The story of the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund, whose name and marketing led thousands of customers to believe it was owned and operated by Indigenous peoples, is a stark example of how Australia’s financial regulations have let Indigenous people down.
It took a royal finance commission to expose how the fund had exploited regulatory loopholes and the meaning of “Sorry businessin some Indigenous cultures to line the pockets of its non-Indigenous owners for three decades.
Those loopholes were finally closed in 2020 (the royal commission reported in 2019). The corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), then went to the Federal Court seeking a fine of A$7.5 million for deceptive and misleading conduct.
The fund, renamed Youpla, went bankrupt in March 2022, leaving thousands of families behind Sorry Business can’t pay.
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But it’s not just dodgy schemes that are sold “by the unscrupulous to the unsophisticated and vulnerable” (in the words by Commissioner Ken Hayne) that Indigenous peoples have had to deal with. The royal commission also exposed the difficulties many face just with the normal financial rules, especially when living in remote areas.
Consider something relatively simple: meeting identification requirements. Do you have a birth certificate, driver’s license or passport, no problem. But what if you don’t?
Like Nathan Boyle, a senior analyst at ASICs Indigenous outreach program explained to the royal commission, the legacy of government policy – particularly the removal of children – means that many births, deaths and marriages in remote communities may go unrecorded. Even if a person has ID, names on documents can differ – between their traditional “skin” or “kin” name, birth name, or adoptive name.
The Royal Commission reported problems rooted in a lack of cultural understanding and culturally appropriate communication. An example was the “unnecessary effort” a Northern Territory customer had to switch to a basic account, having to travel three hours to a bank branch in Katherine several times “to accomplish what should have been the simplest goal”.
Listening to customers
But not every royal commission story was bad. An example of good service was QSuper, the Queensland pension scheme, now part of the Australian Retirement Trust. In his testimony, Boyle praised QSuper senior executive Lyn Melcer as a “champion of Native pension issues”.
What was the key to QSuper’s approach? It is actually common sense. Melcer began listening to the stories of Indigenous customers and made sure others in the organization heard those stories too.
Melcer has been a veteran of the industry for 40 years.
In 2014, Boyle invited her, as QSuper’s head of technical services, which ensures organizational processes meet regulatory requirements, to join him on a visit to the Lockhart River in the far north of Queensland to hear what problems people faced when accessing their super.
Lockhart River is located approximately 2,500 km north of Brisbane, just 300 km from the tip of Cape York. This is Uutaalnganu country. The town’s 700 residents represent six local clans known as the Pama Malnkana (people of the beach), their ancestors gathered at the site of an Anglican church mission.
Boyle wanted Melcer to see and hear firsthand the difficulties people faced in accessing their retirement funds. For example, getting early access to super for medical reasons may require certificates from two independent medical experts – which Lockhart River does not have.
Hearing these stories first hand had a big impact, as Melcer later said told the royal commission: “I thought we treated all our customers equally because we had exactly the same rules for everyone. What Lockhart River showed me is that not everyone starts in the same place.
When he returned to QSuper’s Brisbane office, Melcer vowed to make sure the rest of the organization heard those stories too. She realized that reports on numbers would not be enough. “I never just talk about statistics,” she told us. “I talk about stories, the human side.”
Listen and act
We interviewed Melcer and 28 other people to understand how actively listening to customers changed QSuper’s culture and processes.
The fund began sending teams to remote communities – Thursday Island, Horn Island, Bamaga, Yarrabah, Darnley Island, Doomadgee – to help clients with their retirement problems.
These experiences helped raise awareness within the organization of all the ways the standard rules and regulations could penalize customers in remote areas.
“You have to spend time understanding the challenges our remote communities face when it comes to accessing basic services, like a phone, internet,” a call center leader (also indigenous) told me. “It’s so different.”
Since 2014, QSuper has developed more than 100 activities, such as cultural training. a Reconciliation action plan is made. Experiences have been shared at Indigenous finance summits and Australian tax office forums. The fund has worked with Indigenous financial advisors and has a “Big super day outin Cairns as part of NAIDOC week. It has contacted the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to resolve cases where documents required to access the pension cannot be found.
Melcer and her colleagues have also been working to change the rules on identification imposed by Australia’s financial crime regulator, AUSTRAC. This led to AUSTRAC changing its guidelines in 2016 to allow the use of non-conventional forms of identification, such as a referee’s statement or an Indigenous organization membership card. This has also benefited otherssuch as women fleeing domestic violence or women who have lost everything in a flood or fire.
Listening to people’s stories, not just treating them like numbers on a spreadsheet, may seem like common sense, but it’s not something the financial industry has done. Besides, neither do many others.
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The power of storytelling is something that lies at the heart of it all indigenous cultures. It’s how Indigenous Australians have passed their knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation for 60,000 years. It’s something we can all learn from.