Business of blood lines
There is pride in discovering an Aboriginal family background, but some people lie about it to gain undeserved benefits, reports Tony Koch

20th March 2006

IN the late 1990s when Pauline Hanson gathered tens of thousands of followers to her One Nation party, the "Aboriginal industry" became a prime target of her vitriol.

After her party imploded, an analyst invoked the term "downward envy" to describe many of the organisation's driving philosophies, explained as "the unhealthy desires of some people to ensure that anyone they deem to be lower on the social and economic scale than themselves stays there". And, for small-minded bigots, no easier targets for "downward envy" exist than Aboriginal people.

It was a national talking point in January when newly appointed Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough put forward one of his qualifying attributes to handle the portfolio as his Aboriginal heritage.

Five years ago world record-breaking Olympic swimmer Sam Riley and her mother, Lin, wrote a book The Life of Riley which told not only of Sam's incredible sporting achievements, but also the story of Lin's search for the mother she never knew because she had been adopted as a new-born baby.

Lin's search for her blood parents revealed that her grandmother -- Sam's great-grandmother -- was an Aboriginal woman called Zillah who married Thomas, an Irish shearers' cook at Nyngan in western NSW.

Lin tracked down her own mother, Ronnie, only to discover she had died three weeks earlier. She and Sam found out where she had lived until her death.

They tell the story in their book. "The suited driver in the white Mercedes is heading to the domestic airport with time to spare. His passenger requests, 'Drive me to Redfern, I have the street address here'.

"Arriving at their destination, the driver remarks, 'This isn't the best part of town, Sam. I'll come with you'.

"Sam replies, 'I'll be okay. Wait here, I'll be back soon'."

An older gentleman approached and Sam asked if he knew Ronnie, who had lived in the block of units. He said he did and he could take her upstairs to a woman named Pat, who had spent a lot of time with Ronnie.

She knocked on the door and Pat answered, saying, "Hello, aren't you Sam?".

"Sam smiles and nods and without hesitation in one breath fires off the beginning: 'My mother was adopted and I'm Ronnie's grand-daughter. We've just found out that Ronnie was my mum's mother and that's why I am here. Can you tell me anything about Ronnie."'

Thus emerged the story of the Riley family's direct blood links with Aboriginality -- a heritage that today the ever-smiling Sam embraces with genuine pride.

"It is just great to know our history goes back so far. We had always grown up thinking Mum was Italian. It was wonderful to find out it was really Aboriginal heritage," she says.

"My Mum is doing some more research on it and I will catch up on it too, Aboriginal history and culture. It's something I want to learn a lot more about."

But not all claims to Aboriginality are as pure and as free of ulterior motive as those of Riley and Brough.

In the days when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commission existed and squandered much its billion-dollar budget like a drunken sailor, Aboriginality to a scheming, dishonest person meant possible access to high-paying positions of authority in legal, housing, employment or native title organisations where accountability was often little more than a joke.

Aboriginal academic and co-chairwoman of Reconciliation Australia Jackie Huggins tells how people would contact ATSIC or Centrelink claiming they had discovered that a fictitious grandparent was Aboriginal.

"The calls would get to me and these people would ask what special benefits they were therefore entitled to claim," Huggins says.

"I would say: 'This is what you will get -- life expectancy of 20 years less than non-indigenous Australians, and if you are a woman, add three years; you will get sick and tired of going to funerals; probably get diabetes before age 40, and if not, kidney, heart or lung failure will kill you before you are 60'.

"Spiritually and culturally, there is a treasure trove of benefits.

"I am sick of people wrongly claiming that economic or special welfare benefits flow to Aboriginal people. It is just not true. I would recommend an ATSIC publication titled Matter of Fact which spells out the truth for all to see."

Her remarks are endorsed by Toowoomba-based Aboriginal academic and author Stephen Hagan who says the education support benefit Abstudy is identical to Austudy, and preference is no longer given to indigenous people seeking jobs or university placements.

"It wasn't always so," he says. "When I went to school on Abstudy, us black kids got $2 a week pocket money which white kids on Austudy didn't get. But now everything is means-tested for all applicants."

Hagan, a former diplomat, tells how 20 years ago Aboriginal members in the federal public service in Canberra kept a register of prominent people whom the Aboriginal grapevine claimed had indigenous heritage, but who chose not to publicise the fact.

"I hope it's been destroyed because it would be highly defamatory, but we used to keep it and add names to it back in the days when Charlie Perkins ran the Aboriginal development commission," he says.

"The truth in Australia today is, if you want to get on the subsidy gravy-train, become a farmer. They get massive diesel rebates, drought and flood assistance, grants when their particular industries are in tough trading times and, of course, they are protected against Aborigines gaining title to their land."

Hagan says the only fraudulent claimants to Aboriginality today who gain real benefit are some who produce "indigenous art".

"So many businesses just get some backpacker kids, put them in the back room with a book showing dot paintings, tell them to copy it, sign it as being genuine Aboriginal art, and sell it to unsuspecting tourists. They are the current ones ripping off the system big-time," he says.

Detailed information on Aboriginality was published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which found that for the period 1996 to 2001 the total Australian population increased 6 per cent, with people declaring themselves indigenous in the census (464,140) increasing by 16 per cent.

Of that 16 per cent, 12 per cent was attributed to a natural increase (births over deaths) with 4 per cent due to people's increasing propensity to identify themselves as indigenous.

On April 20, 1998, Federal Court Justice Merkel handed down a 120-page decision in Shaw and Another v Wolf and Others. A key element in that judgment establishing the status of Aboriginality was the declaration that to be Aboriginal one must, among other things, be descended from the inhabitants of Australia at the time immediately before European settlement.

The federal Government guidelines for applicants for Abstudy and other benefits state that an applicant must be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent' that some or all of the applicant's ancestors must be ATSI people, and that he or she identifies as an ATSI person and is recognised by his or her community as a person of ATSI descent.

The most celebrated case of disputed Aboriginality occurred in the Queensland sugar coast town of Bundaberg in 2000 when claims were made by one branch of the Appo family that more than 100 members of their family were of Sri Lankan descent not Aboriginal, and were wrongly receiving concessional loans and benefits said to total millions of dollars over three decades.

There were allegations of wrongly claimed business and legal assistance, and even other claims that some family members were selected in state and national indigenous sporting teams despite not having Aboriginal heritage.

The issue came to a head on July 21, 2000 when Allan Keith Appo, then 66, was charged in the Bundaberg magistrates court with possessing undersized and female mudcrabs.

In his defence Appo claimed that the Fisheries Act did not apply to him because he was Aboriginal and therefore he could fish without restriction.

However, Department of Primary Industries legal officers researched Appo's genealogy and presented generations of birth, death and marriage certificates showing his heritage was purely Sri Lankan.

Magistrate John Brennan found Appo was not Aboriginal and fined him $2300.

Ironically, Appo was represented by Townsville Aboriginal Legal Aid which also funded his appeal to the District Court -- where he lost again.

Appo, who has since died, said in an interview with me at the time that he had documented evidence from locals who swore he had Aboriginal blood.

"If this decision holds, my children and their children will be affected because they will not be eligible for Aboriginal programs," he lamented.

Spokesperson for the branch of the

Appo family opposing him, Julie Appo, said at the time that it was destructive to real Aboriginal people to see jobs and program concessions going to people not entitled to such claims.

"This deprives a genuine Aboriginal person of getting a job, position, a wage -- and thereby providing something for his children to aspire to," she said.

Earlier, in January 1995, another Appo family member from Bundaberg was also caught by fisheries inspectors with undersized and female crabs. He was charged and used the defence of Aboriginality, but was found guilty because birth certificates showed he did not have Aboriginal heritage.

He was fined $2700. Despite that conviction he continued to vote at ATSIC elections, claim Abstudy grants for his children and sell Aboriginal art.

He revealed his two brothers and a sister, his wife and his five children "all went through school on Abstudy".

At that time Aboriginal corporation administrator, Garry Hamilton, of the Brisbane legal firm Minter Ellison, stated that the incidence of non-eligible people claiming Aboriginality for financial benefits was "rampant".

He told how he had been appointed as administrator at Dalaipi Aboriginal corporation at Caboolture, north of Brisbane in the mid-1990s.

"The former administrator of this organisation just let anybody in," he said. "There was an incredible number of white Australians with no Aboriginal connections at all getting benefits. It was so bad I just had to close the place down."