THE FEDERAL Government has refused recommendations on native title representative bodies (NTRBs) that would oblige it to consider independent advice in some circumstances, alter eligibility for financial assistance and review the allocation of operational funding.
The Government issued its response last week to the Parliamentary Joint Committee (PJC) report on native title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land account on the operation of NTRBs, which was completed March 2006.
Of the 19 recommendations made by the PJC, two were not accepted by the Government, and one was not accepted at this stage.
Rejected by the Government was the recommendation that “the Commonwealth establish an independent advisory panel to advise the Minister on the re-recognition of NTRBs once their recognition period has expired”.
The Government said this recommendation would not assist the aim of current reforms, which is to improve efficiency. It also said it is not obliged to consider independent advice on NTRB recognition decisions, though proposed reforms would already compel the Minister to make these decisions more frequently.
According to the Government, the crucial issue for the Minister to consider is “whether an NTRB has satisfactorily performed and would be capable of satisfactorily performing NTRB functions”.
“OIPC (Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination) holds substantial amounts of information relevant to these criteria and its staff have practical experience in gauging whether they have been met.”
In regard to the 2006 amended guidelines of the financial assistance provisions of the Native Title Act 1993, the PJC requested that non-litigious resolutions to native title disputes be encouraged, along with making “eligibility for assistance … subject to means testing along similar lines to those applying for grants of legal aid”.
Although the Government also encouraged agreement making over litigation to resolve disputes, it did not accept the PJC proposal for means testing.
“At present an applicant’s financial circumstances are assessed when determining the reasonableness of making a grant of financial assistance,” the response said.
“Under the consultation draft guidelines, evaluation of financial circumstances would continue to apply where an individual applies for assistance and is not represented by a peak body. As a condition of a grant of financial assistance an applicant may also be required to make a contribution to the total matter costs.”
Publicly listed companies are regarded by the Government as having “sufficient financial resources not to receive assistance”.
Not accepted at this stage was a proposal by the PJC “that the Commonwealth immediately review the level of operational funding provided to NTRBs to ensure that they are adequately resourced and reasonably able to meet their performance standards and fulfil their statutory functions”.
The Government blamed insufficient capacity rather than funding on poor NTRB performances.
“The Australian Government considers that any deficiencies in performance result primarily from a lack of NTRB capacity, rather than a lack of funding,” it said.
“NTRB capacity is being specifically addressed through the Performance Enhancement Program (PEP) and by the current legislative reform proposals, which aim to achieve greater levels of NTRB accountability, responsiveness and efficiency.”