Feast, famine and fraud: Considerations in the delivery of banking and financial services to remote Indigenous communities

Author/editor: Westbury, N
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 187


The ability of Indigenous people to manage and budget their income, arrange to pay third parties, purchase food, goods and services, and maintain a level of financial and economic independence and planning, are all reliant on maintaining informed access to appropriate banking and financial services.

The issue of Indigenous people's access to, and understanding of, banking and other financial services lies at the heart of their ability to participate in the cash economy, thereby improving their general quality of life and, in the longer term, assisting in the reduction of welfare dependence.

The current disproportionate reliance of Indigenous people on Centrelink disbursements paid by cheque is symptomatic of their lack of access to, knowledge of, and equitable participation in, Australia's wider financial system and related economy.

Centrelink cheques are not only an ineffective form of payment they also compound existing welfare dependence and cyclical patterns of inter-generational poverty for Indigenous people and their families.

This is particularly evident in Centrelink's Area North Region where 38 per cent of all Centrelink's cheques are issued. Census analysis over a ten-year period confirms that Indigenous people resident in remote Northern Territory communities will increasingly rely heavily on welfare payments. Therefore the focus on how these entitlements are delivered and are able to be accessed and managed by Indigenous people will be critical to their wellbeing. Effecting changes to the delivery of these services by merely employing new and developing technologies alone will not resolve current problems.

There is clear evidence that the deregulation of Australia's financial system and the adoption of new technology have exacerbated barriers to delivery of financial services to Indigenous people. However, these changes also afford opportunities for the establishment of partnerships between Indigenous people and service deliverers to design and deliver services oriented to the specific circumstances of Indigenous people. The experience gained as a result of the successful Indigenous initiated establishment of the Traditional Credit Union confirms that Indigenous people are quick to fully utilise and directly benefit when services are designed to meet their specific needs.

These issues point to the need for a more holistic policy response by government and banks. The existing barriers to service delivery need to be addressed through the development and implementation of an integrated strategy that includes the adoption of best practice policy approaches by the banks and government service providers. Alternatively, Indigenous people who are currently substantially disadvantaged, run the very real risk of being further economically marginalised, whilst the already high social and economic costs to service providers and government will only continue to escalate.

This discussion paper identifies the current barriers to improving delivery of financial services to Indigenous people in Central Australia. It describes existing responses to addressing these barriers, and recommends short- and longer-term options for building on existing initiatives, drawing on demonstrated experience elsewhere in the Northern Territory, Australia and overseas. Many of these issues were identified and discussed at a workshop convened jointly by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and Centrelink in Alice Springs on 19 April 1999 with participation drawn from Indigenous organisations, banks, Indigenous community stores, local government, credit unions and government service deliverers.

ISBN: 0 7315 2622 8

ISSN:1036 1774

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