More hide and seek with de Castella's marathon funding


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.
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.”


  1. Dear Erwin, Thank you for publishing facts that have remained hidden by the relevant authorities for years.
    I would also point out that the $80,000 I am seeking consists of remuneration that Deek denied getting from the government to pay me for my role as project coach.
    I worked 505 days being told we were on a “shoestring budget” with no money to pay me. I accepted that in good faith, because I loved working with the Aboriginal community in this project.
    It was only when Deek sacked me without pay in very sensitive and hurtful circumstances that I subsequently discovered the $80,000 under FOI from the Government.
    For five years Deek has successfully cast me as the villain to a Camberra tribunal, paying his legal costs from project grant funds, telling the tribunal he had an agreement with Health to do so. A secret audit report in 2012 now suggests that he did not have any such approval.
    But Deek persuaded the tribunal that the money he had to use for legal fees was money that would have gone to the athletes, and that I had deliberately “set out to undermine his work and the value of the Indigenous Marathon Project”.
    The Tribunal Senior Member subsequently awarded costs against me to Deek, who is now seeking $88,000 from the Supreme Court.
    The Tribunal Member is also a family friend of Deek and invited him and his family to catch up socially in Canberra during the hearing proceedings.
    The Senior Member also accepted Deek’s allegation that I am a racist.
    That is the most hurtful of all.
    Anyway, that’s life. Canberra loves Deek. I had no chance to get the truth out. Your courageous reporting helps me to sleep a bit better night.
    My family and I thank you, Erwin. From my heart. You are a good man.

  2. Erwin: Good on you for raising this. Based on what you are publishing it looks like another instance where funds are misused and where the intended recipients don’t get the benefit.
    The amounts for Mr de Castella and his companies are astonishing! It would be very interesting to see the argument on why it costs so much to organise training for the athletes.
    Maybe this should go out to tender?
    I would also suggest that John uses to make these things public.

  3. At the outset I must declare that I have healthy bias towards cycling.
    The following may sound like that I am blowing my own bags but that is certainly not my intention.
    Since 2003 I have been taking Indigenous youth down to Victoria each year in order to participate in the nine day Great Victorian Bike Ride.
    On average it attracts around 4500 participants. On a couple of occasions I have done it in conjunction with bush schools but for the majority of those years I have raised enough money to fund the whole trip for the kids on a private basis; not an easy gig but I usually get enough.
    It now costs around $1,500 for each rider and that is just for the airfare and ride fee. Other costs are also involved. Training and learning basic bike skills are part of the build up to the recreational event. The average ride each day at the event is about 80 kms.
    My main aim for doing the project each year is that something may rub off on the kids and that it may encourage them to maintain an ongoing connection with education. However, I can’t claim any firm data that my intentions have been fulfilled.
    What I do know though is that it is a worthwhile pursuit in that the kids do, in a sense, have to socialise with a whole lot of strangers. People love to engage with the kids. I firmly believe it is money well spent. I would dearly love to have just the tiniest fraction of money that Robert De Castella has access to.
    In my biased view I do contend that there is a far better chance of more beneficial outcomes happening with this recreational pursuit than with the marathon project.

  4. If anyone is seeking a character reference for Deeks, try contacting former seriously good Australian long jumper Gary Honey for comment.
    John Bell is a good man. Central Australia would be a much poorer place without the efforts of the likes of John and Tjilpi.

  5. Graham Tjilpi: Your efforts to assist Aboriginal kids with your cycling venture is quite remarkable. Your initiative deserves far greater publicity as a privately funded project on a shoestring budget.
    Deek also told me in 2009 and 2010 that his Indigenous Marathon Project was in a shoestring budget – but I now know the truth.
    In comparison, Deek’s Indigenous Marathon Project, which is based in Deek’s charity’s offices in Canberra, has been funded since 2009 to the tune of nearly $3m by the Commonwealth government and is publicly promoted by the Department of Health and politicians such as Opposition Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Leigh.
    With this level of support for a high profile public figure such as Deek in a project that offers the Big Apple as a most attractive prize for any young person, you are pedalling uphill in the bush to gain just recognition for a project whose similar objectives are just as worthy and with similar key performance indicators.
    As the New Year is about to dawn, I wish you all the very best in your project endeavour in 2017. It is a real pity that your initiative does not get a fraction of the publicity Down South in The Big Smoke that it deserves.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here