More needs to be done to First Nations people in remote areas from being fleeced by expensive funeral plans

February 06, 2020

THE SENATE BILLS Financial Sector Reform (Hayne Royal Commission Response—Protecting Consumers (2019 Measures)) Bill 2019 - Second Reading SPEECH

Labor is supporting this bill, as previous speakers have detailed, but there are valid concerns about the implications for thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have signed up for funeral cover under the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund. I'd like to bring this to the attention of the Senate because I think, Minister, it's enormously important that these stories of First Nations people are heard here and placed on the record. Certainly, in terms of my constituents in the Northern Territory and, indeed, right across Australia, I would like to see a profound effort to look at the concerns that I'm going to raise in my speech.

Schedule 2 of this legislation extends consumer protection provisions of the ASIC Act 2001 to cover funeral insurance policies. The interim report of the Hayne royal commission identified a number of issues with funeral insurance—in particular, the sale of funeral insurance products to First Nations people. Recommendation 4.2 from the royal commission interim report proposed removing the exemptions for funeral expenses policies. It says the law should be amended to remove the exclusion of funeral expenses policies from the definition of 'financial product' and put, beyond doubt, that the consumer protection provisions of the ASIC Act apply to funeral expenses policies. There is a history of vulnerable people being targeted and exploited by dodgy selling practices when it comes to funeral expenses policies.

I will digress a bit to give you an example from across the Northern Territory. We have over 200 remote communities, and our death rates are so enormously high. We're obviously going to hear more about that next week from the Prime Minister and the opposition leader to the parliament in the Closethe gap report. In terms of funerals, in lots of communities—we have over 100 Aboriginal languages—there is sorry business at some place, or more than one place, across the Northern Territory every week. Sorry business is where someone has passed away or where those who are sick, usually on renal dialysis or with other health complications, choose to go back home because they want to be on country. The costs involved in holding funerals in these places across remote regions of Australia are enormously high, like in the protection of the body in a morgue. A lot of the morgues are not in these communities, therefore places like Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin and Nhulunbuy become the focus. Places in Arnhem Land that cannot hold bodies have to work out places in the wet season to fly their loved ones in. The cost, just of burial, is extremely high in those remote places.

The Hayne royal commission heard some disturbing and, quite frankly, sickening examples of how First Nations people have been targeted by companies, with some having what can only be described as dodgy selling practices. I would go so far to say it's worse than dodgy. It is certainly about greed. It is certainly about an uncaring position towards those who are enormously vulnerable in Australia.

It must be remembered that First Nations people have lower life expectancy, higher morbidity rates and a high risk of life-threatening illness. We spend a lot of time at funerals. I'm constantly involved with families and constituents across the Northern Territory with some aspect of sorry business. Just over the Christmas and New Year break we were remembering a number of family members for people in Arnhem Land, in Gulf Country and also in the Wadeye region, the west of the Territory. Too much time and too much money from the First Nations community is spent in the death industry. It's something this Senate could actually have a really good look at.

I mentioned the cost of having funerals, but there are other additional costs that come in when relocating loved ones from the hospitals or morgues in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Nhulunbuy. There are questions of costs, like: will they fly their loved ones or will they come by road? What about in the wet season when some of those roads are cut? Then we have issues with particular places like Borroloola, where my family come from. For the other communities that do have morgues, when the power goes down—when technology goes down due to flooding or any other circumstances—there is a roll-on effect on the cost. And then there is the emotional wellbeing cost to families in how to deal with the loss of a loved one.

If I can just reflect on my clan system with the Yanyuwa Garrwa people: when someone passes away a couple of things come into place. The first thing is the respect of that person who's died. We can't say their name. In my language we call that person 'mudinyi'. 'Mudinyi' means that person has passed away and we can't say their name anymore. We follow that respect right up to the burial of the person.

For many families, the burial of a person can take up to three months, before they can actually have the funeral. So, the sorry-business period is from the immediate moment that a loved one dies to when the loved one is buried. If, financially, people have been unable to afford the cost of a funeral, afford the cost of transporting a body by plane or by vehicle, then to also have to pay the cost of a coffin—all these things are considered in that period of sorry-business mourning.

Sometimes in Arnhem Land that can blow out to six months. If you talk to some of the hospitals in the Northern Territory, they will tell you that they've had bodies in there for many, many months. This is unfortunately the reality of First Nations people, particularly in the Northern Territory, and I'm absolutely certain that it's replicated in Far North Queensland and certainly in the far west of Western Australia, and possibly across the country. Again, the Senate needs to be able to examine just what is going on in this space of sorry business and death.

The Hayne royal commission clearly outlined and made some very real comments about the efficacy—or lack of efficacy—of the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund, and I do want to speak very clearly about that, and the absolute need for the government to make sure that the people who have invested in that scheme, and we know that there are thousands of those people, are not disenfranchised because of the passing of this bill and the potential for organisations to fall over. My colleagues in the other place have written to the minister drawing his attention to the 19,000 people who have invested in the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund over many years. They invested in good faith and should not be left out of pocket, disadvantaged because of this legislation.

I would also say that more needs to be done to prevent all Australians and in particular First Nations people in remote areas from being fleeced by very, very expensive funeral plans. I believe we need to look at the overall expenses and the profits being made by the industry that surrounds death. People should not be exploited at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.