EXCLUSIVE: A remote Aboriginal community in WA’s Kimberley says it was left without food in the wet season when its only store was closed in a dispute with community development provider Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation.
Winun Ngari is headed by Susan Murphy, a member of Malcolm Turnbull’s Indigenous Advisory Council.
The CEO of Imintji Aboriginal Corporation, one of 15 member communities listed on Winun Ngari’s website, said on one occasion he was forced to ask WA’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority for emergency food — a request he said was declined because the 70-member community wasn’t totally cut off by a natural disaster.
John Bennett said: “During the wet season the community can be cut off from Derby and that’s their livelihood, their means of getting tucker, fuel.
“We had people going two or three days without food – that’s how bad it got.”
Mr Bennett said he was saddened by events that unfolded in the state’s north-west and led to the Imintji community banning Ms Murphy from their land in August 2014.
He was one of several people — among them WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle — who has called for an independent inquiry into Winun Ngari and the way federal funds are spent across communities in the region.
Mr Bennett said he would also welcome the chance to talk to federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion about the issues.
Ms Murphy declined an interview with NIT, but in an email directed this publication to a statement made by Mr Scullion that states Ms Murphy has his full support as a member of the Indigenous Advisory Council.
Mr Scullion said Ms Murphy brought a wealth of experience to the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council through her role as CEO of Winun Nigari, particularly around the challenges of delivering education and employment services in remote areas.
Mr Bennett said the relationship between the community and Winun Ngari, for whom he had previously worked, deteriorated after Ms Murphy took the helm in late 2013.
He said the community was now going it alone without the help of Winun Ngari.
The only store has reopened and a new $1.3 million campground enterprise is underway with the aid of Tourism WA.
Mr Bennett said the community had to overcome a series of obstacles when it stood its ground against Winun Ngari over ownership of the Imintji general store in 2014.
“That’s where a lot of the problems arose,” Mr Bennett said. “When she came onto the scene Winun Ngari actually had a management agreement between Imintji and our store.
“When she stepped in she was basically saying she owned the building, the land, and was going to take it off us.
“Imintji Aboriginal Corporation had to get their own lawyers in contact with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and all that and prove to her that she didn’t own that.
“It came to a point where we just actually had to boot her out.”
Mr Bennett said the community didn’t have a general store for a year until it could get together the funds to reopen it last year.
He said Winun Ngari also suddenly pulled the plug on the community’s phone and internet services — which the community has since reinstated.
Mr Bennett said he met with a representative of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Perth to discuss the issues the community was having, but was told to lodge a complaint with Winun Ngari.
Senator Sterle told NIT this week he supported calls for an inquiry into the governance and management of Winun Ngari.
“I think there should be an inquiry,” he said.
“There is a lot of chatter up there on the Gibb River Road.”
Senator Sterle said he would be heading back to the region in June and planned to meet with communities.
He said he also had matters to raise with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC).
As reported exclusively by NIT, ORIC issued a compliance notice against Winun Ngari for a string of governance breaches including credit card irregularities, unreconciled bank accounts and poor record-keeping.
In a written statement released by Mr Turnbull’s office, a federal government spokesperson told NIT it was aware of the notice.
“The Registrar conducts random examinations of up to 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations each year, the majority of which lead to a compliance notice being issued to the relevant corporation,” the statement said.
“Compliance notices provide guidance or requirements for corporations about how to improve their standards of corporate governance and financial management.”
In his statement, Mr Scullion said there was nothing extraordinary in the compliance notice and the matters raised in it were not serious.
““The Registrar of Indigenous Corporations has issued a compliance notice regarding the Winun Ngari,” he said.
“There is nothing extraordinary about this compliance notice and as the Registrar has made clear, none of these matters are unusual or serious.”
He said some of the reporting around the issue reflected “a poor understanding about the reasons for compliance notices being issued”.
Winun Ngari is the biggest community development provider for remote Aboriginal communities in the West Kimberley and received $4.16 million in government grants in 2016.
It lists its principal activity as providing corporate support, governance and training to community members to help build prosperous communities.