In Part 1 of our ‘Remote Financial Counsellor’ series, we catch up with Alan Gray, Outreach Financial Counsellor for Broome Circle, located in the Kimberley, Western Australia.
Firstly, can you tell us about the region you work in as a Financial Counsellor?
“Our agency, Broome Circle, covers the West Kimberley and includes Broome township; Bidyadanga (the largest Aboriginal community in WA); and three other remote communities, Beagle Bay; Djarindjin; and One Arm Point. That’s an area nearly the size of Tasmania but spread out with only 16,000 people. 95% of my clients are Indigenous.”
Do you find 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! And 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.”
What are the most pressing client issues that you come across?
“Telstra’s unaffordable phone plans; consumer leases for fridges and washing machines; payday and other high-interest loans; high bank fees; car loan debt; power disconnections; housing evictions; homelessness, and poverty that is driven by addiction. Online or digital scams are becoming more prevalent too.”
Why do you think consumer advocacy is so important in financial counselling; and do 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. In practical terms, I would never get someone onto a debt repayment plan with a debt collector, or arrange a three-month Hardship pause on a repayment, if the clients’ 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 gives you the confidence to engage with media 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.”
Are you selective about the media outlets that you 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 newspapers.”
Client stories provide the “gold” to any consumer advocacy campaign – what are your feelings about getting clients directly involved?
“A 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!”
Thank you Alan for providing us with an understanding of the inspiring work that you are doing in the Kimberley, especially given the vast distances involved. We look forward to seeing you in the media again soon!
Click here to find out more about Broome Circle https://www.broomecircle.org.au/
You can read some recent media stories that Alan has been involved with here: