Former Alice Springs runner John Bell in front of his family home in Melbourne. He fears he may lose it in a court battle with Robert de Castella who, says Mr Bell, owes him $80,000 in connection with a marathon project for a small number of Indigenous youths which is costing the taxpayer millions.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Former Alice Springs sporting identity John Bell is making slow, painful but significant progress bringing to light facts about Robert de Castella’s Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP) which, at significant public expense, takes about six young people to the annual run in New York.
All the while Mr Bell, with a history as a top runner himself, is trying to get paid by Mr de Castella some $80,000 (owed by handshake) for setting up the project in Central Australia in 2009 and 2010.
Mr Bell says he may lose his house and all he owns to pay Mr de Castella’s costs and the costs of Mr de Castella’s charitable organisation SmartStart for Kids Limited if he loses the fight which is now in the courts.
Meanwhile very little has been revealed about the benefits of the multi-million dollar scheme, in documents many of which were heavily redacted, released to Mr Bell under Freedom of Information. However what is there is significant enough to raise serious questions.
In September 2012 a letter from Colleen Krestensen, Assistant Secretary, Department of Health and Ageing, to Mr de Castella referred to:–
• Unapproved subcontracting to related companies (SmartStart Australia Decorp Pty Ltd) “may not be appropriate” and adds cost.
• Use of project funds for purposes not sufficiently linked to the objectives of the project.
• Excessive management costs.
• Lack of clarity between what is funded through the Department funding, and what donated funds are used.
• Concerns that the organisation currently receiving funding does not in itself have the capacity of undertake the project.
• The expenditure in the project has not been consistent with the original proposal for the project, particularly in respect of management expenses.
• And there was a lack of key performance indicators, and specifically about the outcomes sought from the project.
The response from Mr de Castella in November 2012 to Ms Krestensen is long on rhetoric and short on detail.
At first a redacted copy was given to Mr Bell containing just one paragraph of the five pages which was meaningless in the absence of context.
In another letter to Ms Krestensen Mr de Castella admitted that public money had flowed to three entities in which he had a controlling interest and that more detailed audits were required and would be supplied.
But he insisted that the Indigenous Marathon Project has outstanding values for Aboriginal people, using the broad claims which have been the hallmark of the organisation: “The IMP … has already been able to make a significant difference to the lives of countless Indigenous Australians and the communities in which they live and raise awareness of issues affecting Indigenous Australians within the broader public.”
In the letter Mr de Castella made no effort to point out exactly what difference had been made, to how many Indigenous Australians, which communities had been affected and in what ways, nor what the claimed awareness raising had achieved, nor what would be the lasting, beneficial results from IMP.
According to information obtained by Mr Bell, when the department received Mr de Castella’s response, the secretary of the department, Jane Halton (she is now the Finance Department’s secretary) was told by Nathan Smyth, First Assistant Secretary, that it was “imperative to respond without further delay” to issues relating to Mr de Castella’s IMP as there were “a number of issues of concern”.
So, what happened to assuage the concerns articulated by Ms Krestensen and Mr Smyth is not known.
This is all a spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health said in reply to questions from the Alice Springs News Online: “The Department of Health has provided funding to the Indigenous Marathon Project since 2009.
“An internal review in 2012 identified some administrative issues which were resolved through engagement with the project.
“The Department continues to fund the project under the Indigenous Australians Health Program, and it continues to deliver good outcomes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
The department would not disclose how much public money in all had been spent on the project so far.
The tone of IMP announcements was familiar when it sent out a media release two weeks ago: “The achievements and success of the Indigenous Marathon Project’s graduates right across the country have provided the footprint of inspiration for 2016, with a record number of applications received for the 2016 squad.”
The size of that squad is not in the hundreds or thousands but it numbers 12 and only half of them will go to New York.
All that is costing the taxpayer a significant amount of money: For example, the Feds contributed almost $2m for just three funding agreements between 2009/10 to 2013/14.
Unsurprisingly Mr de Castella announced in his letter to Ms Krestensen: “We are absolutely committed to continuing with the project.”
Mr Bell has raised the question whether Mr de Castella is using public money for his legal expenses in his fight against him.
Mr Bell has compiled an astonishing list of expenses by Mr de Castella and the entities he controls or is a shareholder. Samples:–
• A personal fee of $2200 or $2000 a day for Mr de Castella to run training camps.
• $20,000 for a 10 day trip to New York.
• Management fees for de Castella’s company Smartstart Australia Pty Ltd: $107,965 for 2010/11 and $145,824 for 2011/12.
• Decorp Pty Ltd management fees 2010/11 $144,462 and $84,268 for 2011/12.
• RdeC (presumably meaning Robert de Castella) 6 days in Darwin and Kununurra $12,000, 2 days in Alice Springs $4000, 3 days City to Surf Sydney $6000, 4 day camp Alice Springs $8000, and so on.
• Mr de Castella received an “additional day rate” of $1000 a day for Gold Coast Camp (5 days).
The ongoing lack of clarity is the more surprising given that clear doubts were raised in 2013, as we reported.
Mr Snowdon, as the Minister for Indigenous Health, had then joined with Sport Minister Mark Arbib in 2010 praising IMP although the department’s Indigenous Sport and Recreation Program (ISRP) panel described the funding application as meeting ISRP objectives only to “a low degree” and “the project demonstrated limited and short term broader community engagement.
“The proposed budget demonstrated poor value for money by catering for an exclusive group in a high cost manner and therefore poses a financial risk. The high cost of travel is a prohibitor.
“As per the ISRP conditions, international travel and accommodation is not permitted to be funded.”
Six years later public money is still flowing to Mr de Castella with fundamental questions still begging for an answer.
We sent a draft of this report to Senator Nigel Scullion, Mr Snowdon and Mr De Castella.
We had earlier asked Senator Scullion and Mr Snowdon whether they still supported the project, and if so, why.
We received no replies from Mr Snowdon nor Mr de Castella. Senator Scullion advised that he is thinking about a reply.
UPDATE May 15:
A spokesman for Senator Scullion, when asked for comment, provided the following statement:–
“As per a long-standing convention, Senator Scullion will not comment on any matter that is before the courts.
“However, more broadly, he strongly believes taxpayer funding allocated to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should produce better outcomes for First Australians and that management and administrative costs should be minimised.
“These principles should apply to the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP) – as they should to any other project funded by the Commonwealth.
“The IMP receives funding from a number of sources and the main projects referred to in your article are funded by the Department of Health.”