A recent investigation by the South Australian Ombudsman has found the remote council of Coober Pedy in the state’s north, pressured Aboriginal residents into requesting money from Native Title funds to help pay off their overdue electricity and water bills.
The District Council disconnected the electricity of numerous community members for non-payment of a bill without first offering an instalment plan, as is required under its Electricity Retail and Distribution Licence.
SA Ombudsman Wayne Lines said the council acted in a manner that was unreasonable, unjust, and wrong by failing to identify community members who were evidently eligible to enter into hardship discussions.
“At the core of this investigation is the very serious concern that Aboriginal community members of Coober Pedy have been allowed to accumulate considerable debts in relation to their electricity and/or water accounts,” Mr lines said in his report.
“This in turn has had a significant impact on their quality of life.
“These debts appear to have accumulated over several years until the council determined that action needed to be taken to recover the amounts owed and any ongoing usage of customers.”
“In seeking to recover the amounts owed, the council has created Hardship Agreements that require oppressively high payments to be made by community members.”
Many of Coober Pedy’s community members are Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara people, who hold Native Title in the Coober Pedy region.
Ombudsman Lines said he was deeply troubled that many of these community members felt pressured to seek payments from the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Indigenous Community Trust, to contribute towards their electricity and water debt.
“… I make it abundantly clear that I do not consider it is appropriate for a council to in any way suggest that a rate payer should seek financial assistance from a Native Title body as a means to managing a council debt or to have a necessary resource, such as a connection to electricity or water, reconnected.”
Ralph Coulthard from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, which brought the complaint on behalf of Coober Pedy’s Aboriginal community to the Ombudsman’s attention, says some of the town’s most vulnerable residents, many with small children, were forced to go without power for days in the height of summer.
“One person was told by the council they shouldn’t be allowed to live in a house,” Mr Coulthard told ABC News.
“If they couldn’t pay their bills, they shouldn’t be living in a house.”
The Ombudsman concluded by recommending the State Government review whether there are alternative options for the supply of electricity and water in Coober Pedy that would place less of an administrative and financial burden on the council.
Mr Lines also urged the council to consider writing off some debts and to work on better communication with the Aboriginal community.
SA Premier Steven Marshall said the government was looking at both the report and its recommendations.