Following revelations yesterday that Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough transferred Northern Territory Aboriginal Benefit Account funds to pay for a festival in his Queensland electorate at the time, Crikey can disclose that the federal government has allocated at least $20 million in Aboriginal mining royalty equivalencies to fund public housing.

Yesterday, in a press release responding to NIT ‘s charges, Minister Brough highlighted how the ABA process should work:

The ABA is intended to provide funds for the benefit of Indigenous Northern Territorians and this is exactly what occurred. I received a request for assistance. I referred that request to the Advisory Committee on the ABA, as is the normal process. I approved the expenditure after receiving advice from the Committee and it being recommended by my department. The fact that the funding was listed in an annual report under ceremonial activities was a minor administrative error within my department.

But NIT has provided Crikey with the leaked minutes from a meeting in March last year between the Aboriginal Benefit Account advisory committee and a representative from the Minister’s office, Russell Patterson. Patterson says that in order for the Minister to “experiment with something a bit different in the Northern Territory” he “needs money quickly, not through the normal bureaucratic processes”. Read the full page here.

“The Northern Territory government and the federal government know there’s no votes in blackfellas so there’s no point using public money in Aboriginal communities. Instead, they use Aboriginal people’s private mining royalties to underfund inadequate services,” editor of The National Indigenous Times Chris Graham told Crikey. 

Jon Altman, director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, told Crikey that this kind of spending is nothing new and that the ABA is “treated as a discretionary fund” by the federal government.

“The view by the government of the day is that these are just public moneys to be used at ministerial discretion, except for some odd reason they remain taxed by a special mining withholding tax,” says Altman.

“ABA dollars are now primarily a substitute for legitimate government expenditure. Some aboriginal priorities like ceremonial activity is still funded by the ABA but as Ministers have exerted more and more influence on ABA expenditures,” says Altman.

“Unfortunately, the ABA has increasingly become another progressive institution of Indigenous Australia that has just been disempowered by the Howard government. Yet it could make a real difference to Indigenous people if applied innovatively and in accord with Indigenous development aspirations,” says Altman.

So what were the original aims of the ABA when it was set up?

“In the early 1950s there was pressure to open up the Arnhem Land Reserve to mining. The then Minister of Interior Paul Hasluck, would have none of it. If mining was to occur on land reserved for Aboriginal use, it would need to be in the national interest. To ensure this the Minister decided to double the statutory royalty payable on Aboriginal reserves and to earmark these royalties exclusively for Aboriginal development in the Northern Territory,” Altman told Crikey.

“An institution, the Aborigines (Benefits from Mining) Trust Fund or ABTF was created in 1952. And from the early 1970s, after the Gove Land Rights case, 10% of income from any mine was reserved for Aboriginal people directly impacted by that mine.”

Altman also cited other examples of ABA funds used to fund public housing, including:

– $10M of ABA funds floated for housing in Alice Springs and approximately $10M at Galiwinku

– Nguiu (the south east corner of Bathurst Island) headlease (ie a lease that a government department takes out over aboriginal township and then township are paid rent by government). $5 million over 5 years [not yet signed].

– Executive Director of Township Leasing up to $15M over three years from ABA (ALRA amendments last month) — ie, to fund government bureaucracy to head up the Minister’s landlease scheme.

Minister Brough’s office told Crikey:

We provide about $100 million for Indigenous housing in the NT each year, through NTG. The ABA Advisory Committee was asked last year for its view on providing $20 million for innovative housing projects, including new specially designed kit homes built with local labour and temporary visitor accommodation in Alice Springs, outside the normal Commonwealth-Territory housing arrangements. The ABA is intended to benefit NT Indigenous people. Housing is a critical need. T

he ABA Fund is not funded from mining royalties. Each year the Government calculates an equivalent amount to royalties paid, mostly to the NT Government, and provides that amount from consolidated revenue into the ABA Fund. The ABA Advisory Committee passed a resolution agreeing to the approach to use ABA funds for these purposes. The funds have not yet been drawn down from the ABA and may not do so. Since coming to Government, through careful management, we have built the ABA Fund to about $120 million. Minister Brough secured a significant increase for remote Indigenous housing in the 2007-08 Budget to fund a new Australia Remote Indigenous Accommodation programme which will commence in July 2008.

For a comprehensive rundown on the role of the ABA by Professor Jon Altman, click here.