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'How bad can it be thinking the cops will arrest you because you have not paid a bill?'



The endemic exploitation of Indigenous Australians has been well documented but it is expected to be more than a passing note in the Hayne royal comission's final report when it is delivered to the government today.

The lack of financial literacy has been fuelled by more than a century of European restrictions on the indigenous population's ability to hold their own money, intergenerational well-being dependency, low education levels, geographic restrictions and a perception that the financial world is off-limits.

"You can not be what you can not see," said Benson Saulo, who at 15 was the third indigenous trainee at ANZ more than a decade ago, managed millions of dollars in assets by his mid-20s, and was appointed as the Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations in 2011.

"There was little generational understanding of earning money, saving and planning."

Mr Saulo, who is now head of partnerships at the financial services firm Australian Unity Wealth and Capital Markets, said unscrupulous operators exist because there is not being served adequately.

"We absolutely know there is a industry that exists for the financially vulnerable banks and other financial services can not or wont engage with," he said. "It's in the too-hard basket or they do not even know where to start."

The result has been a chronically poor financial outcome for the indigenous population.

On average, the superannuation balance of Indigenous Australians is half of the non-indigenous population.

Super is their largest asset and only savings, but only for a 2% chance of navigating the system. In two weeks, First Nation's pop up "Big Super Day Out" events over $ 14.5 million in lost super for more than 1000 indigenous workers.

According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission up to 50 per cent of the funeral insurance is sold to the Aboriginal consumers aged under 20, the same rate as for the non-indigenous population aged over 50.

Demand for financial counsellors is already so strong among those in Arnhem Land, Cape York and other remote communities they have to turn away in two in five seeking help. The First Nations Foundation hopes the royal commission will call for the establishment of an Indigenous financial center, services that have existed in the US and Canada for over 20 years.

Cape York partnership councellor and general manager Audrey Deemal has seen her clients sign up to water fountain contracts for $ 14 a week, only to have one delivered and never refilled, free laptops doled out in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in HECS debts, baby photos that take years to pay off when the child is a toddler.

"The emotional stress of these debts leaves them in a panic," she said. "How bad it can be, socially and emotionally thinking that the cops are going to come along and arrest you because you have not paid a bill?"

Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm, the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization and First Nations Foundation chair said the scope of the royal commission and the limited time it had available, means he was preparing to be disappointed by its recommendations.

In September, the interim report found "basic transactions" have been made bewildering because financial institutions have not given adequate recognition to indigenous Australians and that this evidence pointed to predatory behaviour.

Mr Hamm said the sector needed to look beyond the charity and start building Indigenous outcomes into their core business units by building financial literacy.

First Nations chair Ian Hamm.

First Nations chair Ian Hamm.Credit:Justin McManus

"We need to start talking about the future of the Aboriginal economy not just individual stories about financial hardship, which the commission has been limited to," he said.

"Dealing with immediate problems is comfort and its lazy, but you never get anywhere – a good day is just making sure things do not go backwards."

Ms Young said she was "so tired of the Aboriginal people just being pigeon-holed into the poverty conversation".

"The first nations people are doctors and lawyers," she said. "I have had doctors who have called me who say they do not know what to do with their money."

Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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