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 assist 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.