‘It’s one owner, two shop fronts’: Minister to hand over Jabiru lease this weekend despite ongoing investigation

by | Jun 24, 2021 | Business, News | 0 comments

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt will hand over the lease of Jabiru township, in what was supposed to be a quiet ceremony this Saturday, to a sister organisation of a corporation representing the Mirarr people that is the subject of a long-running investigation by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.

A highly-placed source has told the NT Independent the minister’s trip had been kept a secret, to all except for those involved with the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation Jabiru Town, which will hold the lease, and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which is being investigated after a high-profile raid by police and ORIC investigators in September 2019.

But they said, the information about the non-public event had got out, so now there would be a barbecue for the wider community after the handover to quell unhappiness at the exclusion of other clans.

Normally a historic handover such as this would be the subject of great ministerial fanfare, as was the passing of the legislation that allows for the lease to be put back into the hands of traditional owners.

The Northern Land Council posted a general invitation on Facebook after 3.30pm on Wednesday after the NT Independent sent questions to the Federal Minister’s office and the corporations on Tuesday.

“A historical hand-back and only three days notice to the public?” the source said.

“It would be good to know when tickets for Ken Wyatt were booked.”

Minster Wyatt’s media spokeswoman Lisa Hugg confirmed the Minister’s trip to Jabiru for the handover and said the minister could not comment on the ORIC investigation because it was not finished. A source has said thousands of documents were seized in the raid.

“It would be inappropriate for the Minister to comment at this time or speculate on potential outcomes as this is a matter for the registrar,” she said.

The Ministers’ office would not comment on the relatedness of the two entities, even though GACJT was registered in late November, with similar aims and purpose to the older corporation, with the addition of being the leaseholder.

“They are pushing ahead with the handover because there is an election coming up and don’t want to be seen to be doing nothing on an Indigenous issue.”

Nor would Mr Wyatt’s office comment on why the Minister was confident no one involved with GACJT was being investigated by ORIC, and what source of information he was basing that on.

Three of its five directors are Mirarr traditional owners, two of whom are also directors of GAC, and one who is a former GAC director and current member, and who is said to still wield great influence in the Mirarr community. All members of GACJT are also members of GAC, and GACJT director Susan O’Sullivan is GAC’s lawyer.

The other GACJT director is Greg Roche who is the former executive director of the Northern Territory Government’s Office of Township Leasing.

The NT Independent is not alleging any wrongdoing by the GACJT directors.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt.

Ms Hugg said GACJT complied with registration requirements under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act).

When asked if GACTJ was only established because they needed to hand the lease to a Mirarr body while GAC was under investigation, Ms Hugg said the purpose of establishing GACJT was set out in its rule book and is a matter for its members.

“It includes objectives other than administering the township lease for Jabiru,” she said.

The Minister’s office also did not say why the handover of the lease was not being postponed until the outcome of the ORIC investigation.

But the source, who has knowledge of both organisations, said the new corporation was created purely because of the investigation into the other.

“It is one owner, two shop fronts,” they said.

“In actual fact it’s that they are a photocopy of each other. I think sole purpose of forming GACJT is to avoid ORIC scrutiny and get the lease by calling it a new and separate entity.

“I have heard that in a couple of years they will close down GAC as royalty payments stop, transfer all the assets to GACJT, that way all the … deeds will be buried for good as ORIC cannot investigate a closed down organisation.

“This theory does make sense as exactly the same framework in place for Gagudju Association.

“They are pushing ahead with the handover because there is an election coming up and don’t want to be seen to be doing nothing on an Indigenous issue.”

The Northern Territory Government has also formed a joint venture company with GAC, called the Jabiru Kabolkmakmen Ltd, to aid the redevelopment of the town.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Justin O’Brien. Picture: Twitter

Ms Hugg, who is also the ORIC media spokeswoman confirmed the GAC investigation was not finished.

“There are a range of factors that influence how long an investigation takes including the volume of the evidence that is gathered throughout the investigation and the analysis of this. It’s therefore difficult to predict the length of time this will take to complete,” she said.

GACJT interim chief executive officer Kira Lammey did not respond to questions nor did GAC chief executive officer Justin O’Brien, including which people were involved in the decision to form GACJT and appoint its directors, and whether those people are under investigation by ORIC.

They were also asked if any of the directors of GAJT were under investigation by ORIC and if they could clearly show GACJT was a separate entity not influenced by the same people controlling GAC.

Mr O’Brien has denied wrongdoing to other media outlets.

Ms Sullivan declined to comment.

READ: The uncertain future of 40 people caught up in a mega $446 million redevelopment plan

The handover is the central vision of a $446 million rejuvenation across Kakadu National Park. In Jabiru, this includes a massive new luxury hotel and wellness spa, a lakeside beach and crocodiles removed from the lake, as well as a visitor centre and a world heritage centre, which would be owned by the Mirarr and, or, private investors.

In July 2018, the Northern Territory Government promised $135.5 million to be spent in the town over four years, and in 2019 the Federal Government promised to spend $75 million to $95 million in the town. In total the Federal Government has promised $276 million in funding for Kakadu.

In response to a question about the qualifications all the GACJT directors had for their positions overseeing a corporation undertaking such a large project and being the recipients, directly or indirectly, of hundreds of millions in taxpayer money, Ms Hugg, speaking on behalf of Mr Wyatt, said the CATSI Act demanded high levels of transparency and accountability from corporations to members.

“The CATSI Act is also a special measure designed to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations operate efficiently and effectively,” she said.

“In broad terms, the registrar’s regulatory approach is to support members of corporations understand their rights to access information and hold their board to account for performance and compliance.

“There is significant awareness among the community and stakeholders on GACJT’s purpose/objectives and impending responsibility to manage the township lease in the best interests of the Mirarr people.”

Figures released by the National Indigenous Australia agency under Freedom of Information laws show the Federal Government made an election promise of $216 million in spending in Kakadu National Park in 2019, followed in July 12 last year of $59.7 million to upgrade tourist facilities.

Of this $276 million, the document showed $51 million was to going to infrastructure upgrades in the park – presumably non-tourist facilities – and $35 million over nine years from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to Parks Australia for tourism upgrades.

It said NIAA signed a MOU with Parks Australia on June 9, 2020, to administer the funding, with $3.5 million “released” in 2019-20, and $7 million allocated in 2021-22.


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