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Parliamentary inquiry to examine rights of First Nations consumers

Sarah Smit -

Advocates for Indigenous consumers have welcomed a new parliamentary enquiry looking into corporations ripping off Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers.

The "How the corporate sector establishes models of best practice to foster better engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consumers" inquiry opens for submissions on November 25, and follows highly publicised cases of Indigenous people being taken advantage of by phone providers and funeral insurance companies.

Wurundjeri woman and Aboriginal policy officer at the Consumer Action Law Centre, Samantha Rudolph is said the inquiry was an important step for the welfare of vulnerable Indigenous consumers.

"We can see with a couple of companies that we've been dealing with that this inquiry needs to be done," she said.

"Telstra was fined $50 million for how they treated First Nations customers. We see insurance companies such as ACBF, now known Youpla, and how their sales practices were found to be misleading, or deceptive.

"We're seeing these types of companies come up and how they're treating First Nations people and First Nations customers; I think this inquiry is well needed."

She said corporations often don't understand the needs of their Indigenous customers.

"[They approach customers like] everyone is in the same demographic, everyone's the same age. Everyone's the same gender, the same ethnicity, same sex, everyone is English speaking," she said.

"And that's how a lot of corporations are tackling it. They're not catering to each different type of person that that they're coming back up.

"They're not explaining things in a way that people will understand."

Consumer Action regularly helps Indigenous people who have been signed up to contracts that haven't been adequately explained to them.

Rudolph said salespeople working for commission are incentivised to upsell consumers products they don't need- a situation that disproportionately affects First Nations people.

"What we find is with First Nations people, they can sometimes find these types of situations really intimidating and they can find salespeople quite intimidating," she said.

"And to get out of that situation, they're just saying yes and agreeing, and therefore not fully understanding what they're being signed up to, and then salespeople aren't taking the time to sit down and explain it."

Chair of the House Committee for Indigenous Affairs, Julian Leeser said there are real issues with the way corporate Australia treats Indigenous consumers.

"[The inquiry] responds to the absolute scandals that have occurred in recent times, with Rio Tinto in Juukan Gorge, with Telstra ripping off indigenous consumers in remote communities, and Woolworth's decision to build a Dan Murphy's in the middle of three dry communities in Darwin," he said.

Leeser said high profile examples of Aboriginal people signed up to extortionate funeral contracts and insurance contracts showed how many "bottom feeders" were willing to take advantage of Indigenous consumers.

"We're really keen to hear from businesses, but we're keen to hear from Indigenous consumers, from Indigenous employees and from Indigenous organisations, about how we can better improve corporate engagement, and put an end to some of these bad practices that we've seen in the past," he said.

"There are too many bottom feeders who are trying to take advantage of Indigenous consumers, and that's wrong.

"We want to have a look at ways in which we can better encourage corporate oversight better encourages a change in corporate behaviour, so this sort of behaviour stops."

The committee is due to hand down their report on March 31 next year.

Senator Lidia Thorpe, the Greens spokesperson for First Nations said it was important that the recommendations of the report not get overlooked in the lead up to the next election.

"We've known that predatory businesses have been targeting First Nations people for years," she said.

"We could stop this behaviour before the election. The Morrison Government needs to act now and not let this be swept under the carpet in the lead up to the next election, or his corporate mates will continue to get away with it."

"This Government needs to work for the people, not according to their own timelines and agendas."

Leeser said he believes the timing of the report will not prevent it being taken seriously by government.

"There are plenty of committees that I can think of that I was involved in the last Parliament that were responded that reported late in the piece and responded to either by the government before the election had finished or early in the new Parliament," he said.

"If the recommendations are good and command respect then they will be taken seriously by government."

By Sarah Smit

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