Mining giant Fortescue Metals, retail giant Wesfarmers, two NRL clubs, and Catholic and Anglican welfare organisations were awarded millions of dollars from a fund for alleviating Indigenous disadvantage.
The former Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion approved more than $560m worth of funding in his final six weeks in the role ahead of the announcement of the federal election in 2019.
Fortescue Metals, which is owned by the mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, received a grant of $3.828m for “strategic activities that focus on getting Indigenous Australians into work, fostering Indigenous business and assisting Indigenous people to generate economic and social benefits from effective use of their land, particularly in remote areas”.
The funds from the federal government’s controversial Indigenous advancement strategy were approved on 5 April 2019, just six days before the Morrison government went into caretaker mode.
In the six weeks from 1 March to 11 April, Scullion approved 240 grants worth around $567m, including the one-off grant to Fortescue.
Scullion also approved more than $15m to retailer Wesfarmers over four years to support Indigenous employment in its businesses, including Coles, Target, Kmart and Bunnings.
The Brisbane Broncos were awarded $10m for a mentoring program and the establishment of a girls’ academy, while the North Queensland Cowboys received $2.7m for a boys’ academy.
At a Senate inquiry on Friday, current Indigenous affairs department representatives said that in 12 cases Scullion funded projects the department had advised against.
One of these, they said, had not been applied for through formal channels. A $300,000 funding application to the Alice Springs-based Red Tails AFL club, to help young Indigenous men in the region, was developed by the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) because “the minister indicated that was who he wanted to support for that activity”.
The NIAA secretary, Ray Griggs, told the senators it was possible for the minister to initiate grants.He could not say exactly how many grants were made by agencies, and how many were approaches to them by the minister, but Griggs suspected it was “an admixture”.
“We were not involved with the process in the minister’s office,” Griggs said.
Scullion also declined to support 28 projects that the NIAA recommended should be funded, including the now defunct National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, several school nutrition programs for Indigenous children in remote communities, and cadetships in the NSW Legal Aid Commission named for the late Indigenous judge Bob Bellear.
The Fortescue Metals CEO, Elizabeth Gaines, said the company had received various funding grants from prime minister and cabinet since 2006 to support employment.
“We applied for and received funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, as part of the Employment Parity Initiative, to support the ongoing employment, training and long-term career advancement of our Aboriginal team members with a focus on participants gaining high-value skills, building workplace and community leadership, as well as employee retention.”
The aim of the Employment Parity Initiative is to get 20,000 more Indigenous job seekers into jobs by 2020, Gaines said.
In 2018, Scullion came under fire for allocating Indigenous advancement funds to the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, the NT amateur fishing lobby group and the Northern Territory Seafood Council – an industry group he used to chair – so they could oppose Aboriginal land claims.
As minister he approved grants of $150,000 to the NTSC, $170,000 to the NT Amateur Fishermen’s Association, and $165,000 to the NT Cattlemen’s Association for “legal fees, effectively … to put forward a case of detriment to the land commissioner”.
Under the NT Land Rights Act, those who consider a land claim would have a negative impact on their business or personal interests can argue a “detriment” case about how their future access to income, land or water would suffer if the claim were approved.
The $4.9bn Indigenous advancement strategy was supposed to “improve the way the government does business with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to ensure funding actually achieves outcomes”, according to the government’s website.
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