddard have called for the council to be sacked and an administrator to be called in. But Bradford says he wanted to inform the Darkinjung community before he shared the information with Greiner and Goddard, and the two "spat the dummy" when they did not get their way.

Two days after they resigned, John Basten, QC, produced an opinion for the NSW Aboriginal Land Council that transfer of money to the trust was unlawful. Bradford says he has opinions from two other senior counsel saying it was not.

And the next day, Christmas Eve, the registrar of Aboriginal Land Rights obtained an order in the Land and Environment Court that the council produce audit reports and legal advice, and freezing the money - or what is left of it.

Bradford says $5 million has been spent buying cattle, which are agisted at properties near Albury, Wagga and Holbrook. "We are exporting containers of beef to customers in Japan - the business is going in leaps and bounds."

But the Darkinjung council's accounts, obtained by the Herald, show that in the 21 months to last June the council had spent $1.1 million, almost its entire income of $1.4 million for that period, on legal and consultancy costs. As at June 30 it had a $645,000 deficit.

Bradford says the money was spent fighting attempts by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council to stop Darkinjung achieving self-determination. "They can't stand to see black fellows controlling their own affairs. There is no point in having all this dough unless you can do something with it for the community."

On Friday he was informed that Refshauge had appointed a Deloitte accountant, Tim Kelly, to investigate "all affairs of the Darkinjung [council] including its efficiency and effectiveness".

"The investigator won't find a bloody thing," he predicted. "This is the most effective and efficient land council around."

He said that if the appointment damaged Darkinjung's budding businesses he would take action in the Supreme Court to recover damages from the Government.

But Bob Graham, deputy mayor of Wyong, has a different take. "I predicted this would happen, this fighting over the money. A few years ago there were 80 members of the council, now there are 800 - they even invited me to join, and I have no Aboriginal blood."

So the first step has been taken towards dismantling Bradford's dream. Within months the Darkinjung council will probably be replaced by an administrator.

Another Aboriginal bureaucrat said: "It's a tragedy, a real tragedy. It's like those cases you hear about where someone wins Lotto and suddenly their whole life goes sour."


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