Indigeous Land Corporation (ILC) gets bigger while First Nations people suffer

The ILC say they are offering employment and training opportunities, but there are meagre training outcomes with manipulated figures - bringing huge profits to the government agency and leaving First Nation communities worse off.

A community council sent a letter to the ILC saying that their children were 'happy' to go to ILC training programs but on return they are broken and feeling worthless.

The men from Mataranka - Picture taken at Hodgson Downs Station in the Northern Territory
(Pic: Pack Saddling Australia)

By Mick Estens, Katherine, NT

Indigeous Land Corporation (ILC) Incompetence

It was with interest that John Pilger mentioned the price of staying a night at Ayres Rock Resort then moved onto the community next to it, Mutitjulu, in his film Utopia. With the ILC posting a $120 million write off at their owned and run resort I thought straight away, how far have the ILC come off the rails. Imagine what the 320 million dollar purchase price could have done for, not only Mutitjulu, but communities around Australia. Now with the write off of 120 million more, one has to wonder if the ILC are capable of handling tax payers money.

More importantly I have two questions, can the ILC do any real good for First Nations people, and not just themselves? ... and after 19 years why isn't the ILC fully staffed by First Nations people, including management?

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In the comedy series Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty is often heard to lament that he would be able to run a marvelous hotel if it wasn't for his customers. The ILC don't suffer from this delusion as their customers are First Nations people and the ILC run most of their management positions with European staff.

Training - NOT

The ILC organisation has a poor track record in regards to retaining skilled staff, which has even been raised in Senate enquiries. Sitting here writing this in the heat of Katherine NT I cannot think of one First Nations person trained by the ILC from Stockman to Management roles. The ILC haven't trained any First Nations helicopter pilots or full time cattle pregnancy testers and currently all contract mustering teams hired in Western Australia and Northern Territory are outsiders.

On top of this, all contract fencers are of European origin and recently a First Nations transport operator in Katherine couldn't even get work from the ILC, instead, the work went to a non-Indigenous owned company.

When I contacted Gary Cook, Agriculture manager of the ILC about this, I was told in writing "it has absolutely nothing to do with him ..."

ILC History

The Indigenous Land Corporation was established by the Keating government in 1995 as a way of redressing the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples. It was part of the Social Justice strategy - the end result of a long struggle by Traditional Owners and First Nations leaders who had the vision and determination to press onward for land justice. In effect, the position that the current ILC Chairperson now holds was established as a result of the efforts of those same people who are now watching their communities being strangled and dismembered under the changes wrought by mean-spirited policy implementation over the past years. It is the sons and grandsons of these same people who the ILC now pull the wool over the eyes of.

Warrigundu Station (Hodgson Downs)

Hodgson Downs is owned by the Alawa clan who live at Minyerri NT and the ILC took a lease for them 8 years ago and was supposed to have the station set up to be operated by Alawa people within a 10 year period. It's now two years from handover and there are no Alawa Aboriginal people in power on their own lands, only European managers and assistant managers, boreman etc handpicked by the ILC. The ILC set up a Cattle Council made of Alawa people, but seldom acts on their recommendations. For four years the ILC has promised to take the cattle council to Mistake Creek Station to view a successfully managed First Nations Station, but it's all just 'lip service' as the ILC will not give up Hodgson Downs station, and it will end up operating on the same lines as the Roebuck Plains Station in West Kimberley, a property officially owned by First Nations people but totally controlled by the ILC.

Hodgson Downs Station. View of homestead in 2008
(Pic: Northern Territory Library)

A long time respected cattleman Ned McCord called the ILC a 'lost cause'. The Alawa people have been set up for failure by the organisation that was set up to help them establish an enterprise which would create appropriate jobs and foster self-determination.

ILC Training Outcomes

There is a major difference between mainstream employment and employment in enterprises operated by the ILC. The businesses that the ILC operates, produce figures of how many First Nations people they employ but they manipulate these figures over more that one financial year and they are double dipping on their own very poor results.

Jason 'froggy' wunta
Warrigundu Station 2011
(Pic: Photo: Eleanor Ainge Roy - SMH)

The ILC's poor and deceptive training results are nothing new and last year one boy stayed as a trainee on Hodgson Downs but for some reason the ILC still 'pass' all listed. The Ngukurr Council sent a letter to the ILC saying "our children go to ILC to be trained happy and come back broken and feeling worthless" signed by 10 T/Os.

The ILC may be offering well-intentioned employment and training opportunities, but people know that the profits of their labor will not be shared by their communities, but instead by Federal government agencies. Moreover, First Nations communities are required to endure years of failed representations that their community leaders have made to the ILC for a more just and equitable sharing of the businesses and land that was purchased or leased on their behalf. Only just recently did the ILC run governance training at Hodgson Downs despite the fact they have been dealing with T/O's there for 8 years.

It is interesting to examine the legal basis of the ILC. Its legislation specifically requires it to pursue policies that:

  • Assist Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders to acquire land; and to
  • Assist Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders to manage First Nations held land
  • So as to provide economic, environmental, social and cultural benefits for Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders. (ATSIC Act 1989 Section 191b)
  • Acquiring interests in land and granting the interests to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Corporations (ATSIC Act 1989 Section 191d(3a)
  • Making grant of that land "within a reasonable time after that acquisition" (Section 191D4)

A First Nations stockman mustering cattle on Gunbalanya Station, Northern Territory.
(Pic: ABC Rural)

The ILC seems to have significantly departed from these legislative parameters. It is currently holding and operating several pastoral leases in the top end region including some many thousands of head of cattle. They have held these leases for years, with scant regard for the traditional owners groups for whom they were purchased and little likelihood of divestment in the near future.

Indeed, the ILC seems more intent on building itself a successful corporate pastoral empire across the north of Australia rather than acting as a statutory authority concerned with redressing the impacts of dispossession on the First Nations people of this country.

Before the rot set in

It has often excluded traditional owner groups from participation in the management of these properties and no serious effort to establish training and employment programs to build the management skills of members of the proponent groups has been made. For example, a national Extension, Education and Training Strategy for Aboriginal landholders set up by the ILC has been abandoned. The ILC 'train' Aboriginal stockman to ride a horse, pick up rubbish, mow a lawn but never let any progress from there, and after the ILC being around for 19 years, the majority of employees at all levels should be First Nations people, but the critical question is, where are the First Nations trainee managers that should have been working alongside the European managers on these properties for the past 19 years? The ILC has simply sat on its hands. The one First Nation man they did start to train for management at Myroodah has left and now runs a 'camp' at Mistake Creek Station.

Employees in any vocation do not enjoy working just to make their employers rich and respond to incentives as a disgruntled and resentful workforce is a liability.

If you want people to work for you, then there must be trust, respect, and incentives to work beyond "available jobs". The ILC treat their First Nations workforce no better than the European structure of long ago. They even deal out what Aboriginal people called "munanga juga" (white man sugar) giving corn beef and favors to leaders they can sway opinion on and never really take an interest in First Nations culture, lore or family.

ILC's vision is not the vision of the people

It is clear that the ILC's vision and that of First Nations people are poles apart. In recent years the ILC has made much of receiving awards for it pastoral management strategies. It pushed ahead with these strategies despite them not having the support of First Nations representative bodies, who warned that the strategies were neither sustainable nor useful. It is now blowing up in their faces. If the outcomes of these "highly awarded" strategies are so effective, why are First Nations people not finding them attractive? Because the basic principles of community development were ignored. The ILC simply does not listen. Several Aboriginal owned cattle stations around Fitzroy Crossing leased their land to the Australian Agriculture Company over the ILC and, just now, 10 other Aboriginal stations have leased their land to the Chinese as a better deal can be sought there than involving ILC.

Senior Lawman John Watson, West Kimberley, Western Australia
(Pic: Colin - The Australian)

Senior lawman, John Watson, a leader on one of these stations said of the ILC "... the ILC, today one of the most benignly regarded, least scrutinised bodies operating in the Aboriginal domain. They keep saying we own all these pastoral stations, but the reality is we are being cut out of the entire decision-making. ILC is under government control, not Aboriginal control, and they were set up to suit the government's interests. On paper we might be the owners of these stations but they are all under ILC control and they run the stations to suit themselves."

A culture of control at the expense of First Nations empowerment and development seems to have developed at the Board and senior management level of the ILC. While denying support for traditional owner groups and insisting that they repay the ILC for cattle purchased with properties it acquires, the ILC has accumulated massive funds. In this operating environment, it seems clear that the real measure of ILC's success, that of addressing the dispossession of First Nations peoples and assisting them to generate a range of social, economic, cultural and environment benefits – is not being achieved in any effective way.

A chasm of distrust has developed amongst the many Aboriginal communities and organisations that have dealings with the ILC. The ILC has no businesses retaining and profiting from properties that were acquired for Traditional Owners. Is it any wonder that no-one wants to work for them, as is evident by the large amounts of First Nations owned Stations being leased to anyone but the ILC.

Mick EstensMick Estens, The writer of this article, declares an impartiality conflict of interest as he has had direct involvement in the matters he has written about. He was an ILC employee from January 30, 2012 to January 16, 2013.

Mick Estens - 0428936305