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ABC News
the specialist reporting team's Loretta Florance and Kirstie Wellauer

Indigenous advocates return to Canberra to ask for compensation over Youpla mess

Advocates for thousands of First Nations people who lost money to the collapsed funeral insurer Youpla are in Canberra this week to urge politicians to take responsibility for their role in the saga. 

Youpla, formerly known as the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF), collapsed earlier this year, leaving more than 14,500 people without cover and millions of dollars out of pocket.

The company is now the subject of legal action by the regulator, ASIC, who has accused it of "egregious conduct", "targeting vulnerable Aboriginal consumers" and falsely representing itself as an Aboriginal company before 2019.

Financial Counselling Australia's Lynda Edwards said the vast majority of people affected by the company's collapse were low-income earners, on Centrelink, who now fear for their family's financial future.

"People are anxious, they're worried, they stress they've been paying into this product for decades and now, if they pass away, their families are going to be left with a huge debt," she said.

Ms Edwards says new liquidator data shows more than 150,000 policies were sold over ACBF's 30-year history.

She said successive governments "had the opportunity to stop this company doing what it was doing but never did it."

Many of the policies sold were paid for through Centrepay — a government-run system which allows companies to make deductions from customers' Centrelink payments before the money hits their bank accounts.

"This is a programme that was set up by federal government to allow people to be able to pay for the necessities in their lives — originally, it was about rent," Ms Edwards said.

ACBF was the only funeral fund to use the system, deducting millions of dollars from welfare payments between 2001 and 2017.

"We believe that because government gave the tick of approval to ACBF to be on Centrepay, that they are actually partly responsible for people losing their money," Ms Edwards said.

"People looked at Centrepay and they're like,' oh, OK, so you're on Centrepay, so it must be okay by government, and government are probably recommending this'."

The current government has already committed to paying for the funerals of anyone who had a policy with Youpla as at April 10, 2020 until November next year — at an estimated cost of $7.2 million over two years, in this year's budget.

But Daphne Naden, a Kuku Yalanji woman from far north Queensland and a director at the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN), said community members like herself needed more certainty into the future.

Ms Naden was one of thousands of people in Far North Queensland who signed up to ACBF for coverage for herself and her children.

She estimates she spent around $16,000 on the policies over the years.

"I signed up for myself and for my four daughters, who were only 10, nine at the time," she said.

 "I didn't ask too many questions about insurance, I just thought I was doing a real good thing."

She has come down to Canberra for the second time this year to talk to politicians about the heartache and confusion the company's collapse has caused communities in her region.

"Right at this very moment [in my community] there are four bodies waiting to be buried," she said.

"We have a funeral on this Thursday of a respected elder and she's been in the morgue for almost two months.

"In this case, as with most of the cases, the families do not know how to go about accessing money — her two sons, who are grown adults … didn't even know that she was a policyholder."

In a statement, a spokesman for Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones said, "the government's interim measures to allow families to get on with sorry business will remain in place until the end of 2023".

"Longer-term options remain under consideration," he said.

'700 boxes of paper documents'

Figuring out how many people contributed to ACBF over its 30-year history and what compensation they might be entitled to will be no easy feat.

The company often sold multiple policies to the head of a single family — as with Daphne and her children — and cancellations and reinstatements were common.
Mark Holden has been speaking with liquidators SV Partners on behalf of former Youpla customers.

He said Youpla changed their record-keeping system in 2019, but making sense of the records before that time was proving difficult.

"Prior to that, they've got about 700 boxes of paper documents over three decades of people's payment histories, their application histories.

"They're still trying to be able to process all that and they're still even trying to be able to process the number of people who were signed up."

ASIC asks court to fine Youpla

Last week, the federal court in NSW was told by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) how the company "preyed upon" the vulnerabilities of Indigenous Australians in signing up the thousands of policyholders who are now left without cover.

ASIC has asked the court to fine ACBF and Youpla $7.5 million for misleading and deceptive conduct for falsely representing itself as an Aboriginal-owned or endorsed company between 2015 and 2018.

A spokesperson for ASIC said it is among the highest penalties sought for the offence.

However, the case was allowed to go ahead on the understanding that the fine will not likely be paid, as ASIC stands unopposed in the courtroom following Youpla's demise.

Mr Holden said he believed it was still worth pursuing, to put the company's history on the record as an important precedent to deter other companies from exploiting First Nations communities.

"If we don't have that, then this whole thing would be forgotten in a matter of years," he said.

In written submissions, the regulator showed that during the financial years of 2015 to 2018, the company took in $16.6 million in premiums and paid out just $3.15 million in claims.

Submissions ASIC submitted to the court alleged that during that time, ACBF paid almost triple that amount to entities associated with the company's founder, Ron Pattenden.

ASIC's evidence suggested $6.9 million in dividends were sent to ABCF Group, which was majority owned by Ron Pattenden, and $2.4 million was paid in fees to Crown Insurance, Mr Pattenden's Vanuatu-based underwriter.

Liquidators to be replaced

Regulators are also seeking to appoint a special liquidator to start trying to recover some money from the companies.

The current liquidator, SV Partners, has been combing through the companies' books since March this year.

But one of the directors of the firm is married to a former solicitor who acted for Youpla, and regulators are concerned about a perceived conflict of interest.

If the court agrees to the request next month, SV Partners would continue to wind down the company, while the new liquidator would be paid by ASIC and NSW Fair Trading to try to chase down money for creditors.

The ABC reached out to SV Partners, but the liquidators did not want to comment on the matter.

While the action is promising, right now advocates are placing their hopes in the government to find a solution for the thousands of Australians left out of pocket.

"It is a mammoth task, no denying that," Ms Naden said.

"But, it has to be done [and] if it's done properly in collaboration with the community and the people that are owed money, they could come up with the resolution that the people are happy with.

"It means that we all have to put our heads together to do that."

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