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Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Boyle —I am the branch manager of the governance branch.

CHAIR —I invite you to make an opening statement and then we might ask some questions.

Mr Beven —Chair, I would like to pick up on what you said also and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today and pay our respects as well. I am the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations. I am an independent statutory office holder appointed under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act) 2006, which is shortened to the C(ATSI) Act. It came into force on 1 July 2007. At the moment I have approximately 2,700 Indigenous corporations registered with my office from all over Australia and about 58 per cent of those corporations are based in remote or very remote parts of Australia. The vast majority of our corporations provide important and essential services all around the country to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including a large number of corporations that conduct and run stores in remote parts of Australia.

For our purposes and the purposes of the C(ATSI) Act we class stores in remote communities as essential services. I have certain statutory responsibilities and functions in relation to essential or what are known as significant services in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In those remote areas we do classify stores as an important and essential service. I note that a number of people who have made submissions to the inquiry have also made that point.

The key message I want to pass on to the committee today is that my office and I are strong supporters of community ownership of remote stores. We see community ownership of a store as an important way of allowing the community to have input into the direction and operation of their store and also to allow them to participate in strategic decision making in relation to their stores. We acknowledge that each community is different and has different priorities, different needs and different objectives. Community ownership allows communities to have some input into the direction of their particular store. Community ownership also sends a strong message to the community that it is their store so that there is a strong sense of ownership where a store is owned by the community rather than operated by a government entity or a private sector entity.

In relation to a community sector model I support a model where the body corporate that establishes and operates the community ownership is registered with my office. Today I will spend a bit of time talking about some of the benefits of an Indigenous organisation being registered with my office, the benefits that can flow in the store area, the benefits that can flow to the operation and management of stores in that particular circumstance and how it can also improve food security in remote communities. Equally though, we also acknowledge that a lot of remote communities do struggle with governance and, where they are providing essential services like remote stores, we see that it is important to look at the administration and management of those stores. So we are strong supporters of a centralised administration and management model along the Outback Stores or the ALPA type models. ALPA is an organisation that is registered with my office. They transferred their registration to the C(ATSI) Act at the middle of last year. We do support the model that they have. We do work closely with them and equally we also support the Outback Stores model. We feel that it does provide communities with expertise in relation to administration and store management, and it helps to defuse a lot of humbug in communities as well.

Registration under the legislation I administer, the C(ATSI) Act, provides a wide range of benefits. It provides a strong regulatory framework at a national level. It operates across Australia—it is not restricted to certain jurisdictions. It also has the flexibility to take account of local customary needs and obligations. We also provide corporate governance support and services and we have specialist staff that only deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So our role is delivering services in the corporate governance area to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is 100 per cent of what we do.

The C(ATSI) Act is a piece of legislation that, as I said, gives consideration to the specific needs and circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples seeking to form a corporate entity. In administering the C(ATSI) Act, my office is one of the few agencies with a client base made up entirely of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations. This means that the issues, needs and aspirations of Indigenous Australians are very central to what we do and they are our major focus.

Today I will quickly go through and explain to you some of the functions and services that we offer to the corporations that are registered with my office and how they relate to community stores, particularly in the remote environment. The first thing that we do is that we have a service where we provide free advice and information to corporations, including legal advice. We also provide training and support in good governance practices to corporations, and we do that prior to incorporation and post incorporation, throughout the life of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporation.

A number of submissions to the inquiry noted the importance of nutrition policies and firm strategies to deal with issues such as book-up. Our services help corporations develop and clearly articulate their objectives in their constitutions—or what we refer to as their rule books—and develop strategies and policies around how they will meet these objectives. In supporting good corporate governance, we also help corporations maintain a focus on their stated objectives, which for a store may include the implementation of a nutrition policy. I will talk about how we have done that with a store in Mimili, on the APY lands, which I understand you have had some interest in. The stated objectives may also include the enforcement of rules around credit, book-up and other types of issues. While entrenched behaviours and expectations cannot be resolved easily, this process lends store policies greater legitimacy and ensures that the corporations running those stores remain on track in addressing entrenched issues, as the objectives are enshrined in the constitutional rule book and the community has direct input into the design of that particular rule book.

A number of submissions also noted that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the structure and management of stores will not work, although several noted the successes of the Outback Stores and ALPA model. The model that we tend to prefer is community ownership but also the ALPA or the Outback Stores type of management with centralised administration and management. We see that you can combine the two so that you have a corporation that meets the needs of the local people but you also have centralised administration and management so that there is some disconnect away from the community in relation to those important aspects of store operation.

CHAIR —Sorry to interrupt. Are there Outback Stores which are registered under ORIC?

Mr Beven —Yes.

CHAIR —And the individual ALPA stores are legal entities in themselves. Are some of them registered with you as well?

Mr Beven —That is right. So ALPA owns five stores and it manages, I think, about 10 other stores, and some of those are registered with us. Outback Stores manages 27 stores, I think it is, and some of those are registered with us as well. A significant number are registered with my office.

Another important function that we perform is that we provide dispute resolution services for Aboriginal corporations registered with my office. It is a common issue that does arise in communities about disputes within corporations and organisations in communities, so it is a function that has been incorporated into the new C(ATSI) Act. Many of our Indigenous corporations operate with minimal resources under very difficult circumstances attempting to meet the multiple, complex and urgent needs of their communities. Submissions of this inquiry show that this is often the case for community stores. In such a demanding situation, role confusion, conflicting priorities, administrative problems and disputes often arise.

The C(ATSI) Act has unique statutory powers to assist corporations to resolve disputes internally and minimise the escalation of disputes. In rule books of all corporations registered with my office the corporation must prescribe an internal dispute resolution process. A lot of corporations have a process where disputes have to go off to a senior elder, to the traditional owners, and they have a final say in relation to the dispute. If it still cannot be resolved then it has to be referred to the general members of the corporation for a vote. If a dispute cannot be resolved internally through this dispute resolution process, my office has a dispute resolution function that allows us to help corporations such as community stores to resolve problems with minimal disruption to essential service provision. We can actually appoint external people to come in and mediate and conciliate in relation to a dispute but we do not have an arbitration power.

My office regulates Indigenous corporations in the interests of maintaining an effective, efficient, sustainable and accountable Indigenous corporate sector. Incorporation under the C(ATSI) Act provides much greater security for a community store should it run into difficulties. I will run through some of our regulatory powers which are unique to our office—that the vast majority of other regulators around the country do not have. Under the C(ATSI) Act I have the power to monitor and intervene in a corporation’s affairs when necessary. My office conducts a proactive program which examines the financial and governance affairs of key corporations each year. External examiners appointed by my office conduct detailed examinations of a corporation’s compliance with its rule book, with the C(ATSI) Act and also assesses the financial position of the corporation. The main aim of the examination process is to identify governance and financial issues within a corporation before they become major issues. This year my office will conduct approximately 86 examinations, so 86 corporations will be examined. The majority of these are planned as part of a strategic rolling program but a small percentage are also complaint and intelligence driven. Where we identify that a corporation may be in trouble financially or in governance terms, we can quickly send in an independent insolvency practitioner to examine the position of the corporation and if need be intervene before it becomes a problem that just cannot be turned around.

In addition to the examination power, I also have the power to place a corporation under what is known as special administration and to appoint a special administrator—

Mrs VALE —Is that whether they are a member or not? I note that registration is voluntary.

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mrs VALE —If there are community stores that are not registered with you, can you still order that kind of investigation?

Mr Beven —No. My jurisdiction only applies to organisations registered with my office. That is why we recommend that the community ownership structure is best registered with my office. It specifically meets the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We also have national jurisdiction. We also have a lot more resources than the states do in the associations registration areas.

Mrs VALE —If you come across an organisation or a corporation that is running a community store inappropriately, you do not have any authority over that particular store?

Mr Beven —Not unless it is registered with my office.

Mrs VALE —So if it is not registered you cannot really touch it.

Mr Beven —That is right. We are conducting a program where we are encouraging corporations to move across to my office and we have trialled that in South Australia. ALPA is a good example. It was registered under the NT Associations Act 2003. We had discussions with their board and their management and they decided to transfer across to the Commonwealth registration. As I said, that occurred last year. So we do actually encourage stores to be registered with my office.

CHAIR —Do you mind us asking questions as we go?

Mr Beven —That is fine.

CHAIR —Does the NT government care about that?

Mr Beven —The NT government obviously cares. For associations registered with the NT under the NT legislation, they have an obligation to regulate and administer that legislation. I think it is fair to say that the associations legislation was always set up basically for small clubs, not-for-profits, and, where you have got the average store having a turnover of about $1.3 million in remote areas, it is essential service in those remote communities. My opinion is that it is not appropriate for those stores to be registered under associations legislation.

CHAIR —I suppose my question is, are you out there competing with the NT associations act, or are they happy for stores to go across to you?

Mr Beven —Jurisdiction by jurisdiction it is different. In South Australia they are actively assisting Aboriginal organisations to transfer across to us. It is the same in Western Australia. We have a close relationship with the Northern Territory. We have a partnership and an MOU relationship with them. But, yes, in certain respects we do compete for organisations to be registered with us. It is voluntary, so people can choose where they want to get registered. We do not force people to be registered with us but we do emphasise quite clearly the benefits of being registered at the Commonwealth level with my office and the disadvantages if you are a community store of being registered under state legislation.

CHAIR —And where is that competition most intense—in what jurisdiction, in which state?

Mr Beven —I might not want to say which state that is.

CHAIR —Maybe you already have, by omission. I have another basic question. Are organisations registered with you by definition not for profit?

Mr Beven —No. Organisations registered with us can be not-for-profit, and probably in excess of 90 per cent registered with my office are not-for-profits. But the legislation does enable for-profit businesses to be registered with my office. If a small-business person wanted to register a fish and chip shop and they were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent then they could register that business and distribute profits as they could with an ASIC registered company.

CHAIR —Is there something in the rules which indicates that this is a for-profit entity rather than not-for-profit?

Mr Beven —That is right. As with a company registered with ASIC, the constitution determines how profits are distributed. It is the same with corporations registered with my office. The constitution or the rulebook deals with how the corporation will distribute profits, if any.

CHAIR —But in the mainstream corporate world, beasts are either not-for-profit or profit. You might have a company limited by guarantee not-for-profit but it is into a category. Do you have categories as well, or is it just a statement in the rules which determines what you are?

Mr Beven —It is a statement in the rules. I think I would be correct in saying that nearly all stores registered with my office are not-for-profits. In the past there has been a move to ensure that those stores are not-for-profit because of issues around how you distribute profits throughout the community. But I do know it is an issue that communities are struggling with all the time. Where a store is making profit, how does that store return benefits from that store such as profits back into the community?

CHAIR —I am trying to unpack the comment you have made that you are in support of community owned stores, and I suppose by indication what you are not in support of. Is that a comment about which jurisdiction people should be registered under? Is that what you are trying to say, or are you making some comment about whether it is appropriate to have for-profit runs stores in these communities?

Mr Beven —What I am getting at is that, in a lot of remote communities, there is a very low likelihood that you would have a for-profit business being set up.

CHAIR —We have the station stores, and they are for profit. Are you making a comment about them, or not?

Mr Beven —No. I am just saying that there is a low likelihood of a private-sector enterprise or organisation wanting to set up a store in a remote Aboriginal community because of the difficulties. It is a difficult operating environment. Gross profit margins are low because it is an essential service for those communities and the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that we deal with like to shop at an organisation that they own and have some sort of control over.

Ms REA —You spoke about the choice between for-profit and not-for-profit stores. It sounds to me like you are talking more about governance than about whether they are for profit or not for profit. Am I right in assuming that there are some stores that are financially quite viable but are not for profit because that is the governance structure that the community in which they are situated is much more comfortable with? So we are not talking about whether or not they make a return; it is more about the choice of governance that the community has made.

Mr Beven —That is correct. For example, in the APY lands there are instances of private operators running stores, but the vast majority of stores are community owned, community controlled and not for profit. And there are other instances on the APY lands of community owned stores where the management rights have been contracted out to a private organisation. It is a good example of the mixture of different types of models.

CHAIR —You are not making a comment or passing any judgement about the appropriateness of private enterprise in these communities?

Mr Beven —No.

Mr TURNOUR —I would like to explore the issue of governance. Does the community ownership model have the sort of democratic constitution you would see for an association?

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mr TURNOUR —From your experience, is that a construct that would normally be established within Indigenous culture?

Mr Beven —Indigenous culture is very broad and varies all over the country. As to how the democratic processes work in Indigenous communities, I would not be able to say that there is one model that applies throughout all Indigenous communities. My colleague from AIATSIS would probably be able to—

Mr TURNOUR —It is important to explore this, because you administer it. I think this is a very important philosophical point that drives a lot of policy. You say that there are different models and different cultures but most of the constitutions of community ownership are framed around a membership model where there are voting rights and elections. So there is a similar construct even though there is a variety of different cultural practices.

Mr Beven —I will tell you about three models that we see in constitutions that reflect the different needs and cultural norms in communities. There is a remote community in Western Australia that is registered with us. We did a lot of work with them over four years. They operate a store and they decided on a model where there would be 13 directors of the corporation, representing 13 family groupings and clans in that particular community, and each family and clan would vote for a director to sit on the board of that organisation. Another entity we have on the APY lands decided not to have any election process. The directors are ex-officio appointments. The directors of that entity are the community council chairs from each of the communities across the APY lands. And then we have the standard model, which is most common with our stores, which is a straight democratic process. There is an AGM every year and there is an election process whereby members elect the directors who are going to represent the members on the board of that particular corporation.

Mr TURNOUR —What percentage of your store organisations would be constituted under the standard constitution?

Mr Beven —I would not be able to give you an accurate figure, I am sorry.

Mr TURNOUR —Could you take that on notice?

Mr Beven —Yes.

Mr TURNOUR —The reason I ask those questions is that in many ways communities are a construct of throwing together different clans and groupings from across the country. The level of ownership of the organisation is important to consider. I suppose I am questioning whether the construct is a traditionally cultural construct for a store. I just want to clarify that. In some of your earlier evidence you mentioned that sometimes in your conflict resolution phase you might go off to talk to an elder or whatnot. That might be a way to solve the problem, but that does not actually fit with the constitutional framework of an elected representative process.

Mr Beven —It does if it is prescribed in the constitution. I just want to pick up on your point because I think it is a very key point about how Indigenous communities like to operate through corporate structures. I think it is a good point that traditionally a lot of communities have gone with a straight democratic model. We are seeing a real move towards family and clan based operations of how membership operates within corporations. So I think that is a good point.

Mr TURNOUR —Just picking up on that, for example, you said that you could have a fish and chip shop registered by a clan group or a family, which in reality would be more of a mainstream approach to the way you might run a business.

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mr TURNOUR —Do you notice under those constitutional models that you have less conflict?

Mr Beven —As I said, a very small percentage of our corporations are operating in the mainstream, for-profit type small business model.

Mr TURNOUR —Under your registration, with organisations that are taking that clan, family approach, what is driving that?

Mr Beven —It is hard to say. We have a flexible piece of legislation. It is up to the community to decide how they want to structure it. My sense anecdotally is that most communities have a strong sense of community. Yes, there are different family and clan groups within the communities, but they do like to see that community assets and services are owned and delivered through community organisations. I think that is the driver. I think the family structure that you are referring to is just recognition by communities as to how the community is established. They want that to be reflected in how corporations are established.

I will just refer to one further power, because I think this is important. As I said, another unique power that I have is to appoint a special administrator to a corporation. A special administrator is an external person appointed to take over the management and governance of a corporation for a short period of time. The process is designed to solve problems within a corporation and return a stronger corporation back to its members. This is an important power that can be used quickly to ensure that essential or significant services for a remote community such as a store are maintained and that assets are protected. A special administrator’s role is to apply their business expertise and to collaborate with the corporations’ members and funding bodies to solve problems and return the corporation to member control, usually within a six-month period but at a maximum within 12 months if it is a highly complex or complicated special administration. At this particular moment I have six corporations around the country under special administration. Of those six, two operate stores in remote areas of Australia. So a lot of the work we do in that particular area is in the stores field.

CHAIR —And one of those is Mimili.

Mr Beven —That is right.

CHAIR —Can you tell us about the circumstances of Mimili?

Mr Beven —In relation to Mimili, the Mimili Maku Store Aboriginal Corporation was registered with my office in 2002. It does not receive any operational funding from the Commonwealth or the state government. It is a stand-alone entity. The corporation runs the only store in the APY lands community of Mimili, which had a population of 303 at the last census date. The store sells groceries, general merchandise and fuel and now operates a takeaway. It has an annual turnover of approximately $1.3 million.

Ms REA —In a 300-strong community?

Mr Beven —That is right, and a $1.3 million turnover is about the bare minimum that a store can operate on. Anything less than that and the margins get to such an extent that it does need support from other sources.

On 17 November last year I was in the community of Mimili, and seven of the 10 members of the Mimili Maku Store Aboriginal Corporation approached me and they asked me to appoint a special administrator to the store. Their request was based on a period of disquiet in the community and the resignation of the store manager. The store manager was leaving shortly—had resigned, effective in December. As a result of the disquiet, the assistant store manager left the same day I was in the community, and the store manager left within seven days after that. So we had a situation of no store manager and dysfunction in the community, which was affecting the store. The store was solvent, has always been solvent and still remains solvent, but it had financial issues and cash flow problems that needed to be resolved.

That request was on 17 November last year, and on 18 November I appointed a special administrator. We had someone on board looking at the problems within that community and providing the store protection from the disquiet and dysfunction within the Mimili community. Since then, and we are coming up to the six-month mark on the 18th of this month, the special administrator, under the guidance of a community advisory group, entered into a relief management agreement with Outback Stores—I think that was on about 23 November—to replace the store manager. The special administrator has since facilitated the appointment of a third store manager for a period of six weeks to allow extended trading hours in the community and to upgrade and complete repairs and safety upgrades to the store’s plant and equipment, and has employed up to seven local people at different times.

The special administrator has also commenced a fruit for school program. The store now donates free fruit to the school—a box of bananas, a box of apples and a box of oranges to the school every week that it is open. That equates to 1½ pieces of fruit per day per child that attends school, and that is donated by the store to encourage kids to go to school and stay for lunch. During the special administration process, the special administrator keeps the community up to date with regular community meetings and newsletters. All of those meetings are conducted in language and all of the community newsletters are produced in language as well. They are produced depending on need but on a regular basis about every four to six weeks.

The special administrators are currently negotiating a long-term management agreement at the moment that will maintain a stable operating environment appropriate to the corporation’s objectives of providing food security for the community. The model that we prefer is that we have a community organisation that owns the store, but we are looking for an external provider to provide the management for the Mimili store. At this stage, we have Outback Stores under a relief management agreement, and Outback Stores have been identified as the preferred tenderer for the management rights at Mimili. The community, on 23 March at an AGM and special general meeting, voted to support Outback Stores remaining on a long-term basis at their community store.

CHAIR —That is Mimili?

Mr Beven —That is Mimili.

CHAIR —Who is the special administrator? I do not necessarily want the name of the person, but what sort of person are we talking about? Are we talking about somebody from somewhere like Deloitte's, an accountant? Is that the kind of thing?

Mr Beven —An insolvency practitioner. The special administrators we are using now include KordaMentha, the leading insolvency practitioners. They are the special administrators of one of our corporations on the APY lands. In relation to Mimili store, we are using Meertens Chartered Accountants, in Adelaide. They would have to be the leading insolvency practitioner for remote Aboriginal stores. They have three stores in the Northern Territory under administration and they are also operating Mimili store, in the APY lands.

Mr TURNOUR —What would the cost of a special administration of those stores be on an annual basis?

Mr Beven —Very expensive.

Mr TURNOUR —How much?

Mr Beven —A special administrator can cost anywhere between $7,000 and $66,000 per month. That is why we restrict it to no more than six months. So, for Mimili, on average it would be around the $10,000 to $15,000 mark, but in certain months it would get up to $40,000 per month.

Ms REA —What causes that variation in cost by month?

Mr Beven —It just depends on the work involved. It is on an hourly basis, so it is whether there are issues to deal with—

Ms REA —Okay.

Mr Beven —or it is a straightforward, easy, special administration. An arts centre I am visiting in the Northern Territory next week is costing us about $7,000 a month, so it just depends on the complexity of the issues in the corporation.

CHAIR —Who picks up the tab?

Mr Beven —My office does.

Mr TURNOUR —And you are funded through the Commonwealth?

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mr TURNOUR —You mentioned the Outback Stores model. The Outback Stores model constitutionally is a for-profit model?

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mr TURNOUR —So how do you bring together the essential-service arguments, which really argue about government subsidies and the need to provide them, and the Outback Stores model, in terms of the for-profit approach?

CHAIR —Is that right? Aren’t Outback Stores—

Mr TURNOUR —It is my understanding that their constitution is to transition those stores to a for-profit model, so they have to be self-sustaining and pay their own way.

CHAIR —But that is the point Kerry was making before: it is a viability model, but in terms of governance, not necessarily a for-profit structure.

Mr Beven —I do not want to speak on behalf of Outback Stores, but—

Mr TURNOUR —I agree with you, Chair; I may need to rephrase that. But in the end, they need to be—

Ms REA —They make a return.

Mr TURNOUR —They need to make a return. They need to pay their way—

CHAIR —Without subsidies.

Mr TURNOUR —without subsidy, yes.

Mr Beven —So ‘viability’ I think is the term they use.

Ms REA —Yes.

Mr Beven —We have the special administrator who has gone through the assessment process, and Mimili store is solvent, viable and a profitable store.

CHAIR —I am conscious of time. Are there any other points you are keen to make?

Mr Beven —No, they are the key issues.

CHAIR —There is a difference between the Outback Stores model and ALPA, inasmuch as ALPA itself is registered with you; Outback Stores is—

Mr Beven —Registered with ASIC.

CHAIR —Yes. Do you have any observations to make about that?

Mr Beven —No. As I said, though, we work with both ALPA and Outback Stores. I think the key issue for us is having specialised entities that are experienced and have expertise in running remote stores. I think quite often we see situations where people retire from Sydney and Melbourne and say, ‘I’ll go and work in a remote community and run a store; that sounds like a good idea,’ whereas the Outback Stores-ALPA model has specialised staff who have had long years of running stores in remote communities. For us it is about centralising administration and management, which has economies of scale. It is about having the expertise. It also reduces the pressure on store managers because the community has limited power to dismiss the store managers, which reduces the amount of humbug and pressure on store managers.

CHAIR —But you have emphasised the notion of ownership and community ownership of the stores—

Mr Beven —That is right.

CHAIR —which is a point that has been made consistently to this committee. I guess the question is this. ALPA itself, the umbrella, is community owned, but Outback Stores as an umbrella is not community owned. In the Outback Stores model specifically, do you observe any loss of a sense of ownership in falling under the Outback Stores umbrella?

Mr Beven —No. You will always have different views on whether there is a loss of ownership, but I think one of the strong focuses of ALPA and Outback Stores is their community engagement. A lot of what they do is around community engagement and consultation. The issue of community ownership is about having some say in the direction and operation of your store. I have seen instances where the community own the store and they appoint the store manager but the community have no input into the store whatsoever. Yet, when I see Outback Stores and ALPA, there is constant community engagement and negotiation and resolution of issues: what products should be stocked, who should be employed in the store—all of those types of issues. So I do not think it is so much the model; it comes back to the expertise and ensuring that there is community engagement and that you actually sit down and listen to the community about what they want and what their needs are.

CHAIR —So, on the issue of engagement and ownership, you would not seek to differentiate between ALPA and Outback Stores in terms of whether one does it better than the other?

Mr Beven —No. I think they are equally good.

Ms REA —Just to follow up: at the beginning, when you said that your preferred model is community ownership—

Mr Beven —That is right.

Ms REA —you were really saying that it is more about community engagement? I would like you to follow that up. In the same vein, I guess there is evidence of that in cold, hard outcomes? To the extent that people do actually have a choice about where they shop, is there clear evidence that people will choose one place over another based on the governance structure or the community engagement? Or is that just something that you get a sense of without really being able to—

Mr Beven —I will take your second point about community engagement first. For me, community engagement is the key thing. All operators of stores can say, ‘We will do community engagement; we do it well,’ but community ownership guarantees to the community that they will get community engagement. That is because they have to hold an AGM, it is their store, and, if the store managers are not performing, they can exit the store management company. And what was your third point, sorry?

Ms REA —It was just on the evidence of the extent to which people make choices. On that comment you have made: is it actually reflected in a store’s viability? Can you demonstrate that stores that have better community engagement or community ownership are actually more successful? Or is it too hard to make that—

Mr Beven —It is too hard, but my anecdotal evidence—as I said, we do a lot of work with community stores. We have two under special administration now. We had another one last year. We have three stores under another external administration process in the Northern Territory. The clear message we get when we talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is that they want some input into the store and they do prefer a model where the community actually owns the store.

Ms REA —Thanks.

Mrs VALE —Thanks very much, Anthony. You are an independent oversight agency?

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mrs VALE —Do you have powers of audit? I know that you can put in place administrators, so if you have concerns about the viability of a particular store you can actually have it audited?

Mr Beven —We call it an examination process, but it is—

Mrs VALE —It is the same thing.

Mr Beven —It is the same thing.

Mrs VALE —I hear what you say about the community having input, but could I ask you: is the community store at Fregon registered with you?

Mr Beven —That is right; it is.

Mrs VALE —When you talk about community input, are there any formal mechanisms whereby the women of communities can have an input? We found many of them were most reticent to even come and talk to us unless some of our wonderful female staff went out and spoke to them first before it even got to that stage—you know, the traditional time, where there were very patriarchal type societies. When you consider that it is women who do most of the purchasing and most of the feeding of the children and we are looking at trying to improve nutrition, we have to hear in a formal way from the women. Are you aware of any mechanisms in some of these stores where the women actually get to have an impact?

Mr Beven —I am glad you mentioned Kaltjiti store because Mrs Brown is the chairperson of the store committee in Fregon. She is a very strong woman—I know she is. As I said, she is the chair of that committee.

Mrs VALE —Is that the women who was providing us food?

CHAIR —I do not think she was there.

Mrs VALE —It is just that at Fregon there was a store manager—and I do not know how much conflict Mrs Brown had with this particular fellow but there were real concerns about him. He was not there when we were there.

CHAIR —This is the previous store manager.

Mrs VALE —Yes, we actually found him when we went to Amata. He came across as quite a terrifying person.

Mr Beven —I would just pick up on that because we actually employed him for three days to manage the Mimili store but Mrs Brown got on the phone and said, ‘We employ you to manage our store. Get back here.’ And within a few hours he was back in the store. Mrs Brown is a very strong person and she is the chair of that store committee.

Mrs VALE —We heard from some of the women, and this was actually not officially at the table. This is what women in Indigenous communities seem to do—they will come and talk to you afterwards, if you are a woman; they will not go near the menfolk but they will come and talk to us. At one stage during the course of the management that fellow had at Fregon there was one packet of Kimberley nappies and no toddler food. The women felt that they were unable to have any communication with this person. So I am pleased to hear that Mrs Brown had some success, and it is our loss that she was not there to actually talk to. Do you think it would be valuable if there was some sort of formal mechanism where women were invited, perhaps formally by your particular organisation or the government, to send a representative or maybe two women representatives—I think just having one can be bad in Indigenous communities; I think they need two or three—to form a women’s committee that actually has an impact on what they would like to see in the store available for purchase?

Mr Beven —I agree with you that it would be advantageous, but our approach is that it is up to the community to determine and it is up to the community to discuss how it sets up its management and governance structures within the community. We always advise communities that it is important to have not only family representation but also a mixture of men and women but we would never mandate that as a requirement.

CHAIR —It is part of the advice you give in the training to have a gender balance?

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mrs VALE —Most of the evidence we heard initially was given by men—but men do not go and buy food to feed their children. That is why trying to get to the women to find out exactly what was available and what their needs were took a bit of extra effort. How many community stores are not registered with you? Do you have any idea of how many there are available outside your net, if you like?

Mr Beven —It would just be anecdotal evidence. It is hard to determine what are the exact activities of each individual corporation whether registered with me, the state or with ASIC. In the Northern Territory there are 75 remote stores, and 11 are owned by the shires.

Dr Boyle —Most are under the Northern Territory associations legislation. There are also a couple that are independent.

Mr Beven —About 30 to 40 per cent are registered with my office.

CHAIR —So that is 30 per cent of the 70-odd?

Mr Beven —That is right, and 11 are registered with the shires. There are some registered with ASIC and there are some registered under the NT associations legislation.

CHAIR —Could you give us some stats on how many stores are registered with you by state?

Mr Beven —We could only do it for the Northern Territory, because the NT intervention has a formal licensing process. We would not be able to do it outside the Northern Territory because there is no mechanism for identifying which entities run particular stores.

Mrs VALE —Isn’t it possible to find out from different areas? For example, this particular remote area has a regional store. Isn’t it easy to say: what are you registered under or under what auspices do you operate your store, if any? We have already identified that these stores in remote communities are essential services.

Mr Beven —That is right.

Mrs VALE —I just think it is appalling the way some of the ones we have seen are being run. Some of them are run very well. There are others that you would wish to be a lot better. I think it would be awful if there were some that, even in this day and age, can just jolly well do their own thing to the detriment of the health of the children in that community.

Mr Beven —I suppose the difficulty is that there are about 10 different registration schemes available—and probably more than that; there are probably 12—around the country. That is why we say we prefer a model where all remote committee stores are registered with us. That then allows government to have that consistent access—

Mrs VALE —Absolutely, maybe that should be a recommendation.

CHAIR —But it does sound like you do not keep the information about what your entities do. So, within your entities, we cannot tell how many of them are stores.

Mr Beven —We can give you a pretty good idea, because each entity lodges with us an annual report called a general report. One of the questions is: what are your main activities? It is self-identification.

CHAIR —Searching by that criterion, would you be able to give us the information about how many are identifying as being stores?

Mr Beven —Very roughly. We could give it to you exactly for the Northern Territory, but for other jurisdictions—

CHAIR —Why is it rough? If it works on the basis that you have just said, even if it is based on self-identification, why can’t that be given precisely?

Mr Beven —For example, the other store we are currently running in Burringurrah in Western Australia is the Burringurrah Community Aboriginal Corporation. It then has a subsidiary, and the subsidiary is registered with ASIC and it runs the store. In Mutitjulu, you have the Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation, which is registered with my office. It owns all the shares in Gumlake Pty Ltd, which is an ASIC corporation, and it is the trustee of a trust, the Ninti Trust, which runs the store in Mutitjulu. So the complexities of the registration schemes around the country—

Mrs VALE —It sounds like a dog’s breakfast.

Mr Beven —are difficult to deal with. They are just two examples. There are cooperatives, associations, ASIC companies and trusts.

CHAIR —It would be good if you could give us the rough numbers. I would be keen to have a sense of whether the various reporting requirements that you have are being met by the community stores. By the sound of it, that is not a question you can answer.

Mr Beven —We will take that on notice. As I said, we can give that to you exactly for the Northern Territory and we will do our best for the other jurisdictions.

Mr TURNOUR —Could you say that all of the stores in the Cape York Peninsula and all the IBIS stores in the Torres Strait are not registered with you?

Mr Beven —No. From what I understand, they are the Queensland government’s.

Mrs VALE —I think we could talk to you for a lot longer.

CHAIR —Yes, I do too. An area which we have not gone into which we do not have time to go into is income management and the licensing of stores, so what we might do is provide you with some questions. Would it be all right for you to provide us with some written answers to those?

Mr Beven —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your time today.

[1.23 pm]