Nigel Scullion gave Indigenous funding to his former fishing lobby group to fight land claims

Exclusive: Minister approved grant of $150,000 from Indigenous advancement strategy to NT Seafood Council – an industry group he once chaired

The Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, has used money earmarked for alleviating Indigenous disadvantage to fund a fishing industry lobby group he used to chair.

He approved a grant of $150,000 to the Northern Territory Seafood Council so it could argue how it would be negatively affected by land claims – claims he opposed during his time in the role.

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.

A group of six land claims in the NT have been held up – some by almost 30 years – by unresolved detriment issues.

Scullion chaired the NTSC from 1994 to 2001, and gave statements or appeared in person to argue detriment in at least two of the 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”, as he told a Senate hearing last week.

The money was taken from the $4.9bn Indigenous advancement strategy, which is 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.

Parties who wish to lodge detriment claims are able to seek financial support from the Attorney General’s Department.

Scullion told Guardian Australia the funding provided to the pastoral and fishing organisations could also be used “to develop education resources and training materials on Aboriginal land and sea country in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal land rights history and legislation as well as to assist these organisations in representing their members in relation to Aboriginal land claims in the Northern Territory”.

His evidence on behalf of the NTSC was a matter of public record, he said.

When Scullion was chair, the NTSC argued that commercial fishing interests could suffer if rights to intertidal areas – colloquially called “beds and banks” – were granted to traditional owners.

In the McArthur River claim in 2001, Scullion gave evidence that sustainable fishing could be affected if the land claim were approved and access to the beds and banks closed.

“Mr Scullion’s statement and evidence deal in detail with the organisation of the fishing industry in the Northern Territory and in particular with the licensing requirements,” the former Aboriginal land commissioner Justice Howard Olney wrote at the time.

“Licence holders are entitled to operate across the whole designated area of a particular fishery in the Northern Territory. It is said that this has the effect of balancing out the effort so that no particular region receives an unsustainable level of effort.

“It follows that if any particular region of a fishery is closed, that will have the effect of increasing the effort in other regions.”

In the 2001 Maria Island claim, the NTSC ran a similar argument. Olney said: “It may be difficult for those parties to reach a mutually acceptable accord.”

Last July Scullion asked the current land commissioner, John Mansfield, to look into how to resolve the outstanding detriment issues.

Mansfield’s review is not due until December but Scullion approved the funds to the industry groups in May.

The NTSC confirmed its grant had been approved.

“We are seeking to work directly with the relevant land councils and communities to achieve long-term solutions as soon as practicable,” said its chief executive, Katherine Winchester.

Under the land rights act, the Minister for Indigenous affairs decides whether to recommend to the governor general to grant all or part of the land under claim.

On Wednesday a spokesman from Scullion’s office said the grants had been provided “in full accordance with the Indigenous advancement strategy guidelines”.

“The minister has listened to the calls from communities to resolve these outstanding land claims,” he said.

“The Coalition committed to resolving outstanding land claims and provided funding to a range of stakeholders to make this happen, something that Labor never has.”


Lorena Allam

The GuardianTramp

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