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

New data shows disadvantaged towns paid high price for failed funeral insurer Youpla

Allenby Ambrym is one of more than 760 people in Yarrabah who had a policy with the company. (ABC Cairns: Brendan Mounter)

In far north Queensland, a sea breeze blows across Yarrabah, a former mission, which is now home to almost 3,000 First Nations Australians.

Allenby Ambrym has spent his whole life here.

"Yarrabah is a beautiful place, and in the past we really weren't worrying about money that much," he said.

"We used to go out hunting, drag a net, get prawns along the beach and all the fish around here, and camping.

"That sort of all died down. I think the government kept changing their ways … and we found a job and tried to hold it for a long time, keeping the family safe."

For years, part of taking care of his family involved Mr Ambrym putting aside some money every fortnight to pay for his funeral.

Yarrabah, in Far North Queensland, has a population of almost 3,000. (ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

In March the company he made those payments to, Youpla — formerly known as the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF) — went into liquidation.

About 14,500 First Nations Australians were left with no cover.

New data reveals it was some of Australia's most disadvantaged communities that were pouring millions of dollars into Youpla over three decades.

According to figures released by liquidators SV Partners to financial counsellors Mob Strong Debt Help, Mr Ambrym is one of more than 760 people in Yarrabah who had a policy with the company. 

The data shows Yarrabah — a town with a population of just under 3,000 people according to the latest census — contributed at least $1.7 million to ACBF/Youpla over the years.

"I would be surprised if you could walk down a street in Yarrabah and find a house that has not been affected by the collapse of ACBF," Mob Strong Debt Help financial counsellor Bettina Cooper said.

The town is listed as the seventh-most disadvantaged postcode in the country.

"They were already one of the lower-socio-economic areas," Ms Cooper said.

"It will put them further behind — not to close the gap, but actually expand the gap.

"It'll create a hurdle which will result in them going into poorly regulated credit products and increase the financial harm in that community, and certainly sustain them as one of the lower-socio-economic areas."

According to the data, Yarrabah is one of 18 towns that have contributed more than $500,000 to the company over the years.

Those towns include four of Australia's 10 most disadvantaged places — Yarrabah, Woorabinda, Cherbourg and Palm Island.

For years, Jan Harris has been putting money aside to help her family one day pay for her funeral. (ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

Gunggandji woman Jan Harris, who works at a health organisation in Yarrabah, said she had been putting money into the fund for years.

"I was a bit young when they used to come around and got us to sign these papers, and acting like they thought they were one of us," she said.

When consumer groups held meetings in town to discuss the company's liquidation, Ms Harris felt too emotional to attend.

"It was like a shock," she said.

"All our money just went down. It went down the drain."

'Government was aware'

Gomeroi woman Gwen Newman is one of hundreds of people in the New South Wales town of Moree who has been paying the company for decades.

"An Aboriginal woman came around and said, 'Would you like to join a funeral fund?' And I said 'yes', because I wasn't in one," Ms Newman said.

"Because she was Aboriginal, I suppose, you put your trust in them and believe them that it's truly a funeral fund … I've been paying ever since."

Over the years, people in Moree — including Ms Newman — have paid more than $2.2 million into the fund, more than anywhere else in the country.

Gwen Newman, pictured with her grandson, is worried the next generations will have to pay for their elders' funerals. (ABC News: Merri-May Gill)

One hundred and sixty-eight people in Moree have been paying since before 2005, when two of the funds were barred from taking new customers after a court found the ACBF had breached anti-hawking laws. 

The court action, brought by ASIC, was just one in a number of regulatory crackdowns on the company over its 30-year history.

Since 2020, it has not been allowed to sign up new customers, after the government changed licensing requirements following damning evidence at the royal commission into banking.

"The government was aware there was a problem," Ms Cooper said.

"They took them to court, they had the royal commission and they stopped them from selling the products.

"But they did nothing to put a hedge of protection around those who are already involved in the product."

Ms Newman said she felt physically ill when she heard the company's fate.

"A lot of the Aboriginal people here in Moree joined up," she said.

"They were all talking about it when it went into liquidation and were angry, and some of the old people got sick.

"There's now no funeral fund for anybody in the community."

Before the company went under, ASIC launched another court action, accusing ACBF of misleading conduct between 2015 and 2018.

The court is yet to decide whether that action will go ahead now the company is in liquidation.

Still more victims out there

The data — which includes people who cancelled their policies or died after 2017 — shows communities in New South Wales and Queensland were the most affected by the company's collapse.

"There are 10,000 people from Queensland in the current data," Ms Cooper said.

"We know [there are] 8,000 in New South Wales in the current data and we know it is 1,000 from Victoria.

Bettina Cooper has spent the past four months calling back more than 1,000 Youpla customers who rang Mob Strong Debt Help for advice. (ABC News: Kirstie Wellauer)

"We know that it's not all of the ACBF members. We know that SV Partners is still trying to extract further data."

SV Partners recently released a statement saying it might request financial assistance from ASIC and NSW Fair Trading to recoup some of the lost money.

"Instructions have been issued to our solicitors to provide advice in relation to potential voidable transactions.

"Once the advice is received, if appropriate, a request for funding will be issued to ASIC and the NSW [Fair Trading]."

NSW Fair Trading said it had not yet received a report or a request from the liquidators.

The government has promised an inquiry into what happened at Youpla, but has not given a time line on when that will happen.

In the meantime, Bettina Cooper says authorities need to step in and help the families already bearing the consequences of the company's collapse.

"I have one client who heartbreakingly has now taken on two additional jobs to pay for a family funeral because she did not expect this expense to happen. 

"I need [the government] to support the future generations so that intergenerational debt is not the only thing that's left from the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund."

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