Need to know
- Remote Indigenous consumers in Far North Queensland are regularly being sold lemon cars
- In Wujal Wujal the impact of the dodgy car sales is widespread
- CHOICE speaks with Indigenous consumers who’ve had trouble getting redress for their lemon vehicles
Cedric Friday says that every time he looks at his broken-down Holden Captiva it makes him angry. The second-hand car that he and his brother-in-law spent $19,000 on sits immovable in his driveway.
“It didn’t last long, just four or five months, got buggered up,” he says. “I feel ripped off, I don’t know what to do with this car here now.”
Cedric, along with about 400 Indigenous people, live in the remote town of Wujal Wujal in Far North Queensland’s Cape York region, some four and half hours north of Cairns. When his brother-in-law got a large payment for historic stolen wages from the Queensland government, like many from the community here, he travelled to Cairns to buy a car from a used car dealer.
“They probably saw how much money he had and knew they could rip us off,” says Cedric. “When you buy a good car it should last you at least five years, it didn’t happen with this car.”
Cedric tried to get the dealership to pay for the repairs of the vehicle, but the company said he had to pay to tow it to an authorised mechanic first, which he didn’t have the hundreds of dollars needed to do. Now the dealership says too much time has elapsed and the vehicle is out of warranty.
In remote communities like Wujal Wujal cars are essential. There is no public transport here and cars are needed for all tasks such as grocery shopping in the next town or getting around the community.
Seventy-year-old Leila Creek used her car to come to the community arts centre every day to paint and earn an income for herself. Since her vehicle broke down, she sometimes gets a lift into the centre, at other times she makes the one-hour journey on foot.
“I like walking, it’s good exercise,” she tells CHOICE, with a laugh, while sitting out at the back of the arts centre.
She says the money she spent on her second-hand car was a lot for her, and she worries about getting another car in case it has problems as well.
Everyone CHOICE spoke to in Wujal Wujal knows someone who has had an issue with a used car dealership in Cairns. William Harrigan is a cultural advisor for the local council and says the car issues faced by the community here are widespread.
“Absolutely the Cairns car dealerships are taking advantage of people,” he says. “They know when the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders get their big money – they are out there in force to promote these cars.
“You really need cars up here and some of the cars they buy are old wrecks. The dealers paint them up and spruce it up a bit to make it look good, and the people who buy it don’t do a proper inspection.”
The impact of the issue means that customers like Florence Grace Williams end up driving vehicles they don’t feel safe in.
She bought an $18,000 Holden from a Cairns dealership. They agreed to some initial repairs when she first had issues with the vehicle just months after the sale, but they’ve refused to make further repairs and she’s spent more than $4000 repairing the car herself.
It still makes a disturbing clicking noise when she drives it.
“I don’t feel safe driving it, but I have no choice, I have to come to work driving my car, and I’ve got domestic assistance jobs driving to see clients on the other side of the river,” she says.
“I’m not happy with the dealership, I had a blue with them, I told him straight, ‘you sold me a shit car’.”
Across the region
Jillian Williams is the operations manager at the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network, a Cairns-based financial counselling organisation that works in remote communities throughout Far North Queensland.
She says the issues seen in Wujal Wujal are repeated throughout the communities they work in that have access to regional centres such as Cairns or Townsville.
“The main issues that we see are that people are coming and purchasing from certain used car dealerships that they have usually heard about from word of mouth, and people are being sold cars that are not fit for purpose or are of very bad quality, so they will break down very quickly, within weeks and sometimes within days,” she says.
“People try to go back to the dealer and argue that, ‘My car has just broken down. Can I get a refund or can you pay for the repair?’ And the dealers almost always refuse.”
She says that leaves customers with few options other than the time-consuming and expensive process of going through the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal to try to get redress (something we will explore in more detail in the second part of this investigation).
Williams says there is always a power imbalance between car dealers and their customers, but that for people from remote communities, who are often under time pressure because they are only in town for a short period, that imbalance is more pronounced. Language, literacy and consumer confidence to challenge dealers can also be factors in the power imbalance.
The Cairns Community Legal Centre’s acting supervising solicitor, Melanie Wilson, says the centre has assisted a large number of Indigenous clients in disputes against a handful of Cairns car dealerships that are “repeat offenders”.
“There are some we have received more complaints about than others, and some we have had decisions against in QCAT as well,” says Wilson. “Certainly, there are some dealerships that, despite receiving multiple complaints against them, don’t seem to change their behaviour much.”
Read more: How to save money on car insurance
Around the country
The issue of low-quality car sales is one affecting remote Indigenous communities around Australia, though in different ways. CHOICE spoke to financial counsellors, lawyers and advocates working in communities in the Northern Territory, in South Australia’s remote APY Lands and in Western Australia – and all of them shared stories of motor-vehicle issues facing the people they work with.
Sarah Black is the deputy managing lawyer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, which works throughout the Northern Territory. She says car dealers are taking advantage of Aboriginal people in remote communities who have to buy cars online without first physically inspecting the vehicle.
“We see really exploitative sellers that are targeting people that they know don’t have the geographical access to actually inspect the vehicle themselves and taking advantage of that geographical remoteness,” she says.
“Someone might purchase a vehicle from Adelaide through an ad they saw on the internet without them having ever seen the vehicle, and then the vehicle is freighted to Alice Springs for the person to come and collect.
“When it arrives, it’s clear that the vehicle differs greatly from the description that’s been given of it. It’s much lower quality and certainly not worth the amount of money that the customer paid. We’re often finding that the vehicle is not fit for purpose either. So when the client tries to drive the vehicle back to the remote community on an unsealed road, the vehicle can’t actually make that journey and breaks down on the way.”
In the remote APY Lands in the South Australian desert, the red dirt roads are littered with broken-down and abandoned cars. Carolyn Cartwright from MoneyMob says residents there have little choice but to buy cars from “grey market” used car dealers who are often light on paperwork and selling low-quality vehicles.
“People often don’t have paperwork for their cars and they certainly don’t have access to a refund when something goes wrong,” she says.
Meanwhile, Teena Forrest from Western Australia’s Consumer Protection says the issue of lemon cars affects Indigenous people she works with across the state.
“We aren’t really doing anything to address it, we aren’t putting the resources into this issue, despite the huge impact,” she says.
‘We can’t go anywhere’
Back in Wujal Wujal, Michael Bamboo is sitting next to his broken-down Mitsubishi, raised on cement blocks in his driveway. A relative who is “good with cars” is hoping he can make it run again, as Michael can’t afford to get it towed the one-hour drive to Cooktown for the mechanic to look at it.
He paid about $10,000 for the car on finance and is still paying off the loan.
“It is hard to go from here to the shop to do our grocery shopping,” he says. “Hard to pick the young fella up from school or go to the beach on the weekend. We can’t go anywhere and he always wants to go somewhere.”
At the town’s local radio station, Carmel Haines is in a similar situation. Her car is stuck at the Cooktown mechanics because she can’t afford to get it repaired after it broke down within months of her buying it on finance.
“I’m still paying off the loan,” she says. “It is frustrating, just paying for something I don’t have any more.”
In part two
In the second part of this series, we will look into the systems for redress when someone’s car breaks down within days of purchase, explore how they are failing consumers, and ask what could help the situation for remote Indigenous residents.