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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Sarah Collard

Youpla victims asking ‘when they should die’ to be eligible for funeral relief, advocates say

From left, Mark Holden, Bettina Cooper, Linda Burney and Stephen Jones
From left, Mark Holden, Bettina Cooper, Linda Burney and Stephen Jones. Advocates are urging the government to help Youpla fund victims. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Terminally ill Aboriginal people are asking “when they should die” in order to be eligible for emergency relief set up after the financial collapse of a predatory funeral scheme left thousands of vulnerable Indigenous families without the means to pay for a funeral.

First Nations advocates and victims are urging the federal government to give “certainty” to the more than 13,000 Aboriginal policyholders of the defunct ACBF-Youpla funeral fund as soon as possible.

The Save Sorry Business coalition has planned a week of action, lobbying the government to provide assurances ahead of the May budget that policyholders will have the option of a full refund.

ACBF-Youpla collapsed in March 2022, leaving more than 13,000 Aboriginal people, some of them elderly and in palliative care, without the means to pay for funerals. Families had to resort to crowdfunding and some were forced to leave their loved ones’ bodies in the morgue while they raised the funds.

ACBF-Youpla targeted Indigenous people through aggressive advertising, using the distinctive red, black and yellow colours of the Aboriginal flag, offering stuffed toys and colouring books for children and conducted door-to-door sales as well as stalls at community events.

It was only when ACBF-Youpla’s conduct was exposed during the 2018 royal commission into banking that its licence to sell new products was revoked.

Regulators and the government were warned the company was at risk of collapse. After the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) wrote to the directors in March last year questioning the company’s solvency, the company went into liquidation and thousands of people were left with nothing.

The company’s director and founder, Ron Pattenden, is believed to be in Vanuatu and is among former directors under investigation by Asic.

Under an emergency scheme announced by the federal government in November, people who held policies with ACBF-Youpla as of 1 April 2020 will receive a payout for funeral expenses equal to the one they were originally promised by the company.

But Bettina Cooper, a Boandik woman and Aboriginal financial counsellor at Mob Strong Debt Help who assists the families who are still reeling from the collapse, said only people who die or had died between April 2020 and November 2023 were eligible.

“There’s currently fear in community that if you don’t die by the 30th of November, what will you do? People who are sick or terminally ill are asking us: ‘Do I have to die by the 30th of November?’” she said.

She is urging the government to provide a scheme in the federal budget in May, saying vulnerable families were struggling and wondering how they would be able to provide for their families if they died.

“We need an enduring solution for people harmed by the Youpla collapse to be in the May budget. Any delay will perpetuate intergenerational harm and mean they have not heard the voices of First Nations people,” Cooper said.

The Save Sorry Business coalition will meet with the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, and the finance minister, Stephen Jones, to urge them to ensure vulnerable people are not left out of pocket.

“It took decades for regulators to stop Youpla, is it going to take decades for the government to come up with a solution?

“It’s time for the government to get up, stand up, and show up for our elders,” Cooper told Guardian Australia.

Concerns about Youpla – previously known as the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF) – have been raised for decades. The first complaint about its conduct was registered in 1992.

Over the years Asic, Fair Trading NSW and the Australian Financial Complaints Authority all investigated and took action against the company, but it was allowed to continue to operate.

Mark Holden, an Aboriginal solicitor at Mob Strong Debt Help, said it was a damning indictment that the company was allowed to operate for so long despite concerns being raised continuously over the years.

“One of the most disturbing aspects of the Youpla-ACBF tragedy is the role of regulators and governments, including the federal government and Centrelink,” Holden, a Dunghutti man, said in a statement.

“Youpla-ACBF was approved for Centrepay and then allowed to remain registered for almost 14 years despite numerous complaints. In effect, Centrepay became part of Youpla-ACBF’s marketing and financial payments infrastructure.”

Burney and Jones have been contacted for comment.

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