Australia

Landmark challenge to secrecy over native title payments

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Insiders familiar with Rangelea’s accounts estimate it received $40 million over time from US-owned uranium miner Heathgate Resources and its affiliate, Qasar, which mine on Adnyamathanha traditional lands in and around the Flinders Ranges. In 2020 alone, $4 million was paid into the trust.

Earlier this year, Mr Button appointed a special administrator, Peter McQuoid, to take over temporary management of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association which represents the native title-holders.

One of Mr McQuoid’s first actions was to ask the two mining companies to suspend royalty payments to Rangelea until the question of native titleholders’ right to access the financial records was settled.

Rangelea went to the SA Supreme Court to have that suspension overturned.

In a cross claim, Mr McQuoid is seeking a ruling that Rangelea must open its books to a court-ordered inspector.

The regulator has grown increasingly concerned about the phenomenon of native title monies being channelled through opaque trustees, where there is no transparency or clear external oversight of how monies are being used and distributed.

In his strongest comments to date, Mr Button said: “I’ve seen too many cases where a trustee is failing the beneficiaries, through incompetence or shallow care and diligence — and information is invariably in short supply.

“Conservative analysis of native title benefits estimates around $20 billion has flowed through a range of mining and other agreements. But there is no consistency in reporting on trust fund performance to traditional owners.”

He said the mining industry would be “keenly” watching the case unfold. “For decades, they have pledged to look after the traditional owners of the country whose land they so highly value. I’d like to see them not just pledge but action greater transparency,” he said.

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“I also expect the legal representatives of prescribed bodies corporate and native title representative bodies who undertake the work to establish these trust arrangements will also be interested to see judgment passed on what’s reasonable and fair for traditional owners.”

The case moves to its next phase in the South Australian Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Rangelea’s solicitors did not respond before deadline to requests for comment.

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