If there’s a single lesson for blackfellas in the Northern Territory during the intervention, it is this.

For the most effective way of getting your share of the $1.3 billion the Feds are spending on it, you should get real jobs and join major accountancy firms. You certainly won’t earn it painting, running cattle or operating tourist traps.

As reported in Crikey (30 August 2007), accounting majors such as KPMG are set to get nice little earners out of business planning for Aboriginal communities “transitioning” from Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) projects to “real jobs”.

The same company’s name—and no doubt others—is now being bandied about for a consultancy to assess funding priorities in capital infrastructure for the Aboriginal arts industry in the Northern Territory—despite the fact the arts industry itself has carried out exhaustive research and consultation through its representative peak bodies.

While the $10 million infrastructure funding is to come from the Aboriginal Benefit Account (ABA)—the real question is whether KPMG will get paid out of ABA coffers, or general government revenue. If the latter, once again Aboriginal-earmarked royalty funds will be siphoned off to non-Aboriginal interests. In this case to replicate work carried out by Aboriginal organisations regarded as experts in the field.

The ABA is the same bucket of money—derived from mining royalty equivalents from extractive activities on Aboriginal land—that Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough has previously dipped into to fund a cultural festival in his Queensland electorate, not to mention Aboriginal housing he wanted to fund “quickly, not through the normal bureaucratic processes” (see Crikey 13 July 2007).

In this case, the Aboriginal arts industry has absolutely gone through the “normal bureaucratic processes”, spending months in discussions with Territory and Federal officials and art centres, and providing exhaustive submissions including scrupulous details of project management.

To no avail, it would seem. At the last moment the funding has been held up by Brough’s department, FaCSIA. It claims the projects need external assessment—begging the question of why the federal bureaucracy was unable to do it in the first place. Perhaps the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) which funds the art centres, and would normally advise on issues such as this. But the command to bring in the bean counters comes amidst apparent suggestions that Aboriginal organisations were incapable of doing it themselves.

As Jon Altman, director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, told Crikey in July:

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.

Ah! That must be the problem.

The projects might not have been innovative—they were for boring things like buildings to operate businesses from, or housing for workers—but they were certainly “in accord with Indigenous development aspirations”.

Clearly unacceptable. Call in the accountants.

Peter Fray

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