Mooroopna woman witness in financial royal commission

By Ashlea Witoslawski

Mooroopna’s Tracey Walsh, 54, made the decision to take out funeral insurance in 2005 after a close family friend died.

‘‘Leslie looked after my Mum and Dad and he was like a son to them,’’ she said.

‘‘His family had to go into their superannuation because he didn’t have any kind of funeral insurance.

‘‘I didn’t want my family to have to do the same thing for me.’’

Coincidentally, Ms Walsh came across a poster for the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund advertising the company’s upcoming visit to Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative as an opportunity for people to sit down and discuss financial matters.

Ms Walsh said she believed the fund was specifically tailored for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, an important factor for choosing her funeral insurance.

‘‘I like to support indigenous community organisations,’’ she said.

‘‘The poster had the Rainbow Serpent right around it and a family in the middle.

‘‘These are both very important to the indigenous community.’’

Ms Walsh signed up for a funeral plan and in 2008, she received a certificate in the mail stating she had paid the full benefit amount.

She decided to get in touch with the fund to raise her coverage to $12000, but she was denied after disclosing a mental health condition.

In 2010, lawyers from the Consumer Action Law Centre visited Shepparton in conjunction with Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre.

Confused about her options and the insurance policy she had taken out five years prior, Ms Walsh sought the help of the lawyers who sent letters to the fund on her behalf.

‘‘They (the fund) sent back very hostile letters,’’ she said.

After much deliberation and guidance from the Consumer Action Law Centre, Ms Walsh decided not to take it any further.

‘‘I just thought I haven’t got the money, so I just left it at that,’’ she said.

Royal Commission begins

Years later, as the banking royal commission began to take shape, the Consumer Action Law Centre contacted Ms Walsh asking if she would like to have her case heard as part of the hearings.

After being accepted, Ms Walsh began meetings with Rowena Orr QC, the council assisting Justice Kenneth Hayne in the royal commission.

Ms Walsh travelled to Darwin to take part in round four of the hearings, focusing on issues affecting Australians who live in remote and regional communities, including farming finance, and interactions between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and financial services entities.

At the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, Ms Walsh took to the stand on Tuesday, July 3 last year.

‘‘It was just amazing some of the stuff that came out,’’ she said.

Lack of support

For Ms Walsh, one of the major concerns was a lack of support for indigenous populations, despite claiming this to be their target market.

During the hearing, Ms Orr highlighted the fact the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund’s policies did not pay out for suicide until recently.

This was despite the higher rates of suicide in Aboriginal communities.

Ms Walsh’s counsel was also concerned by claims to provide a product almost exclusively to Aboriginal people, with little evidence in taking reasonable steps to support the needs of this cohort.

The week before Ms Walsh’s hearing, a settlement was reached of $10000 sitting in trust as well as the conclusion of her fortnightly payments of $36.

‘‘I more or less had to accept it because they said this was their last offer,’’ she said.

‘‘I felt like they had me over a barrel.’’

As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman, Ms Walsh’s life expectancy is 77.2 years.

According to her lawyers, if she were to die at this age and had continued with her payments, it is expected she would have paid a total of about $34000, for a benefit amount of $8000.

‘‘Hopefully I last that long, so how much would I have paid out and it still would have been $8000?’’ Ms Walsh said.

‘‘My family would have had to go into my super and they may still have to because of the increase in cost of funerals.

‘‘That’s why I wanted to go to the royal commission.’’

Fund chief questioned

Ms Walsh’s statement in the Supreme Court was followed by fund chief executive Bryn Jones.

When questioned about refunding premiums paid beyond policy amounts, Mr Jones said it was an unfortunate part of insurance and that the organisation was investigating whether it was viable to not require further payments once a customer had already paid the maximum amount they could claim in benefits.

He also said the company would stop doing door-to-door sales and complete a ‘‘cultural audit’’.

After reading the recommendations handed down from Justice Kenneth Hayne, Ms Walsh said it was good to see more accountability being emphasised, not only for banks, but also financial service entities.

Findings positive

In the final report, Justice Hayne referenced the interim report, explaining funeral life policies and funeral expenses policies were life policies under the Life Insurance Act, as well as contracts of life insurance under the Insurance Contracts Act.

Funeral expenses policies are carved out from the definition of ‘‘financial product’’, meaning providers of funeral expenses policies are not bound by the general obligations that prevent hawking.

Recommendation 4.2 would have this changed, preventing the unsolicited sale of these products — a change Ms Walsh felt strongly about.

Ms Walsh was glad to have taken part in the royal commission and was positive about the impact it would make for indigenous communities.

‘‘It had to be done because they weren’t taking notice,’’ she said.

She hopes the fund takes note and is held accountable in the future.

‘‘I want them to be looked at and to have more pressure on them,’’ she said.

She also suggested Mr Jones visit the community and explain the policies in a transparent way.

If you or someone you know is looking for support in regards to a similar issue, phone Consumer Actions Koori Helpline on 1800574457, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service on 94185999 (dial 1 for VALS, then 3 for Civil), or Victorian Legal Aid on 1300792387.