Brough the Builder


To the chagrin of some and the glee of others, talk of Mal Brough making a political comeback is news again. It’s been reported that Brough is set to use his hoped for QLD Liberals presidency as his "springboard" back into Federal politics.

But if that’s the case, is the former Minister for Indigenous Affairs going to come clean about his development interests in the Tiwi Islands?

In August 2007, after three years of negotiations and much pressure from Brough, the township of Nguiu, on Bathurst Island, signed Australia’s only 99-year lease with the Government. The agreement was controversial, with two court injunctions sought and dismissed in the months before the signing.

Tiwi Local Government president Lawrence Costa told the National Indigenous Times there was a lot of confusion around the signing, and that some traditional owners "thought they were signing to get a $50 ‘sitting fee’ for turning up to the meeting."

The final agreement offered some $6 million to Tiwi Islanders, $1 million of which was set aside for health initiatives. Conditions also included 25 new houses to be built in Nguiu, as well as upgrades to existing properties.

Brough has been hemming and hawing about his involvement in development on the Islands, at first telling The Australian that he could not reveal details about the work until agreements were made. "My partners will be public knowledge when we’ve got contracts. Our goal is that we set out as a group to secure 50 full-time jobs for Tiwi Islands people before January 1, 2009. Our job is to create 50 non-welfare-dependent, non-CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects] jobs for Tiwi Islander people by the year’s end." Eradicating CDEP has certainly gone some way to achieving that goal.

In February, Brian Clancy, a spokesperson for Tiwi Island Land Council told the ABC that Brough has flagged a proposal for housing developments on Bathurst Island.

Several calls to Tiwi Islands Local Government did not reveal any more information – no one knew anything about any new housing developments, or at least anything they were prepared to say. Land Council representatives were also unavailable for comment.

It appears the only housing developments on Bathurst Island are the 25 houses already being built. According to Guy Docker from Territory Housing’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, five of these are nearing completion, having been built by Bathurst Island Housing Association (BIHA), a local NGO with a commitment to employing island residents, presumably in a "non-welfare-dependant" manner.

Thirteen more houses have been contracted to Indigenous Business Australia, a Federal government agency fostering economic development. Construction contracts have already been finalised, with six of those houses to be built by BIHA and the other seven by a construction company called Murray River North.

This leaves 12 more houses, project managed by FaHCSIA, who have employed Darwin architects Jackman Gooden and will be tendering the construction contracts.

In addition, some of the new Federal housing money will be allocated to the Tiwi Islands. Two Tiwi Island communities, Milikapiti and Pirlangimpi, are in the list of 57 getting new houses, the Northern Territory Chief Minister announced on Saturday. Nguiu, where the 99-year lease holds, will not be allocated new houses, but it is among 16 communities receiving "major capital works". Details of those works are yet to be made available, but infrastructure will not begin until July.

In February Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma told Meet The Press there should be more scrutiny of Brough’s dealings in the Tiwis: "I think the question that I am surprised has not been asked is, is this a legitimate way to go forward?"

And Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin told Stateline recently that no Labor Minister would be allowed to negotiate the sort of deal her predecessor Mal Brough is involved with in the Tiwi Islands, but "as long as he does what everybody expects every businessman to do and plays by the rules, that’s his right."

Not if he re-enters politics, surely. But what kind of deal are we talking about? If Brough is, as he intimates, tendering for contracts to build houses on Bathurst Island, are they government contracts? And who is he going to employ in this innovative partnership other than locals who are already employed by BIHA?

Is Brough really "walking the walk" or is he dangling red herrings?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.