THE long-term future of the old Newcastle Post Office is again in doubt after its owner, the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council, was placed into administration by the Baird government.
The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Leslie Williams swung the axe on Monday, sacking the board and appointing an administrator amid claims the Council had committed “substantial breaches” of the Land Rights Act.
The decision comes almost a year after the government announced a broad-brush investigation “into all of the affairs” of the Council.
“I considered representations from the Awabakal Land Council on the contents of an investigation report into its affairs and have formed the view that a period of administration is necessary to restore proper governance to the Land Council,” Ms Williams said in a statement.
“That includes addressing numerous substantial breaches of compliance with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.”
The decision immediately raises questions about the future of the Council’s significant land assets, most notably the post office, as well as its outstanding land claim over the King Edward Park Headland.
However a spokeswoman for Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair said the latter would not be affected.
The Council was laying low on Monday – chairman Theresa Towers and acting chief executive Sophie Wotherspoon ignored requests for comment – but the Newcastle Herald understands the ousted board held an emergency meeting.
The decision puts into further doubt the Council’s ambitious $30 million plan to develop 450 new housing sites.
The Herald understands the plan – which was being driven by board member and former deputy chairman Richard Green with Advantage Property Experts Syndications, a Sydney company led by Rockdale man Hussein Faraj – would involve seeking favourable rezoning of land council land in Warners Bay in exchange for handing back the former post office to the state government.
Mr Faraj told the Herald on Monday he was “in the dark” about what was happening with the land council.
“I wish we knew, I heard about it today too and honestly had no idea,” he said.
“We’ve struggled to get any [information] out of them for some time now, it’s frustrating.”
Mr Faraj said that he understood that members of the land council were in talks with other development companies over the same land in Warners Bay, including the privately owned residential development company Dyldam.
However a spokeswoman for Dyldam said on Monday that the company “has not undertaken any discussions with the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council with regards to potential development projects”.
Richard Green, the former deputy chair of the land council, said he was travelling on Monday and had not spoken to the administrator.
In any case the decision to place the Council in the hands of administration is yet another set-back in the long-running saga of the old post office building.
Andrew Fletcher from the Property Council told ABC Radio on Monday that the concern was “how much time is that going to add to the process” of refurbishing the building.
“I think it's important to recognise the Local Aboriginal Land Council had signaled their intention to seek a joint venture partner,” he said.
“I don’t think there would be anything to prevent an administrator going down that path.
“The administrator’s role is to keep business operating while other matters are put in order [so] continuing down the joint vent path is probably more likely than selling the asset.”
Malcolm Davis, the Acting Chief Executive of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, said it was a “disappointing” day for the Land Council and the local community.
“The NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) will work with the administrator to ensure Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council is in a stronger position and meet the future needs of members and local Aboriginal people,” he said.