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ABC News
ABC News
regional social affairs reporter Erin Parke

Customers of failed funeral insurer ACBF/Youpla plead with government for compensation

Vennessa Poelina is seeking compensation for her losses. (ABC News: Erin Parke)

It has been a year since Vennessa Poelina lost $20,000, and she isn't mincing words.

"The system is broken," she said.

"It feels very hard to get justice and get the wheels turning — but we are determined."

The Broome resident has packed her bags and flown 3,000 kilometres to chilly Canberra to make a case for compensation.

For years, she and thousands of other Australians carefully set aside money to the insurer they knew as the Aboriginal Community Benefits Fund.

It wasn't easy.

"Me and my daughters have made a great life for ourselves, but back then the money each week was a lot," Ms Poelina.

"I was raising the three girls on my own, and sometimes we'd go out at high tide and forage for food, but I always made that funeral payment a priority."

Then in March 2022 she found out it was all for nothing.

An advertisement for one of the ACBF funeral funds published in the Koori Mail in 2015. (Supplied: Koori Mail)

The company was bust. The money was gone.

Twelve months on, the shock has worn off but the anger is still fresh.

Moral obligation

Ms Poelina is part of a delegation of lawyers, consumer advocates and Aboriginal community leaders who have travelled to Canberra to try to get the matter resolved.

They're trying to convince the government to allocate compensation in the 2023 federal budget.

Representatives of the campaign are meeting with ministers Linda Burney and Stephen Jones this week. (Supplied: Financial Rights Legal Centre)

The precise numbers are still being calculated, but it's estimated a total of 30,000 Australians could have lost as much as $300 million.

There is no legal obligation for the federal government to cover the costs.

But lawyer and Dunghutti man Mark Holden said there was a moral responsibility for the government to stump up.

"It is a considerable amount, but we really have to look at the previous federal government's involvement going all the way back to 2001," he said.

"When they authorised this company to use Centrepay, it gave them some sort of recognition, and gave them a shot in the arm to sign people up en masse.

"So this mess wouldn't be so big if it weren't for the government giving that endorsement.

Mark Holden (left) says some customers have already starting paying for new funeral insurance policies. (ABC Western Plains: Kenji Sato)

"There's a direct link between the government and the harm that's been caused."

A subsequent ABC investigation uncovered years of complaints and investigations in regards to ACBF, which later changed its name to Youpla.

149 people buried

The government has acknowledged the impact but not committed to compensation.

A membership card issued to to a customer in the early 1990s. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

"The collapse of the funeral fund has had a massive emotional and financial impact on many First Nations people," Ms Burney said last month.

"We are working hard on a longer term resolution to assist the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who were affected."

The government established a trust to cover the cost of funerals in the short-term.

So far $1.4 million has been spent burying 149 people.

'Humiliated and betrayed'

Only about $12 million has been recovered from one of the four funeral funds the company was operating since its collapse.

The money is expected to be distributed among a small number of customers later this year, but will only cover a fraction of what is owed.

Samples of the funeral coverage certificates presented to customers by ACBF. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

Liquidators have also been brought in to examine whether or not the company broke any laws, and if further assets could be seized.

"Over the past year nearly everyone we've spoken to has been in a state of complete disbelief, and distress, and anger," Mr Holden said.

"Some of them feel humiliated and betrayed, like they've been scammed.

"These are people who've tried to be responsible by paying ahead, and doing it in a way that confirms with 'western' standards … and this is what they get."

Vennessa Poelina made funeral payments for more than two decades. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

It's still raw for Ms Poelina.

She's hoping the government will cover the compensation, so she and the other effected families can move on from the saga with dignity.

"We've had people collecting cans to pay for funerals, and crowdfunding on Facebook," she says.

"It's becoming more expensive to lay people to rest.

"Up here, we'll always help each out where we can, but we need to get this sorted."

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