‘Concerning’ NT land council referred to integrity body

Neve Brissenden |

Groote Eylandt residents have petitioned parliament to stage an inquiry into its land council.
Groote Eylandt residents have petitioned parliament to stage an inquiry into its land council.

A Northern Territory land council has been referred to a federal integrity unit after allegations of royalty misuse and misconduct.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney has referred the Anindlyakwa Land Council on Groote Eylandt to the National Indigenous Australians Agency integrity body, which has the power to refer to enforcement agencies.

“I expect strong governance and accountability from all land councils,” she said in a statement late on Friday.

“I have asked NIAA’s integrity group to examine these concerning reports and take appropriate action, including investigation or referral to relevant Commonwealth and Territory agencies.”

An Australian National Audit Office report released in May 2023 found 50 per cent of the 2021/22 mining royalties paid to Anindlyakwa Land Council were invested into Winchelsea Mining, directed by the council’s chair and CEO.

A petition from the Anindilyakwa people and traditional owners of Groote Eylandt was tabled in parliament in February, signed by 235 residents, almost 16 per cent of the island’s 1400 Indigenous adult population.

“We the Anindilyakwa people and traditional owners and extended families of the Groote Archipelago ask for clarity into the findings of the auditor general report,” the petition reads.

“Members of the ALC executive and board of directors may not have acted in their employed and elected roles in good faith for the governance of the people of the Groote Archipelago.

“We call for an independent investigation into potential gross misconduct of terms of employment of the ALC executive and elected positions of the board of directors, in order to restore good faith in the ALC’s ability to govern the people of the Groote Archipelago in their best interests and without prejudice.”

The audit found risks of conflict of interest were high as Winchelsea is co-directed by ALC CEO Mark Hewitt and Chair Tony Wurramarrba.

The 2023 audit also found the council finance committee approved 99 per cent of the funding requests from Mr Hewitt, compared with 53 per cent of other requests.

“The (audit) observed disproportionate benefit to the entities with which the CEO is associated,” the report reads.

Groote-based Aboriginal corporations do not have the opportunity to present funding applications in person, the report found.

The Centre for Public Integrity’s Geoffrey Watson said the findings of the audit must be referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

“To see that land council royalties have been misused in the way identified by the audit is heartbreaking,” he told AAP.

“The conflict of interest is not going to be managed if the people are still in those positions, and the same exorbitant funds are being paid to corporate entities associated with people closely connected with the management of the land council.”

Anindilyakwa Land Council CEO Mark Hewitt.
Mark Hewitt is CEO of the Anindilyakwa Land Council. (Neve Brissenden/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Hewitt fronted a senate estimates hearing on February 16 and said since the audit, the council had adopted 10 of the report’s 15 recommendations.

He said he was not the owner of the Winchelsea Mine, though is listed as director, secretary and chief executive, while shareholding is split between Anindilyakwa Advancement Aboriginal Corporation and a Chinese mining company.

Mr Hewitt’s wife is also the land council’s major investment and development co-ordinator, chief operations officer of Groote Holdings Aboriginal Corporation, and chief executive assistant of Winchelsea.

The land council’s own internal audit committee, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the recommendations, was also found to have conflicts of interest.

Mr Hewitt said the council was working to ensure the council audit committee chair was independent and undertaking all mandatory functions.

The ALC audit committee chair is the founder of Enmark Consulting, to which the council paid $896,056 in consultancy fees between 2014/15 and 2021/22.

The committee charter requires each member to provide annual declarations of “any material or personal interests that would preclude them from being members”.

The chair and other members have never made a declaration.

Ms Burney said she has asked the ALC for regular updates about the implementation of the national audit office recommendations.