My decisions were supported: McPherson

In Australian Cultural Exports, Australian Domestic Tourism, Government, Harmonisation, Media and Communications, Momentum, National Headlines, Northern Territory

From 11th December 2013

No board member voted against purchase of Ayers Rock Resort: Shirley McPherson

THE former chair of the Indigenous Land Corporation has written to the Senate to defend herself and the decision to buy the Ayers Rock Resort, arguing that the new chief executive had effectively used parliamentary privilege to defame her and had mischaracterised her communications with two Labor cabinet ministers at the time the deal was done.

Shirley McPherson’s response comes after Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion took the unprecedented step of writing to the chair of a Senate committee to complain about ILC chief executive Mike Dillon and demand he apologise for savaging the actions of Ms McPherson as “paltry” and “pathetic”.

These are the first public comments by Ms McPherson since the ILC overhauled the board that runs the resort and wrote down the book value of the landmark Northern Territory hotel by $62 million, admitting the complex faced serious financial challenges.

During a fiery exchange in a Senate estimates hearing last month, Mr Dillon, once an adviser to former indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, launched a scathing attack on Ms McPherson over her response to warnings from the previous Labor government against investing $317 million in the Ayers Rock Resort in 2010.

“If I can summarise her response: it was desultory, paltry, I’d liken it to as paltry as a bandicoot’s breakfast, it was pathetic,” he said.

Ms McPherson said she wanted the Senate committee to release the “entirety of the correspondence between the ministers and the ILC”, which would “speak for itself” about the purchase of the resort”.

“I refute the factual account of Mr Dillon and consider his intemperate description of my correspondence gratuitously offensive,” she said.

Ms McPherson also damned the federal government, saying the decision to buy the resort would be “inexplicable to certain members of a federal bureaucracy culturally enmeshed in the ideology of welfare dependency as the primary tool of indigenous assistance”.

“My board in 2010 was determined to look beyond the welfare cycle to make a bold commercial decision to generate real income and employment paths for indigenous Australians in a real commercial environment,” Ms McPherson wrote.

“Regrettably this vision was not shared by some of minister Macklin’s advisers and indeed was inexplicable to them.

“To many others, including ministers (Martin) Ferguson and (Mark) Arbib, and the tourism industry and most importantly, to the Anangu traditional owners and wider indigenous community, the decision was seen as a bold innovative game-changer to break the welfare cycle and put indigenous people in sustainable jobs and on sound career paths at one of the world’s great tourist icons.

“On balance, I am confident this narrative is the one that is correct and will prevail over the longer term.”

She wrote that Ms Macklin and former finance minister Penny Wong received considered answers to each of their letters about the proposed purchase of the resort and each issue raised in them. “To suggest that at any time in my long career, I would write to a minister of the crown in terms that were desultory, paltry or pathetic is both ill-informed and highly offensive,” she said.

She said she considered Mr Dillon’s analysis misrepresented the situation by implying the magnitude of reported statutory losses reflected the operating performance of the company, “an exercise more directed to securing a headline than explaining a fair statement of the financial position”.

She said robust due diligence was undertaken, including a full valuation.

“Mr Dillon’s evidence is highly selective and gives a misleading impression,” she said.

She said that during the seven-month period between the signing of the contract and settlement, and despite Mr Dillon’s evidence, not once in her meetings with Ms Macklin, nor at any other time, did the minister state she did not wish the ILC to buy the resort.

Ms McPherson said the vote of the board was five in favour of the purchase and two abstentions. “No board member voted against the purchase, contrary to statements in the media by Mr Ian Trust, then a board member, and now deputy chair of the ILC,” she said.

“If Mr Dillon, who was not present at any such deliberations, now has evidence to the contrary he should present it to the committee, or withdraw what I consider a baseless and misleading allegation.”

Ms McPherson described as “puzzling” the recent sacking of the board that runs the resort. “While it is entirely a matter for the current ILC board whom it wishes to be on the Voyages board, one must be concerned about what motivated these removals,” she said.

Mr Dillon, an adviser to Ms Macklin at the time of the sale, said both the former indigenous affairs minister and Senator Wong wrote “separately and strongly worded letters expressing reservations and concerns about the purchase” to the board of the ILC in October 2010 before the deal was clinched.

Mr Dillon also wrote to the committee refusing to apologise to Ms McPherson. He is backed by current chair, Dawn Casey, who says she is satisfied by the written response of Mr Dillon and does not believe he should apologise.

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