A new investment body will empower Indigenous people to make decisions on how Federal grants under the Aboriginals Benefit Account will be used, according to the Northern Land Council.

The Federal Government passed a major package of reforms in December last year to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

The centrepiece of the reform was the creation of a new body called the Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation, which is set to receive $680 million over three years once it commences operations.

Five years in the making, the move signals a major change for Indigenous Territorians, who for the decades have had grant distribution under the ABA determined by the Federal Government.

To date, the government has taken advice from Federal bureaucrats and a committee of 14 Aboriginal representatives appointed by the four land councils in the Aboriginals Benefit Account Advisory Committee.

This has led to several flashpoints, most famously in 2007 when then-Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough was accused of using the fund to award a grant in his own electorate in Queensland.

NT Aboriginal Investment Corporation Interim co-chairs Samuel Bush-Blanasi and Barbara Shaw. Picture: NLC

NLC chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said the land councils had been pushing to gain control of the fund since a meeting in 2016.

“At Kalkaringi in 2016 we passed a resolution calling on the Government for Aboriginal Control over the ABA,” he said.

“We said we would work with the Government on the design of a new model.”

Several meetings later and under the watch of current Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt, a new bill to transfer control of the ABA was introduced the parliament.

“Lots of people opposed us. But they did not stop us,” Mr Bush-Blanasi said.

When the bill passed I said this was a proud day for the Northern Land Council and for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.”

The Northern Territory Aboriginal Investment Corporation has a board controlled by Aboriginal people. It has 12 directors with eight nominated by the four land councils – two from each land council.

The Northern Land Council is represented by Mr Bush-Blanasi and deputy chairman Richard ‘Dickie’ Dickson.

The Federal Government has also appointed two directors – Justin Ryan and Suzanne Hullick.

“Mrs Hullick and Mr Ryan each bring substantial and varied experience in corporate leadership, investment and financial management that will support strategic investment in Aboriginal communities,” Mr Wyatt said.

“Along with their strong land management and commercial expertise, the members appointed by the land councils will bring deep cultural authority to the board, which will be invaluable to its decision making.”

Two more independent directors must be appointed by the interim board to make the full Board of 12.

Participants at the NT Aboriginal Investment Corporation meeting in Darwin in April. Picture: Northern Land Council.

Following the appointment of the two government-appointed directors, the interim board met for the first time in Darwin on April 27-28, 2022.

The remaining directors are from Tiwi Land Council – Gibson Farmer Illortamini and Leslie Tungatalum, from Anindilyakwa Land Council – Thomas Amagula and Bradley Bara, and from Central Land Council – and Barbara Shaw and Derek Walker.

Ms Shaw, who was appointed interim co-chair of the Board alongside Mr Bush Blanasi, said the new corporation would make investments to generate returns and create sustainability.

The NTAIC will receive grant funding of $180 million over the first three years of operation.

Once it has developed and tabled a strategic investment plan, the NTAIC will receive an endowment of $500 million.

The board will appoint an investment committee to give advice on major investments, an audit and risk committee and a committee to consider grants.

Once the new corporation commences, the ABA advisory committee will be dissolved.

The interim board will work with the existing ABA advisory committee to maximise opportunities for a new, accessible, efficient and culturally appropriate beneficial payments program.

Advisory arrangements following commencement of the corporation will be a matter for the NTAIC board. The NTAIC board may also choose a new name for the corporation.

The chief executives of the four NT land councils are entitled, under the Land Rights Act, to attend board meetings as observers.

“This is an exciting time for Aboriginal Territorians,” NLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said.

“When it commences operations, this new corporation will be a game changer.

“It can invest in major projects, make loans and enter into joint ventures with private sector partners.”

It is expected the new corporation will start operating in the second half of this year, or by the end of the year at the latest.

  • This article has been supported by the Northern Land Council