Registrar's response to ABC TV's Four Corners

On Monday, 14 October 2013 the ABC TV’s Four Corners is airing a story about the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation in Katherine, Northern Territory. The story questions the capacity of the Registrar’s office to effectively regulate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations.

On Tuesday, 8 October 2013, as part of the research for this story, Four Corners put a number of written questions to the Registrar. The Registrar was also invited to be interviewed on camera for the story but declined.

The Registrar’s response follows below.

Questions from ABC TV’s Four Corners

  • Why did it take ORIC three months to approach Jawoyn Association after allegations of corruption and the misappropriation of funds surfaced?
  • Why did ORIC decide not to question the financial staff at Jawoyn Association, who allege board members misused member funds?
  • Why did ORIC decide that no further investigation at Jawoyn Association was required into allegations of corruption and the misappropriation of funds?
  • Why did it take ORIC three years to appoint a special administrator to the Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation (The Katherine Language Centre) after claims of fraud and corruption?
  • Why did ORIC recommend governance training as the solution to allegations of fraud and corruption at the Katherine Language Centre, rather than place the Centre under special administration in 2009?
  • Do you believe ORIC is adequately resourced and funded to satisfactorily investigate misappropriation in Indigenous corporations?
  • It is a repeated concern in the organisations that Four Corners spoke to, who have complained to ORIC, including both at the Jawoyn Association and the Katherine Language Centre, that ORIC’s intervention was too little, too late. What is your response to this?

Response from the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations

The role of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations was first established in 1977 by the Commonwealth Parliament. The Registrar now administers the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act) and regulates the 2526 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations registered under the CATSI Act.

The statutory aims of the Registrar are ‘to facilitate and improve the effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability and accountability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations’, while having ‘regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition and circumstances’—section 658-5 of the CATSI Act.

The Registrar, Anthony Beven, is appointed by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. The Registrar’s office is funded through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and is well funded to deliver the statutory functions and aims of the CATSI Act.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations

There are many inspiring stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations making significant improvements for their communities and people, often in difficult circumstances. These do not often get the attention they rightly deserve.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations are predominately not for profit. They provide a range of vital services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, including native title representation, holding and managing native title interests, health services, remote stores, art centres, culture and heritage management, local government services and employment, aged care and education programs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations play an important role in the Australian economy. In 2011–12 the top 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations generated a combined income of $1.61 billion (an average income of $3.22 million), held a combined value of $1.84 billion in assets and employed 11 242 people.

Improving corporate governance

Since the appointment of the current Registrar, in October 2007, improving the corporate governance and accountability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations has been a key priority. With the vast majority of corporations wanting to do the right thing the Registrar seeks to build the capacity of corporations to address problems internally. This is often achieved through providing training, advice, dispute resolution or assistance in a range of other areas.

However the Registrar has a number of regulatory and enforcement powers under the CATSI Act to intervene in the affairs of a corporation as a last resort. What powers the Registrar exercises and when, will depend on the circumstances of each case and the evidence available. The Registrar’s policy statements (available at www.oric.gov.au) provide guidance on how and when the Registrar may use his powers.

In July 2008 the Registrar established an investigations and prosecutions capability to address cases of serious misconduct. In the past three years the Registrar has undertaken more criminal and civil litigation to address poor corporate governance and breaches of duty than in the previous 33 years combined. This strong regulatory approach combined with quality support and capacity building services has led to significant improvements in corporate governance within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporate sector.

Specific investigations

The Registrar does not comment on specific investigations except to publicly report outcomes through media releases. In relation to the specific written questions raised by ABC TV’s Four Corners with the Registrar on 8 October 2013 the Registrar does not accept the premise of the statements made in those questions.

The Registrar endeavours to deal with any concerns in a timely manner and any intervention or enforcement action has always been in accordance with the requirements of the CATSI Act and the public policies of the Registrar.

Anthony Beven
Registrar of Indigenous Corporations
10 October 2013