Yarns from the north (Part 2)

Pictured: Broome Circle, Financial Counsellor, Alan Gray.

Hi Alan, thanks for agreeing to this interview for our ‘Yarn’s from the north’ series. As stated on the phone I’ve been really impressed by your consumer advocacy and wanted to focus the story on that.

Firstly , can you please tell me about the region that you cover as a financial counsellor?

Our agency Broome circle, covers the West Kimberley, which includes Broome township, plus Bdiyadanga (the largest Aboriginal community in WA) and three other remote communities: Beagle Bay, Djarindjin and One Arm Point.  That’s an areas nearly the size of Tasmania but spread out with only 16,000 people.  95% of my clients are Indigenous.

Do you find that the consumer issues that you see with one client are often systemic across the Kimberly?

Yes, it seems that if some rip-off merchant has taken advantage of one family member, they’ve done it to many!  An because communities in the Kimberley are often isolated from each other, the rip-off merchants can roll up to the next community without anyone suspecting their behaviour.

If so, what are the most pressing issues that you’ve come across?

Telstra’s unaffordable phone plans; consumer leases for fridges and washing machines; payday loans and other high-interest loans; high bank fees; car loan debt; power disconnections; housing evictions; homelessness and poverty driven by addiction.  Online or digital scams are becoming more prevalent too.

Why do you think consumer advocacy is so important in financial counselling? Do you think you get better results for your clients as a result?

I think of advocacy as the key activity of a financial counsellor – otherwise we’re just paper shufflers.  Sometimes I think we should be renamed financial advocates.  With the mentality of an advocate we can tackle someone’s problem with the aim of solving it – not just managing it.  So in practical terms I would never try to get someone onto a debt repayment plan to a debt collector, or get them a three month Hardship pause on repayments – if their long-term circumstances are not going to improve.  That just makes us an unpaid agent of the debt collector.  I would always try to get a debt waiver.

Financial counsellors can be a bit wary of the media, what has given you the confidence to engage them for the benefit of your clients?

I find it easy to engage with journalists because I’ve been one for more than 30 years.  I know how they think, and what they want, so I suppose that helps.

And are you selective on what media outlets you’ll engage with?

Yes – I never bother with right wing media whose audience and bosses are never going to listen to our side of the story anyway – that’s a waste of effort.  I concentrate on ABC TV and radio, local indigenous radio, and finally newspapers.

Client stories obviously provide the ‘gold’ to any consumer advocacy campaign, what’s your feelings on getting clients directly involved?

Yes, the story coming directly from the client has the best impact on viewers or listeners.  But many clients feel too embarrassed or shy to talk to media, and I would never urge anyone to participate if they didn’t want to.  We’re lucky in the West Kimberley – there seems to be a tradition among the Saltwater people from this region of not being shy of a microphone or camera!

Anything else you’d like to say on the subject? Do you have links to web media stories that are in line with the issues you mentioned earlier?

Here are a few stories I’ve been involved with lately: