The Guardian May 3, 2000


Registrar sticks the boot in

Small Aboriginal Corporations in remote parts of the Northern Territory 
are facing liquidation and families fear losing control of their land 
because of heavy-handed bureaucratic tactics.

Excessive, inflexible and drastic is how the Central and Northern Land 
Councils view the current behaviour of the Commonwealth Registrar of 
Aboriginal Corporations.

The Registrar, Noureddine Bouhafs, is applying the full weight of 
legislation  that normally targets multinational companies  to wind up 
hundreds of Aboriginal organisations that haven't filed formal documents 
for three years.

And in his net he is catching small, remote bodies that do not have any 
financial dealings and often exist only to hold title to land for families 
who just want to live on their traditional country.

He is required to act in a culturally appropriate manner. But the 
Registrar's actions ignore the fact that many people affected by his 
bureaucratic behaviour do not read English, don't have the money to pay for 
professional help, and often don't learn of his actions in court until it 
is too late.

This is causing extreme anguish. Many who had to fight for their small 
pieces of land fear they may lose them.

Two reports in recent years have identified problems in this area  one 
pointing to the need to simplify and improve the legislation and the other 
severely criticising the Registrar's dealings with Aboriginal 
organisations.

But the registrar and Senator John Herron, the Minister for Aboriginal 
Affairs who is responsible, have not heeded these reports, have not 
listened to the Land Councils' concerns and have not called a halt to this 
action.

Four corporations in the Northern Land Council (NLC) region with the sole 
purpose of holding title of land are facing liquidation, and at least the 
same number in the Central Land Council (CLC) region are in the same 
position.

"In the past, the Registrar has exempted corporations from the need to file 
annual returns  but is now going for the sledgehammer approach, said NLC 
Chief Executive Officer Norman Fry.

"The Minister should direct the Registrar to stop these liquidations 
immediately, and meet with ATSIC and the Land Councils to deal with this 
issue sensibly. As the registrar, it is his job to help these people comply 
with the administrative requirements  not to punish them.

CLC Director David Ross said that people who were on the community living 
areas had waited for years to obtain title to these tiny parcels of land.

"What was intended to be beneficial legislation has been turned around and 
used against the people it was intended to help, he said.

"Many of these people cannot read but receive these complex, legal letters 
which, naturally, they can't understand.

One liquidated Aboriginal community development corporation in the CLC 
region had two houses as its main assets, which the members lived in. The 
liquidator wanted to travel to the community, demolish the houses, sell the 
material and remove any other property.

In another case, an Aboriginal corporation was established solely to enable 
six women to hold a small sub-lease on a pastoral lease. It had not 
complied with the requirement of the Act for several years. Four of the 
women are very old, one is virtually blind and none can read or sign her 
own name except by making a mark.

When the CLC was informed of the Registrar's intention to wind up the 
corporation, it had to arrange for the women to travel to the nearest 
community to get their affairs in order.

The Registrar's lawyer's demand that $2,500 be paid in costs was 
subsequently waived by the Registrar and the wind-up application withdrawn. 
However, the cost of this process to the CLC and the taxpayer was 
considerable.

"This is a case of a sad and twisted bureaucracy, Mr Ross said.

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Acknowledgments: Land Rights News

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