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Boost to Centrelink call centre staff a welcome relief

6th August 2012 – Financial Counselling Australia and the National Welfare Rights Network have both welcomed the federal government’s announcement of a boost in staff numbers for the Centrelink call centre. With some welfare recipients currently remaining on hold for up to 90 minutes, both organisations describe the boost as sorely needed.

“The volume of calls made to Centrelink has increased by more than twenty percent over the past six years, to a current level of around one hundred and fifty thousand calls per day,” said Maree O’Halloran, President of the National Welfare Network.

“That is a significant increase and very obviously requires a greater number of front-line staff to service them. The announcement last week by Senator Kim Carr, the Minister for Human Services, that call centre staff numbers will be increased and that other Centrelink staff will be redeployed to the call centre during times of peak demand is welcome news. We hope that the staffing level increase will be permanent.”

Time is money …

No one likes being kept on hold, but according to Fiona Guthrie, Executive Director of Financial Counselling Australia, welfare recipients can least afford it. “Some clients of our financial counsellors have been reporting wait times of up to two hours when phoning Centrelink,” she said. “If they don’t have access to a landline and have to use a mobile phone, it can be costing them money that they simply don’t have. Senator Carr has recognised this issue and by increasing staff numbers has made an important first step in helping to reduce the wait time, associated cost and associated stress for a vulnerable section of our community.”

“We congratulate the government on being proactive with regards to this issue, and hope that they will continue to monitor call wait times and adjust staffing levels accordingly.”

Free ATMs good news for remote ATSI communiites

25th May 2012: Financial counsellors and money management workers have welcomed today’s announcement from the banking industry and private ATM providers that should ultimately see ATM fees abolished in a number of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The announcement follows a report by FCA* in December 2010, that highlighted the high cost of ATM fees for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities. FCA’s report found that some people were losing as much as 20% of their incomes on ATM fees.

ATMs in very remote ATSI communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland are mostly owned by private ATM operators. This means that people in these communities cannot access free bank-owned ATMs, and they end up paying a fee every time they withdraw cash or check their account balance.  These fees quickly add up.

Many ATSI people are also frequent users of ATMs – for example checking an account balance multiple times on the day a payment is expected.  Other people withdraw small amounts of cash regularly because this makes it easier to budget or because they purchase food every day, due to poor refrigeration. Alternatives such as internet or phone banking to check account balances are also generally not available in these communities.

Fiona Guthrie, Executive Director of FCA said that “the current situation was both untenable and manifestly unfair. This proposed reform will make an enormous difference in these communities. People on low fixed incomes will now have more money available to spend on food, clothing and other household bills.”

“We congratulate the Government on their role in brokering a solution as well as the banking industry for recognising the problem and acting decisively to do something about it.”

“This initiative from the industry shows that they are serious when it comes to helping ATSI people living in remote communities. It will make a real difference to some of the most disadvantaged people in our society who have limited access to banking facilities.”


Launch of ATSI ‘Do Not Knock’ sticker by Minister Shorten

15th May 2012: Minister for Financial Services, the Hon. Bill Shorten MP, has helped Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) and CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes launch a new front in the Do Not Knock campaign aimed at reducing harmful door-to-door sales practices in Indigenous communities.

Minster Shorten launched the project, which includes a new ATSI Do Not Knock sticker, at Financial Counselling Australia’s National Conference which was attended by over 300 financial counsellors from around Australia.

Fiona Guthrie, Executive Director of FCA, said the genesis for the project was the first hand of experience of financial counsellors seeing people in remote Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities being targeted by shonky door-to-door salespeople.

“In one case we had a door-to-door company targeting remote ATSI communities and selling people first aid kits worth around $50 for $300-$500. Whether it is high pressure selling, an inability to say no to someone at the door, or a misleading salesperson, this type of practice needs to be wiped out and we hope the project we’re launching will do just that,” said Ms Guthrie.

The team managed by Lynda Edwards, Program Manager at CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes had the idea of developing an ATSI-specific Do Not Knock sticker. “We’re attacking the problem from both sides by producing a ‘do not knock’ sticker to stop salespeople in the first instance, backed up by educational material that will help people in remote communities to understand their rights and how to turn away a salesperson.”

“Many companies set up direct debits from customers’ bank account to ensure they get paid. Sadly the money is debited regardless of the customer’s bank balance and can often force the account into the red—resulting in the account holder being hit with a dishonour fee,” said Mrs Edwards.

To complement the new do not knock materials, CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes has also published Don’t get clawed over the phone which focuses on telemarketing and how to say no. Mrs Edwards said many customers’ politeness led to them being up signed up for products over the phone that they didn’t need, want or could afford. Financial Counselling Australia has also put together a series of innovative community education “flash cards” about door-to-door selling.

Free calls for mobile phone users

24th April 2012: Financial counsellors today welcomed news that the cost of ringing 1800 and 13 phone numbers from mobiles will finally be the same as those from a landline.

The campaign for “Fair Calls for All” was led by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), ACOSS and FCA. The original impetus for the campaign came from financial counsellors. Many of their clients rely solely on mobile phones. The cost of calling say the bank or Centrelink can be huge for someone on a low fixed income. Many people reported not being able to access vital services for this reason.

There is more information about the campaign on the ACCAN website:

Formation of Financial Counsellors ACT is a milestone

1st March 2012: The financial counselling sector has warmly welcomed the formation of a new incorporated financial counselling association:  Financial Counsellors ACT.

The formation of Financial Counsellors ACT represents a huge leap forward for the profession.  There are now incorporated financial counselling bodies in every State and Territory in Australia – a huge milestone and well worth celebrating.

The  State and Territory financial counselling associations set membership and accreditation standards for financial counsellors. They also provide a vital voice for their members on issues affecting them or their clients. This is why it is so important to have a properly constituted professional body in each jurisdiction.

In the past 15 months, two other new financial counselling associations have also been formed: the Money Workers Association of the Northern Territory and Financial Counselling Tasmania.

The existing associations are: the Financial and Consumer Rights Council (Victoria); Financial Counsellors Association of NSW; Financial Counsellors Association of Qld; Financial Counsellors Association of WA; and South Australian Financial Counsellors Association.  Each State and Territory body elects one person to represent their association on the board of the national peak, Financial Counselling Australia.

The challenge for all financial counselling associations is a lack of resources. The majority of Associations receive no government funding, relying on voluntary management committees. The workload in organising professional development, supervision, accreditation processes and conferences is enormous. But even the funded associations can struggle – as the sector grows and professionalises, so to do demands on associations.

We acknowledge however the support of some financial institutions toward the cost of conferences, websites and similar  projects for State and Territory associations. While direct industry funding for casework is problematic, capacity-building funding for the sector  has been vital, particularly in helping the unfunded organisations continue to function.

This however is not a sustainable model for the future. The sector will be held back unless unfunded associations in particular can access adequate and ongoing funding. The role played by these bodies is absolutely critical – a “voluntary” model will simply not cut it.


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