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Wet season storms highlight communications weakness on Tiwi Islands

By Stephanie Zillman, Wednesday February 7, 2018 - 18:27 EDT
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Most residents rely on Centrelink's basics card to pay for essential items. - ABC

On the Tiwi Islands, around two hours ferry-ride north of Darwin, 2,000 mainly Aboriginal residents spent three days this week with limited access to fuel, internet, or phones after a Telstra tower was damaged.



The outage meant that only one of the two shops in Wurrumiyanga, on Bathurst Island, could process non-cash sales.

Residents told the ABC that most people in the community were reliant on Centrelink's "basics card", and everything from fuel to power must be pre-paid.

There is currently no alternative system in place for when the communication lines that fuel the cards go down, and the community is wholly reliant on repair crews coming from the mainland.

"One bad storm, and we'll be suffering for days," resident Nicholas Miller said.

"We can't get access to the shop for our power, use our basics card, or withdraw money.

"Some of the kids will be starving."

Many residents, including Mr Miller, were not made aware that the Telstra outage had not affected the second store, which is connected via the NBN.

A spokesperson for Telstra said it worked to restore services as quickly as possible and



Difficulty in buying power when Telstra down

The outage highlighted the weaknesses for communities using cashless welfare cards when the internet drops out.

Like many residents, Traditional Owner Wesley Kerinaiua said he could only afford to buy small amounts of electricity at a time — sometimes paying $10 or $20 to last the subsequent few days.



When the internet was not working in the community, staff at the local shop could not login and recharge his power card.

He said he was frustrated that he could no longer simply use cash to power his home.

"They just said, 'We've got to move to this system' — just forcing people," Mr Kerinaiua said.

"They didn't give us any chance to say which [system] is the easiest for us."

Phyllis Daniels, another Traditional Owner of Bathurst Island, said she believed more could be done to safeguard against the problems people faced during the wet season.

"I think when the weather is really bad, and nothing's been done, it's really difficult especially for the older people and the little ones — it breaks my heart," she said.



Department and Minister at odds over response

In statement to the ABC, the Department of Human Services said during weather events and other issues that affect Eftpos networks "the Department of Human Services works directly with local stores, communities and service providers to ascertain what services are available, and when impacted services are expected to be restored".



The Department said residents had other options available to access their funds depending on the nature of the outage.

"This can and does include the Department making direct payments to stores and businesses on behalf of recipients," the statement said.

"People can contact the Department of Human Services' Income Management Line 1800 132 954, (available 24 hours a day / seven days a week) for assistance in accessing income-managed funds."

However, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion agreed the option of ringing the Department seemed unlikely, considering the phone lines were down.

"Well I agree with you," Senator Scullion said.

"But they do have cash available, I believe another store had facilities available, and I'd love to be able to say the Department can fix the weather.

"These are circumstances that don't happen very often."

Editor's note February 7, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wurrumiyanga relied on one store during the Telstra outage.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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