Idyllic welfare island

Damien Hansen Today Tonight
An island paradise with an idyllic lifestyle comes at a massive cost to taxpayers, with an unemployment rate that varies between 60 and 80 per cent.
It’s a little-known Australian territory that’s closer to Sri Lanka than Canberra, where locals depend heavily on Centrelink payments to stay afloat.
The bulk of the population is on welfare, and many are claiming much more than they should.
The island’s population relies heavily on Canberra to maintain their isolated existence, and each year tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are channelled to the external Australian territory’s population in the form of welfare payments and grants.

Despite the idyllic setting in the Coco Islands however, there is trouble in paradise.

2,750 kilometres northwest of Perth, and halfway between Madagascar and Canberra, is Australia’s most isolated Centrelink office.
Home Island is the unemployment capital of the Indian Ocean. It is home to a unique group of Australian citizens living in paradise at the taxpayers’ expense.

From the office Haji Adam coordinates welfare payment for the 550 odd population living in the unspoilt paradise that is Australia’s Cocos Keeling Islands.

Adams is not only Centrelink’s agent but also Chief Imam, the religious leader of the Muslim community which for nearly three decades has battled unemployment.

Living in paradise comes at a cost. The jobless rate fluctuates from 60 to 80 per cent, and the cost of importing food and freight is high.

“At the moment I have a number of customers who really have expressed their concern about the rate of payment from Centrelink. It is not really enough because of the cost of living, so I think it is really difficult,” Adam said.

Next financial year, the Federal Government has allocated nearly $53,000 for every person on the islands. All up it is around $37 million to maintain health, education, communication and airline services, and that is on top of a dole bill that runs into the millions each year.

On Home Island you can’t buy alcohol or cigarettes. There are no pubs and pokies, and peoples’ lives are guided by their Islamic faith, but still governed by Australia Law. And while there aren’t the employment opportunities of those from mainland Australia, there is evidence of Centrelink fraud, and it has raised questions as to whether the welfare payments to the Cocos Island are being properly administered.

John Clunies-Ross is the direct descendent of the Scottish family who ruled the islands for five generations. Clunies-Ross’s father was forced to sell the islands to the Commonwealth in 1978, and since then the coconut processing industry collapsed, and the islanders’ jobs evaporated.

“They could not afford what they have, so a few of them have to go on the dole, otherwise they couldn’t afford it,” Clunies-Ross said.

There is no work for the dole program, and many of those able to work do so part time to share employment opportunities. But some are still exploiting the system.

41-year-old Azman Arkrie and his five children live in one of the 100 government provided homes on the island. He has been back just over a week from serving two months of a three month sentence in jail in Western Australia for Centrelink fraud.

He has so far paid back $11,000 of the $30,000 he illegally claimed.
Arkrie claims he was unlucky to have been caught, because he certainly was not acting alone.
Next month another home islander will face a court accused of claiming Centrelink benefits for two children who don’t exist, and while many people declined to comment on camera, it was confirmed from various sources across both islands that overpayment of welfare on the island had been rife for years.

Dieter Gerhard has lived on the archipelago’s west island for more than twenty years. He says “Australia has bred a welfare mentality, and it has bred that mentality by basically whatever Home Island, wanted the Government was there writing a big cheque.”

Loyd Liest is the only European living outside the settlement on Home Island. “I know the Government has spent a lot of dough trying to re-educate and retrain the people in that, but it hasn’t sort of worked,” he said.

Household incomes are often pooled and a housing shortage on Home Island means extended families live under the one roof. If no one in the household works, combined incomes could be more than $1,200 per week.

“Could there have been a better education program there, that if people were receiving benefits that may have been dubious, to perhaps give them a tap on the shoulder some time ago, and say ‘hey guys, this isn’t something that you’re entitled to’,” Gerhard asked.
Locals argue that local Imam and Centrelink agent Adam should have done just that, given he certifies all births, deaths and marriages on the island.
He was unable to talk to Today Tonight about the issue, but told us over the phone that despite the small number of clients, he was not privy to all islanders’ welfare claims.
Adam’s bosses at Centrelink in Canberra refused to talk to Today Tonight on camera. Despite having an employee on the island they say they are unable to confirm how many investigations are ongoing into the misappropriation or overpayment of Australian taxpayer funds.
Response statements
Department of Human Services
• The Department of Human Services regularly reviews customers’ entitlements to ensure they are receiving the correct payment for their situation.
• The Department of Human Services receives about 2,000 tip offs a week from people who believe someone they know is ripping off the system.
• Each tip off is assessed by members of the department’s specialist compliance teams who are based around the country.
• You can report via the tip off phone line which is 13 15 24 or online, by letter or email.

About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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