Two members of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council have denied their government positions had an influence on decisions for their organisation to receive government funding.
The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) was one of the 964 organisations across the country that successfully applied for government funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS). The Government announced the results of the IAS funding round earlier this month.
The chairman of the handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, is also the chair of the AIEF. Fellow council member Andrew Penfold is Executive Director of the AIEF.
According to its last annual report, the AIEF has already “raised a cumulative total of $85 million” in funding. The Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that helps more than 500 Indigenous children each year to finish Year 12 through scholarships and mentoring.
Most of the secondary school and tertiary scholarships on offer are to elite boarding schools and institutions including Presbyterian Ladies' College in Perth, Cranbrook School in Sydney and Ipswich Grammar School in Brisbane. It claimed it has a success rate of 93 per cent, well above the national rate of Year 12 attainment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
When asked by NITV News if he could see a potential conflict of interest, Mr Mundine said he understood people's concerns.
"There's no doubt about that and I don't shy away from the fact that I do chair that organisation [AIEF] but if people are making the comment that that's why it was funded, then they're barking up the wrong tree."
Mr Mundine said the Council had no role in determining which organisations were awarded the $860 million in funding.
"I was never involved in the funding approach nor was I involved when the decision was made at the end of the day. In fact, I'm still in the dark about that,"
"I was never involved in the funding approach nor was I involved when the decision was made at the end of the day. In fact, I'm still in the dark about that," he said.
"I've always made my declarations and I've always made sure that everyone around that table also made the declarations and weren’t pushing their own wheelbarrow."
According to communiques released on the Federal Government's own Indigenous Advisory Council website, the IAS was discussed at two meetings.
In May last year, just after the Federal Budget was released, the Council welcomed the IAS.
"We are encouraged by the design of the strategy and will continue to provide advice to the Government on its implementation," it said in an official communique.
In an August communique, the Council "noted the progress on implementing" the IAS.
The Indigenous Affairs Department, which was rolled into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet when Tony Abbott came to power in 2013, said the Indigenous Advisory Council did not select funding recipients.
"Discussion at Council meetings on the Indigenous Advancement Strategy has been at a high level and did not go to the funding of individual services," it said in a statement.
"A number of members including Mr Mundine and Mr Penfold declared a potential conflict of interest at the start of all the meetings at which the IAS was discussed. However as discussion remained at a high level, no actual conflict arose."
Advisory council member Andrew Penfold said he could perform both his duties in the government and at the AIEF without a conflict of interest.
"I can confirm that both AIEF and I, personally, have complied with all requirements in full," Andrew Penfold said in a statement given to NITV News.
Despite having close to $100 million in funding, major partners such as Qantas, Commonwealth Bank, the AFL, and healthy media coverage in The Australian newspaper, the AIEF said it deserved more funding.
"Given that AIEF has the highest rate of retention and Year 12 completion in the country; that we have more than doubled our government funding with funding from the private sector; and that we have the lowest costs of any similar organisation that we are aware of, we think the argument for additional government funding is clear," Mr Penfold said.
He said the AIEF was not given special treatment prior to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy grant round. "There has been no additional government funding for AIEF since the Abbott government took office."
Public pressure mounts on Indigenous Affairs Department
The Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion released a list of the names of every organisation that will share more than $860 million dollars in funding in this grants round. It comes after weeks of controversy surrounding IAS with many organisations telling NITV News that the outcome was confusing, laborious and unfair.
The alphabetical list of successful organisations has angered the Labor Party. It said it gives no further details or peace of mind to the Indigenous sector.
Under the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines, the Federal Government must provide details of IAS funding given to individual organisations within 14 working days of the agreement taking effect.
The Guidelines state the Government should:
- establish procedures for officials and potential grant recipients to declare their interests;
- develop procedures to manage potential conflicts of interest in all phases of grant administration;
- maintain a register of staff interests; and
- ensure that grant guidelines clearly outline what constitutes a conflict of interest.
There will be a Senate inquiry into the IAS later this year after submissions to the inquiry close at the end of April. The wide-ranging inquiry will quiz the government about how many Indigenous organisations were successful, the application process and the effects on frontline services.
The Labor Party said there were legitimate questions to be asked about potential conflicts of interest between successful organisations and the Federal Government.
Indigenous Affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann said the buck would stop with Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and the Prime Minister.
“The IAC is the creature of the government, established by the government to report to the Prime Minister. So the Prime Minister and the [Indigenous Affairs] minister have questions to answer.
“It’s up the Government to explain why it’s made these decisions and for whose benefit.”