Thursday, July 10, 2014

Charmaine Webster, the Minimbah Project and the importance of a birth certificate

A week back, students from the University of New England spent a week in Canberra lobbying Federal Ministers to help give a forgotten generation of Australians an official identity.

I had been following the Minimbah Project for a little while. The project is named after Minimbah, a largely Aboriginal independent pre-school primary school located in Armidale. My old school, TAS, has established a close relationship with Minimbah to the benefit of both.  

Driven by UNE students, the Minimbah Project began several years ago to assistCharmaine Webster Aboriginal students to acquire birth certificates. Such a simple thing, a birth certificate.  Many people didn’t have one either because the birth went unregistered or because a certificate was not obtained. Now, the consequences can be dire because of the increasing rigidity of Government rules mandating a birth certificate as a key piece of evidence for just about everything.

This is Charmaine Webster. She does not exist. This is her story. According to UNE student and Minimbah Project leader Reece Tickey, an estimated 300,000 Australians are unregistered and uncertified.

There are two parts to the problem. First, you have to register the birth. This is technically compulsory and, I think, free. But then, you have to pay for the birth certificate. In NSW, I understand that this costs $50. So a proportion of births go either unregistered or without that critical piece of paper. This is specially true for disadvantaged groups.  

Starting at Minimbah, the UNE student project team have been holding free birth registration sessions at community centres and sports events in regional NSW and southern QLD, for several years. These sessions have been supported by fund raising activities. While the work continues, the project team concluded that retrospectively issuing certificates was unsustainable due to the sheer numbers and geographical dispersion of the people affected.

As a solution, the team saw a need to streamline, integrate and automate the system for registering births and issuing birth certificates. They also thought that this could fit with a number of technology initiatives already underway. Apart from being socially important, simplification and integration could actually save Government money. Hence the Canberra trip.

In all this, I suspect that a critical piece of system architecture lies in making the issue of the initial certificate free. I assume that the price was imposed as a cost recovery measure. However, and as with all prices, the effect of a price is to stop some people buying. That has later costs.

I spent an idle moment trying to work out how much Charmaine Webster’s attempts to gain a birth certificate had cost. Not the cost to her, that’s large, but the cost to governments in terms of time and salaries. It’s clearly in the thousands, probably tens of thousand, of dollars. That pays for a lot of certificates.      


Rod said...

Not being pedantic at all* (*wink) but in NSW it costs $51 - I filled one in a couple of weeks ago. I'm sure this is one of the last things you want to spend money on with a newborn especially when you want to get clothes, nappies, blankets, car capsules etc.

The registration form is about 20 pages long too... so if you struggle to read or write it must be an ordeal. It also takes a stamp on the form from a registered midwife (who witnessed the birth) as well as the birth certificates of the parents!

I remember Queensland being easier for my first child... but that might be poor memory.

I can see why so many people don't bother.

Anonymous said...


This is just crap dressed up as a 'cause' - most probably to sell papers off a couple of reasonably photogenic images.

Eventually she was able to get married through the help of an old friend and Justice of the Peace, who signed documents required for marriage registration:

As opposed to the facts:

If party to an intended marriage is unable, after reasonable inquiry, to state any information required in this notice, he or she should write 'unknown' in the relevant space on the form.

u.n.k.n.o.w.n - not very hard.

employers are now fined for hiring workers who cannot prove their Australian citizenship and could be illegal immigrants. Because Ms Webster can’t provide evidence in the form of a passport or birth certificate, she can’t get a job

Never in all my years as an employer has it been a notified requirement for an applicant to provide a birth certificate.

I would like to see the particular legal reference for that nonsense; the inability to get a job possibly has to do more with the applicant's ability

And then Miss Daisy wants to go driving:

But none of these documents could help Ms Webster get a passport or driver’s licence.

A drivers licence requires a birth certificate? Three forms of identification - yes, and each with 'points' - but a requirement for a birth certificate?

Who wrote this rubbish? Answer:

Grace Koelma, Newsroom Assistant. Grace looks after the team & the social media sites for After completing a teaching degree, she discovered her greatest passion was writing and journalism. In her spare time Grace likes cycling, watching French films and listening to TED talks.

One hopes young Grace achieves her "passions". But there's a long way to go, if this is asny evidence of her abilities.


Anonymous said...

TED Talks:

Listening to them indicates a willingness to set aside some time, but nothing more. I would suggest the same time applied to listening to a Christopher Hitchen's debate would be more worthwhile - no matter the topic - because there is always an opposing view, however delightfully dissected.

TED Talks abbreviated:

I read somewhere the other day that Thomas Piketty's latest opus is (overwhelmingly) most referenced in its first 16 pages.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. You will find the current identification requirements for a NSW driver's license here - Note that you must provide something from list 1.

When I started work as a contractor for Randstad I was required to show either a birth certificate or my passport or evidence that I was a permanent resident of Australia. The reason, and it's not unique to Randstad,
was to ensure that I was legally entitled to work in Australia.

Jim Belshaw said...

Damn. $51. I was told that, Rod, but I obviously rounded it in my mind!

Sorry not to respond to your comment first, but in this case I really wanted to put a shot across kvd's bows. Our ules just keep getting more complicated. In an attempt to solve one problem, governments create another.

kvd may be right that the story I quoted was a sob piece, but its bloody complicated now.

Anonymous said...

So this has been a requirement in NSW for the ten years the lady has been struggling? Or more to the point, in her apparent state of residence, Queensland, during the same stressful period? Doubt creeps in.

Randstad required of you a, or b, or c - and you chose to provide a. Good for you, but not ultimately necessary as I read your comment.

I note you did not address the other points. Maybe I should confine myself to looking at the pictures.


Anonymous said...

Thought I'd check Qld regs; much the same thing as Jim linked,but down the bottom it says "If you genuinely cannot provide any of these documents then you can... etc.". Won't go back to the NSW site, but suffice to say - if you genuinely wish to make an issue of this, then etc.

Let's remind ourselves that this lady actually undertook a uni course in pursuit of this goal. Really? On the upside, I guess she's not been charged HECS or whatever the acronym is these days.


Anonymous said...

Apologies Jim. The Minimbah Project seems a very worthwhile initiative, with benefits to both the students involved and of course those they seek to help. And I accept your use of this activity as an example of increasing systemic rigidity.

I unfortunately got sidetracked by the 'poster girl' for this issue; her story just seems a little over-egged to me.


Rod said...


I agree with your sentiment about university level educated people... there should not be too much trouble filling the forms out - just a pain... My concern is for those that don't have good educational backgrounds (hang on... that might include some uni students these days!).

It is a sop story but the implications are wider ranging than the story itself I feel.

Anonymous said...

Hello Rod. Yes, I accept your comment as probably better stated than my own.

Hope you're not being blown away in sunny downtown nowhere near me.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both and my apologies for not responding more quickly. I have been doing an advanced project management course for the last two days. It was actually a very good course, I will probably write something on it, but with the other things I had on I found the days very draining.

kvd, I do not object to your willingness to take a counter view, to challenge. I greatly value it, in fact.

The story may be over-egged, but the lady in question could probably not provide the evidence Randstad required. As you note, the issue I am focusing on is increasing systemic rigidity. That really annoys me!

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the situation is currently, but when I gave birth in Victoria and the ACT, the registration paperwork was presented by the hospital.
Rod; I'm sorry, but 'oh, the paperwork's too hard and expensive'; should have thought about that 9 months before. Drive an unregistered car because it's too expensive?
BMD registrations are not Federal, so why are these dogooders roaring off to Canberra?
You can't execute an estate without a death certificate or other legal proof of death, so why all this hooha about birth certs.

You have a baby in a recognised place of giving birth, the birth is registered. You want to go loony under a gumtree or do it unassisted, suck it up if you don't want to accept one of the RESPONSIBILIES of being a parent. End of story

Anonymous said...

Ummm, how does she know her name and date of birth? there must be records.
And since when is the Herald Sun a newspaper of repute, and what the heck does this beat up have to do with TAS and an aboriginal preschool? Oh, BTW, how do you get to start (pre) school or school without appropriate documentation?
You also have to be able to provide proof of who you are to enrol (and then graduate ) from an Australian university. or you did, last time I did.

Jim Belshaw said...

To anon's one and two. Or just anon if you are the same. In commenting, pls leave an initial or some other identifier. That way people can respond in a more targeted way.

TAS and Minimbah. TAS has a major program helping Aboriginal students. As part of that program, as a cause too of that program, TAS established relations with Minimbah. Minimbah kids and TAS kids work together In a way, Minimbah has become a feeder school for TAS.

The UNE students became involved with Minimbah because it was local. They found that kids did not have birth certificates. They sought to rectify the problem. From there, the program spread.

Anon one and two, your comments are blind prejudice. You speak of unregistered cars. And yes, that is a problem because registration costs are high. There is a bigger problem with drivers licenses. There you have to be middle class or lie or both to get one because the price costs have taken a drivers license out of the reach of some Australians.

One of the biggest groups of Aboriginal kids in jail are those there because of traffic offences and non-payment of fines. We send them to jail so that they can learn to be real criminals. Then they rob us and we complain.

Get real. Facts please. Not opinions.

Anonymous said...

Australia obsesses over minor traffic offences with fines more than commensurate to match. There are bigger Aboriginal issues than this, for heavens' sake. Our overmanned police (in NSW) love it the traffic branch - all the name of 'road safety', egged on by the police union and ubiquitous public health zealots.


Jim Belshaw said...

Mmm, DG. Actually I agree with your complaints.

Anonymous said...

Hello all my name is Charmaine Webster. Firstly for those who doubt that you have to prove your right to work check the legislation, I did. Secondly those who question that it was an inabi on my part to get a job. Within one week of getting my evidence of citizenship I was employed and have remained so. To those calling me a poster girl, I am a grandmother and far from a girl. I went to the media as I had no other option. My story is not a sob story but an account of what happens when people fall through the cracks. I am currently trying to get a passport so as some of you seem to believe you know how easy it is to do everything without a birth certificate maybe you can tell me how to accomplish this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Charmaine and welcome. Really nice to get an update from you.

My commentators have different views and are entitled to express them. However, I hope that it is clear that I understood your problem and was using it as part of a theme to illustrate just your point. I had a friend looking after another friend who was a refugee. The paperwork was very messy, and the friend's friend could not get a job because she could not get the right piece of residency paper even though she had been living in Australia since a young child. It took six months and an independent archive search to sort out based on identifying likely camps and then tracking forward.

Good luck with the passport search.

Jim Belshaw said...

Feel free to leave a message here if you need support and I will follow up.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim Charmsine Webster here, having been a student of human services and social science I am always happy for an open discussion. I thank you for your offer of support. I did get my passport and have also helped many in similar situations to myself. If I can ever be of assistance to the discourse around this subject would love to be a part of it. I will check back on this post if you request contact details I am happy to provide them. Thank you for bringing this subject into the light

Anonymous said...

Dear Charmaine, Thank goodness you finally managed to recieve your passport. I have been in the same boat as yourself ...Now 64 years and still without a passport or birth certificate. I even served in Vietnam and yet there is no recognition of me when i want a passport because of the birth certificate. I would love some help with this if you can spare the time. Im not sure how one goes with giving contact details. all the best for you
Kind regards Robert