‘We weren’t worthy’: Aboriginal elders group refused funding by Nigel Scullion four times

Group denied funding against advice of Indigenous affairs minister’s own department and is struggling to stay open

An Aboriginal elders group in Tasmania is “struggling to keep the doors open”, after being refused funding by former Indigenous affair minister Nigel Scullion four times, despite his own department recommending that they be supported.

Scullion, who retired from politics at the 2019 federal election, had final say over spending from the $4.5bn Indigenous advancement strategy, which was established in 2014 to “ensure funding achieves outcomes”.

In the six weeks leading up to the election, Scullion committed more than $560m in grants, including $4m to Fortescue mining and more than $15m to retailer Wesfarmers to support Indigenous employment, and $10m to the Brisbane Broncos for a mentoring program and girls’ academy.

In 28 cases, Scullion refused projects his department recommended he support, including the Aboriginal elders council of Tasmania.

The council was set up in 1994 and has 70 members, including some of the state’s most respected senior artists and cultural heritage leaders. It provides support to elders, including meals and transport and plays an important cultural role, chairman Clyde Mansell told Guardian Australia.

“The elders council of Tasmania is crucial to the community in making sure elders maintain their role, making sure culture is handed down,” Mansell said. “We have got very close to having to close our doors because we don’t have funding to keep the organisation alive and healthy.”

Mansell said the council applied four times for funding, in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and worked with state-based representatives of the Indigenous affairs department to develop their proposals.

“It was all done right, according to the grant guidelines. We never got any feedback on why he refused,” Mansell said. “For some reason we weren’t worthy but we were never told why.”

A grant application lodged in July 2018 was refused seven months later, Mansell said.

“It’s totally disappointing. It just shows there was no real consideration, and this has been happening for years with Aboriginal money.”

The council put in an application for $149,000 in November last year, but has yet to hear of its status.

In 12 cases, Scullion funded projects his department had advised against.

One that had not been applied for through formal channels was a $500,000 grant to the Alice Springs-based Red Tails AFL club’s “Right Tracks” program to help Indigenous youth.

Departmental officials have said Scullion told them to make a funding offer to the club in the lead up to the last federal election. Country Liberal Party (CLP) candidate for Lingiari at the last federal election, Jacinta Price also promised to fund the club as part of her election campaign.

Price announced that the CLP would give the “Right Tracks” program $500,000 and took out an ad in the Centralian Advocate on 15 March, announcing the CLP was supporting an “elite sports development centre for Redtails, Pinktails and Right Tracks program”.

“As a former Pinktails player myself, and as someone who has championed this program for the support it needs, the fact it brings wonderful social benefits to our community, I’m proud to announce we are providing $500,000 for the Right Tracks program,” Price said at the time.

Red Tails football club president, Rob Clarke confirmed a $500,000 grant was approved in April last year but so far $132,000 has been delivered.

Clarke said the club applied for IAS funding in 2014 but were knocked back.

“We had about five meetings set up with Nigel Scullion, and they never came about, over about a five year period.”

They tried again in 2016, but Clarke said he didn’t finish the application form.

“I thought, what’s the point?”

The Red Tails team only allows players to join if they are in employment, undertaking training or engaging in other pathways through the “Right Tracks” program.

“Our club is unique. We are making a difference to peoples lives. The program engages people who want to be here. They join the program, they become fitter, stronger, they become people with a different mindset. It’s giving them an opportunity to think differently and be around different experiences,” he said.

Clarke said he is a volunteer, giving 35 hours a week of his time, “but the outcomes are unbelievable”.

“For a million dollars, we could engage between 4,000-5,000 young people in our region, young people who are at real risk of prison, drugs, mental health issues, alcohol.

“We are as grass roots as you can possibly be, but we are bridging the gap. That’s exactly what we are doing. We are changing lives.

“We were not asking for a lot of funds, but we wanted consistent funding.”


Lorena Allam

The GuardianTramp

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