When mining companies in the Upper Hunter have enormous developments approved they are required to put money into a trust for local Aboriginal communities. Unfortunately it seems that the trust fund has been handing out money to mining industry bodies, rather than the local Aboriginal community.

As reported by the ABC:

A New South Wales Government body is under scrutiny amid claims it failed to distribute trust money to local Indigenous projects in the Upper Hunter and instead gave it to a mining industry body.

Key points:

  • Trust set up so that mining companies pay $50k for each new development
  • Funds to go to Aboriginal groups with connection to Upper Hunter
  • $300k given to ARG, a company endorsed by chief mining lobby group
  • Aboriginal Land Council chief says ARG has little affiliation with Indigenous communities

In 2001, the former Labor government set up the Upper Hunter Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Trust to give back to the Aboriginal communities who have a cultural connection to the area.

Each time a mine was given development consent, the mining company in question paid $50,000 into the fund.

Upper Hunter Native Title claimant Scott Franks said he believed the money was to be used exclusively to safeguard Indigenous sites and fund local projects.

“My understanding was people from that area were able to make submissions to the trust to get funding for development of work skills, projects and a few other things,” he said.

However, $300,000 was awarded from the trust to the Mudgee-based Aboriginal Resource Group (ARG), which is endorsed by the chief lobby group for the mining industry, the Minerals Council.

On its website, the ARG — registered in 2013 — is described as “the broker for sharing commercial opportunities between resource companies to create and build on a relationship of Indigenous participation in employment and support enterprise pursuits that add value”.

ARG founder Cory Robertson said the money it was awarded was being spent on appropriate programs in the Upper Hunter region.

“Our project has to deliver programs to 90 Aboriginal high school students per year over two years,” he said.

“Over the last 10 months of our first year we have delivered our programs to 105 Indigenous high school students.”

However, Wanaruah Local Aboriginal Land Council chief executive Noel Downs, who is an advisor to the trust, said ARG had little affiliation with the Upper Hunter Indigenous communities.

“The company that’s been granted funds for skills training is not a local organisation,” he said.

“We believe they’ve visited our land council once, but nothing, no more communication.”

ARG application similar to mining industry

Mr Downs said ARG’s application was very similar to an application which had previously been proposed by the Mineral Council.

In April 2014, the green light was given for the Minerals Council to be granted $300,000 for an Aboriginal employment and enterprise development program.

While the application enjoyed some early support, it was withdrawn six months after its approval.

Minutes from the Mineral Council’s meeting on October 21 noted: “[The Minerals Council] were concerned about the perception of the trust granting funds back to the mining industry.”

“All agreed that the ARG application is very similar in its purpose and outcomes to the NSW Minerals Council project application,” the minutes read.

Mr Downs said: “Clearly they felt that something was wrong and that it was going to look really really bad for them otherwise they wouldn’t have given the money back.”

The Minerals Council later went on to support the $300,000 going to the Aboriginal Resource Group.

The ABC tried to contact the NSW Planning Minister, but he was unavailable.

However, the Minister’s office said the NSW Minerals Council withdrew their funding application so no funding was granted to the organisation.

Funding also awarded to controversial bureaucracy

Greens MP David Shoebridge has been highly critical of the Council’s conduct.

“It’s insulting enough to have the destruction of their heritage and culture happening on a grand scale,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“But then a few crumbs that fall from the table are gathered away by bureaucrats and people outside the community, it’s disgraceful.”

In 2014, the Office of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was granted $298,000 from the trust’s funds to allow it to establish a register of Aboriginal people from the Upper Hunter.

Mr Downs said there was an office already set up to do the same work.

“The Federal Government funds Native Title services to do exactly that,” he said.

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes’ office said Mr Downs was incorrect.

“The Office of the Registrar was funded to conduct a research project that would provide Upper Hunter Aboriginal people with recognition of their cultural association with the land, through registration as an Aboriginal owner under the State’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act,” he said.

“Registration as an Aboriginal owner under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act is a separate and different process than occurs under Commonwealth Native Title legislation.”

Trust’s processes questioned

Now, the Upper Hunter Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Trust is also being questioned about how it makes decisions.

Run by a management team and an advisory group, the trust deed states the role of the advisory group is “to provide specialist advice on projects submitted to the management team”.

Mr Downs said that had not happened since 2008.

“Every six to 12 or 18 months I’ll send an email to the planning department asking when the advisory committee is going to meet,” he said.

“If I’m lucky they will say ‘I’m not sure yet but we’ll get back to you’.”

Registered Native Title claimant Mr Franks applied for funds from the trust, but he was left concerned about where the money was going.

“My concern is the trust and the way its been managed,” he told the ABC.

“There are no checks and balances in place.”

The Greens has warned that it will take the matter further if the Government does not investigate.