Centrecorp is, as the Federal Government’s own Office of Evaluation and Audit noted in a Report of November 2008, a:

…very successful private organisation which has received approximately $25.1m in support from the Australian Government. As noted in its various establishment documents, Centrecorp has taken “advantage of investment and commercial opportunities” for the benefit of Aboriginal people in Central Australia and have built an impressive asset base over the past 23 years.

Centrecorp was established in 1985 to, according to its Memorandum of Association: “… undertake and implement activities which further the economic and social development of Aboriginals and which are conducive to the advancement of Aboriginals.”

Three of the five $1 shares in of Centrecorp are owned by the Central Land Council. Centrecorp operates two charitable trusts of which it is a trustee and through a combination of good management, fortune and circumstance Centrecorp has grown to be one of the largest investors in central Australia, with interests in a car dealership, a shopping centre, a real estate agency, supermarkets, a gas pipeline, tourist resort and various other small projects.

The value of Centrecorp’s investments are, on a national scale, relatively modest — however in the the poisonous atmosphere of small-town Northern Territory politics the combination of blackfellas, money and complex corporate structures are bound to attract some negative attention — particularly among the uninformed and those that remain wilfully blind to the objective facts.

The Alice Springs News is a freebie local weekly that usually runs to about 16 modest pages and is often more entertaining than informative. Like many freebie newspapers on occasion the News can seem more like a hobby-horse for the proprietors pet peeves, predilections and prejudices.

And so it is, it seems, with Centrecorp and the three $1 shares owned by the Central Land Council.

On its own admission, the Alice Springs News has: “… been covering the Centrecorp controversy in 44 reports and comment pieces since April 1998, and a dossier of Alice Springs News reports was a substantial part of the briefing NT Senator Nigel Scullion gave Senator Brandis.”

The reference to Senators Scullion and Brandis refers to questions asked by Senator Brandis of David Ross, Director of the Central Land Council, in Senate Community Affairs Committee Supplementary Estimates Hearings in late October 2008 and followup questions in early 2009.

On 14 May 2009 the Senate referred to the Finance and Public Administration References Committee a brief to investigate the relationship between the Central Land Council and Centrecorp.

The primary focus of the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry are directed to the relationship between Centrecorp and the Central Land Council, the nature and extent of Centrecorp’s business activities

One problem for the Senate’s committee is that not only has Centrecorp been the subject of a recent comprehensive investigation by the Office of Evaluation and Audit — which while slapping it across the wrist on a couple of minor points, largely found it to be, as noted above, a “very successful private organisation”.

Another problem is that it seems that the bulk of the allegations against Centrecorp and the Central Land Council are based upon a series of false allegations promoted by the Alice Springs News .

Earlier this week the Senate committee published three of the submissions received by its inquiry.

The first, a three-pager by the Auditor-General, notes that: “As the trust deed specifically excludes CLC from receiving any benefit from the trust, CLC is not considered to have control over Centrecorp.”

The Central Land Council’s submission is extensive and notes the link between Senator Brandis’ question in Estimate of late October 2008, the persistent, and it says wrong-headed, coverage of the Centrecorp issue by the Alice Springs News since 1998, and the current Inquiry.

The Central Land Council notes, at page three of its submission:

Leaving aside for the present whether there has ever been a genuine controversy about Centrecorp, this claim that a dossier of Alice Springs News reports was a substantial part of the briefing provided to Senator Brandis, if correct, may explain how or why two Senate committees have been motivated to inquire into Centrecorp.

For that reason the multitude of factual errors and distortions evident in [the] Alice Springs News stories have been separately addressed in Appendix 2.

The CLC has appended this material in order to provide an objective measure, Hansard, to enable the Committee to see for itself how the Alice Springs News either distorts facts, or manufactures ‘facts’, in order to maintain its campaign against both Centrecorp and the CLC.

The Central Land Council refers to what it says may be evidence of the link between Senator Brandis and the false basis of the campaign by the Alice Springs News against Centrecorp and the Central Land Council. In Senate Estimates on 24 October 2008 Senator Brandis asked:

Question 126 — “Is it the case that the capital Centrecorp has used in order to acquire this large asset portfolio was seed funded from royalties paid by mining companies and other commercial entities with obligations to the central Australian Aboriginal people under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) or other relevant Commonwealth and Northern Territory statutes?”

In response the Central Land Council notes that:

Question 126 picks up a theme of the Alice Springs News first published in 1998, and repeated many times since, to the effect that Centrecorp is the beneficiary of royalties paid by mining companies…The Alice Springs News has been told repeatedly that the CLC has never paid a cent of royalties to Centrecorp, and there is not a shred of evidence to justify its allegations. It makes no difference, it [ Alice Springs News] has continued to publish this false allegation as fact.

Embedded in this allegation is the necessary inference that the CLC … has, in spite of all of that scrutiny and all of those controls, [has] year after year somehow concealed a series of unlawful actions involving the wrongful transfer to Centrecorp, of large amounts of compensation funds received on behalf of traditional landowners.

Setting the proposition out in this way demonstrates how ridiculous the allegations are.

Whether the Senate’s inquiry into the Central Land Council and Centrecorp is yet another case of going off half-c-cked on the basis of false or flawed information remains to be seen.

Hearings of the Senate Committee scheduled for Alice Springs have been postponed — no alternative dates for those Hearings have been set.

Read more at Bob Gosford’s The Northern Myth at Crikey blogs.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey