THE newly-registered native title claimant to most of the Hunter Region has demanded answers from the NSW government after nearly $300,000 of a controversial mining trust fund for Aborigines was granted to a government department in December.
The Plains Clans of the Wonnaruah People has asked the government to explain how the grant was approved and announced on December 11, after it received a copy of the Upper Hunter Aboriginal Heritage Trust Fund deed on Friday within hours of being registered as Hunter native title claimant.
The 2001 deed revealed the Office of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was granted trust funds in apparent contradiction to a clause stating the fund was ‘‘for the benefit of Aboriginal communities being able to demonstrate a significant cultural connection to the Upper Hunter Valley region’’.
The grant was approved nearly a year after the Newcastle Herald revealed only two projects in 12 years had been funded, and NSW Parliament was told the trust held about $1 million.
‘‘Why has so much money been hidden? Why was a government department able to stick its hands into the pot when Aboriginal groups have been complaining for some time about the lack of accountability of a trust that’s supposed to be compensation for the loss of our cultural heritage because of mining?’’ Wonnaruah People spokesman Scott Franks said.
‘‘Decisions have been made for us, about us, and that has to stop. That money has to be returned, because the Wonnaruah People are the ones who have been able to demonstrate a significant cultural connection to the Upper Hunter Valley.
‘‘We want a full account of what’s in the fund, where the money’s gone, and who made the decisions.’’
In a media release on December 11 NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister Victor Dominello said the $298,000 grant from the trust fund would allow the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to establish a register of Aboriginal owners for the Upper Hunter.
In an email to Mr Franks on December 19 the Department of Planning, which administers the trust fund, conceded the grant had gone to a government agency, but it was ‘‘considered reasonable’’ to use trust funds because the Office of the Registrar was not funded for the project.
Mr Franks has sent a series of ‘‘please explain’’ emails and letters to government ministers, departments and agencies about significant failures to honour terms of the deed, including having Hunter Aboriginal representatives on an advisory committee, and regular reports on the fund.
NSW Greens heritage spokesman David Shoebridge has criticised the NSW Public Trustee’s oversight of the fund, and called for an urgent review of expenditure and ‘‘the appropriateness of $298,000 to the Registrar in light of the terms of the deed and the purposes of the trust’’.
Mr Shoebridge also sought a review of the ‘‘absence of consultation with Aboriginal people’’, and changes ‘‘to ensure that Aboriginal people, and not government departments, are the beneficiaries of the trust’s assets’’.
There was no need for a register of Aboriginal owners after the National Native Title Tribunal decision on Friday, he said.
The Herald did not receive responses to questions sent to Mr Dominello, Planning Minister Pru Goward, and the Office of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.