Native title scheme plagued with problems

Date: August 31 2006
by Annabel Stafford

THERE is no way of telling whether a scheme meant to reduce litigation over native title claims is working, because the Government does not adequately measure how it is performing, an audit report has found.

The scheme is also at risk of being overspent because the Government is not properly keeping track of how much it is giving in grants and is not following regulations for government spending.

And mining and agricultural organisations — which receive grants to hold in trust for members who might need them — could be profiting from interest on those grants. That's because the Government hasn't got clear rules for how that interest can be used.

Under the Native Title Respondents Funding Scheme, pastoralists, miners and other parties can get legal aid to help them defend their land against native title claims. The scheme was meant to cut the number of court cases clogging the system by encouraging negotiation over litigation.

But the report by the Australian National Audit Office said the Attorney-General's Department, which administers the scheme, has not even found out whether grants have been spent on mediation or litigation.

The audit office also discovered what the ALP labelled "serious problems" in the financial management of the scheme. These included the department's failure to get authorisation before giving grants that entailed spending beyond the current financial year. This month, federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told The Australian Financial Review that he would change the scheme so that legal aid funding would be available only for mediation. The department has also stopped giving grants to peak organisations.

But a spokesman for Mr Ruddock said grant applications were assessed carefully and that about 99 per cent of grants went to mediation-related purposes. The spokesman denied that grants were not properly tracked and said interest funds were only used for activities related to native title.