September 6 was a significant day for Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation because we took back ownership of our head office on Dickward Drive. This achievement runs far deeper than bricks and mortar, it signifies a determination to succeed in the face of adversity for the future of Larrakia people.
To understand the full picture, we need to look back to 2016 when LNAC was under administration. Natalie Quall was working in aged care at the nation during these hard times, and said it was tough. “There was a lot of shame. It was a horrible time for staff and our families. It felt like everyone looked down at us ‘yeah that’d be right, you mob went into administration’”.
Dark times for LNAC
In 2016 Larrakia Nation was in financial ruin. Our reputation was in tatters, service delivery had become unreliable and there was fighting between members and staff.
“We had enough money in the bank account to pay the staff once. There was no extra money coming in and we couldn’t pay anyone again. People wouldn’t work with us. We had to make the very difficult decision go into voluntary administration” explained David Kurnoth who was working at LNAC in 2016 and now coordinates the Host program.
There was a willingness to keep us alive
“There were a lot of organisations that did help us when we went into administration”, said CEO Robert Cooper who was appointed as CEO by the administrator in January 2017. “NT Government, suppliers, the ATO, the Commonwealth Government and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) all supported the rescue of our corporation. There was a willingness to keep us alive”.
One of the most significant acts of support was when the ILSC offered to buy the LNAC headquarters property. “As a way of helping LNAC stay alive, and pay staff, ILSC bought the property and leased it back to us. The sale gave LNAC $800,000 which was enough working capital for us to get our heads back above water” said Robert.
New CEO, new board and new rules
As with all Aboriginal corporations under administration, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) required changes on how things were governed, the most significant being changes to the board. “ORIC wanted to get away from one family, one director to having six member directors and three independent directors all appointed on merit” said Robert.
Patricia Kurnoth was on the LNAC board during administration, and she said they were challenging times. “Some of us in the beginning didn’t like the change in the board where we had Larrakia members and independent members who had specific skills. None of us liked the thought of that and I was really stressed at that time. It has worked though”.
A time to change and rebuild
“Every one of our programs had issues before we went into administration” said David. “People were running the programs the way they wanted to run the programs, not according to what the KPIs were. We had extra staff we couldn’t account for. We had to sit down and restructure the whole organisation and make sure all the programs were working within their guidelines and budgets. Then we had to look at our direction and the direction we were going in. We had to restructure all that as well”.
Jeaneen McLennen was on the LNAC board during and after administration and said it was a time of intense judgement. “We had to prove ourselves not just to the community. We had to prove ourselves to the new incoming board, and we had to prove ourselves to the funding bodies”.
And while there are many who believe the legacy of judgement from being in administration will never fully be gone, there has been a fundamental shift in the role of LNAC in the community. In a short time, we’ve gone from being largely invisible, to obvious and strong and our COVID response was a true example of that.
Growing and leading
It’s been five years since those hard times, and while it was painful, it’s obvious going into administration in 2016 forced LNAC to mature. We had to rise to the challenge of leading service delivery and being the provider of choice not only for Larrakia people, but for all Aboriginal people in the Darwin region.
“Every program has growth in it now, and that is a big change” explained Natalie. “We are out in the community with pride. We have respect now. Finally. Which is good”.
Robert believes handing back of the headquarters demonstrates just how much LNAC has achieved. “We’ve continued to promote the organisation as being flexible, delivering a quality of service and being reliable. This has raised the LNAC profile and gave the ILSC confidence in us to bring the 10 year plan to redivest the property to LNAC forward by 5 years”.
Next steps for moving onward and upward
Jeaneen now works in the Host program and sees owning the headquarters will open up more possibilities for her people. “We’re growing so big, and we may get to the stage where we outgrow this space. Having this back in our hands gives us an opportunity to look at other options”.
For Patricia who runs the Tenancy Support Program, it brings her real hope “its like wow! I can drive past here and say, ‘that belongs to Larrakia people’. There was a time not that long ago when we couldn’t do that, and I felt defeated”.
Robert believes it not only demonstrates confidence from the Commonwealth agencies that fund Indigenous development, but more importantly paves the way for more Larrakia benefits. “This lays down a foundation for future generations of Larrakia people to eventually be able to reap benefits from LNAC outside of jobs. The end result is we are going to be able to invest in other ways in the future”.
Whatever your stance on the significance of the headquarters being owned by LNAC again, it is clear that so much has been learned since 2016, and LNAC is growing fast and growing stronger which is a good thing for Larrakia people.