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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
House of Reps
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
Mr Ah Loy
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
(House of Representatives-Monday, 30 March 2009)
Mr See Kee
SEE KEE, Mr Wayne
KRIS, Mr John (Toshie)
CHAIR (Mr Marles)
SCARCE, Mr John
GELA, Mr Fred
McCARTHY, Mr Bernie
STEPHEN, Mr Napau Pedro
BOWLER, Mr Richard
WHITE, Mr Fred
PARRY, Mr Michael
MOSBY, Mr Daniel
AKEE, Mr Leo
TEKAHIKA, Mrs Betty
Mr Ah Loy
HIGGINS, Mr Michale
AH LOY, Mr Peter
MOAR-MALONE, Ms Vonda
SPROAL, Mr Tim
HARRY, Ms Abigail
DEVINE, Mrs Samantha
TURNER, Mr Chicka
- Mr Kris
Content WindowSTANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
Ms Harry —First and foremost I would like to acknowledge God and acknowledge Him for this gathering here today, because without God you would not be sitting here today. This is very important for the people of this nation—for the Torres Strait Islander people. It has been one of my interests. I have lived in Australia for 38 years and I have moved only in the last four years. And I have looked at the things that have happened here in this community—the Torres Strait community. I must say that when I looked at the email that was going around—and it came from you, Chairman—and you addressed the remote Torres Strait, I thought that I must say to this committee that this region is none other than a remote Indigenous community.
We ought to be mindful of what is happening in the Torres Strait with this inquiry into IBIS, which was a shop when we were growing up. Today, as a community person, I do not know who the custodian of IBIS is or who owns IBIS. Is it the government and the board members and the government representative? Today we listened to Richard—and I did not quite catch his last name—talk about the prices at IBIS. Our leaders are saying one thing—an accurate thing. We are here to say things that are just and right. People come here to give evidence, and let us hope that this evidence is the truth and nothing but the truth. I have been here for years and the prices in IBIS shocked me.
Then there is the turnover in staff. If you go to IBIS today, there are no Indigenous people working there like there were 10 years ago. I had a headache and I did not feel like writing down the number of staff who has worked at IBIS. This is a remote Indigenous community. Staff are employed by IBIS to come here to work. They have housing provided. They have better housing. I do not know whether they pay rent. Is it government housing? It is different for the people living on the island. This issue is not only about IBIS itself; this is to do with the social structure in this place.
There is another class of people living in this environment, and I do not know whether those people who live in those houses pay rent. There are those Torres Strait Islander people who are able to work in a position here in this community. Then there are the people at the bottom who cannot afford to live on their CDEP. Who would want to live on CDEP? The great Australian dream is to own your own home. These people up here do not have any hope or a future. We need changes.
I listened to the boy from AQIS. I think there needs to be a better submission from AQIS, because the special zone and the quarantine zone are two different things. When I listened to Mayor Stephen and Mayor Gela, I heard two different things. When you listen to someone who represents an organisation, you hear a different view. This committee is very important to the people. Everything we put forward to the committee is documented and will be condensed and presented to government. This is about the future of these people in this nation. We receive the people who come to this place for business, this remote Indigenous community, this place in the Torres Strait—gud pasim, I pasim—because they are going to do good for our community. It is usually a government representative who comes. I do not mind that, but I am trying to figure out which Indigenous person is going to sit on this consultation to listen to the views of the people.
I listened to Bob and I am really surprised that he knows my old boss from Western Australia—the first Aboriginal state minister. It really touched me. Where is this Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs heading? I do not know the closing date for this inquiry. I also want to make a submission as a community person. Is there a closing date?
CHAIR —Yes, but you should feel free to make a submission if you want to make one. We will not be reporting until September. If you want to make a submission, we would ask you to get it in as quickly as you can.
Ms Harry —I think it is very important to do that. Look around at this room. In any consultation between Torres Strait Islander people and the government, even if you only have a handful of Torres Strait Islander people that is consultation. If you go to any consultation with Torres Strait Islander people, you will only get a handful of people. We expect people like Leo, Mayor Gela and Mayor Stephen to come and speak for the people. I hope that one day our people can come and sit down like this and speak to your mob who have come to talk to our mob about proper representation and how we are going to put things in place.
This is just one issue. What you are doing today is putting a bandaid on it. There are a lot of other social issues that need to be addressed. I go to buy one small, ugly, old purple sweet potato and I have to cut the thing right down because the end of it is rotten. I have to cut it right down to the bottom. These are the kinds of things that those people working in IBIS need to be accountable for to the people. What they presented was very good, but we have to have other ways of understanding to make those things really happen in the community. I want to thank you for that.
CHAIR —Thank you, Abigail.
Mr Sproal —I have been a resident of Thursday Island since January 2008. I will make just a few comments and then ask a question at the end. Firstly, thanks for the inquiry. If nothing else, it has meant that for this week at least the shelves of IBIS are really, really well-stocked. I have some observations from regularly shopping at the store. Quite frequently, stock in the fresh food section is off. Most commonly, things like onions and lettuce are, effectively, rotten, which is a pretty significant health risk. Quite frequently stock is out of date. I am always finding dried fruit well beyond its use-by date. Quite often in the fresh food section there are no prices on stock such as chillies, herbs and that kind of stuff. You get to the register and find it is six bucks for a couple of chillies. There is a line behind you, so what do you do? You pay six bucks for two chillies and you have the most expensive curry you have ever had.
I will give you an actual example of the costs. I think we talked about $1.30 per kilo being the average freight cost. Feta cheese, which I buy regularly, is $6.69 at IBIS and $4.98 at Coles, for 250 grams. By my quick maths, that is about $4.80 per kilo. That is just one example. Also, you will frequently pick up something off the shelf at a certain price but find, when you get to the register, it is different. In this example, feta was at $6.09 but when I got to the register it was $6.70. That happens quite frequently. I guess it is just a communication thing but, when you have quite a few people in the queue behind you, it is not something they will sort out straight away and you feel a bit awkward asking them to fix it for you.
Richard Bowler had a letter published in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago, which talked about the biodegradable plastic bags that are currently used in IBIS stores and have been for many months. My armchair investigative journalism found they have the brand ‘bullseye food service’, which is actually non-biodegradable. They have had that bag for months and months and they still have it today. I just want to submit that what he reported was inaccurate. Green bags, another environmental initiative, have only arrived in the last couple of weeks. There are a small number of them for sale at an exorbitant price. It is just a token.
Another thing you come across quite regularly is that the deli is closed. You seek a manager, which is a bit of a challenge. Often you will speak to the manager and say: ‘The deli is shut. What’s the deal? I’d like to get some fresh produce.’ They will say, ‘The girl didn’t show up today,’ and then have a little rant about the girl not showing up. That is not her problem. What if, for example, something unforeseen happened and she could not come to work, which happens regularly? By their structure, if she doesn’t come to work the deli doesn’t open. That is not her problem; it is management’s problem. So that is a big issue, I think.
My question is for Richard, and I do not think he is here, which is a shame. My question is about food security, and I think I have a slightly different perception of food security. It starts with the community, in my opinion, not with trying to establish relationships with Coca-Cola. It is about locally sourced food. At the moment we are relying on a centralised food chain, and there is a lot of opportunity for locally sourced products. There has been quite a lot of talk about community gardens and local agriculture. My question to Richard is: if community gardens get established, if local agriculture gets established, would there be any opportunity for IBIS to stock those kinds of community agriculture derived products? What was that, Richard?
CHAIR —For the record, that is a question to Richard Bowler, I take it.
Mr Sproal —Yes.
Mr TURNOUR ——Maybe we could follow that up as a committee and ask that of IBIS.
CHAIR —Samantha Devine?
Mrs Devine —I would like to pay my respects and say thank you to the Karaueg people for allowing us to be on their land today, and I also say thank you to the committee for coming here. My issues with IBIS started some time ago, when I purchased three items, added up the amount in my head so that I had around the right money at the till, and was charged nearly $2 over the ticket price on the shelf for those three items. I started to keep an eye on my dockets and comparing them with the prices shown on the shelf. I asked a couple of times to talk to the manager. One time I was told there was no manager, and another time someone’s name was called by the girl at the checkout and no-one came. I would ask for the difference to be refunded to me each time, which was not an experience that you would really want to go through unless you were really trying to make a point. When things like that have happened in Coles, they do lots of ‘Oh, very sorry, Madam. Here’s your first item free, here’s the money refunded, we’re really sorry; we hope it won’t happen again.’ In IBIS I was told, on a Sunday, ‘We can’t refund your money today. It’s Sunday. We’re very busy. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.’ When I came back the following day, which was the Monday, I was made to wait about 45 minutes and the money was put into my hand like that, without the operator looking at me. There was never an apology. I was told that the price that was scanned was the correct price, not the price on the shelf.
I was also told by one of the operators that it was not possible, and it was wrong of me to expect that all the prices would be changed on the shelf, because there were too many. The prices went up every week and they could not possibly get around to change those prices. After I had asked to speak to the manager twice, I actually called the Cairns office twice. I was quite annoyed when Richard Bowler said that they really did not need a complaints procedure because they were quite open to receiving complaints. I called the Cairns office twice and no-one returned my call, so then I got really poopy and talked to the Office of Fair Trading and I started quite a lengthy relationship there with a lady called Peta Ison. I kept all the receipts that IBIS gave me with the refund differences on, and probably three times a week I emailed Peta Ison with the latest IBIS incident and overcharge. She met with Richard Bowler as a result of that, and she assured me—and I really believe that she did a very good job; she certainly did all she could do—that they now had processes in place to ensure that it would not happen. But it would have happened last week, and it is happening today.
CHAIR —Sorry—that IBIS—
Mrs Devine —IBIS will charge you more at the checkout than they display on the shelves.
CHAIR —When she said there were processes in place, did she mean that there were processes that IBIS advised?
Mrs Devine —Yes.
CHAIR —Where was Peta based?
Mrs Devine —At the Cairns office. I have probably still got all of the emails if you want to see them. It was a very uncomfortable process. One of the reasons that I did it was that I thought IBIS is supposed to be working for the members of this community, and what it is really doing is ripping people off. A lot of the Torres Strait Islander ladies would be too ashamed to say anything at the counter, because it is uncomfortable. So I thought, ‘It takes someone else to make that stand.’ My treatment from one of the managers, who has been in this room today, went from being very friendly—they would have a chat with me when I am in IBIS—to completely ignoring me, which he still does to this day. I find that to be incredibly unprofessional. I am not quite sure about their accredited training and how that is working, but it does not seem to have translated to the shop floor, despite the fact that that training might be happening.
In my mobile phone and at home I have photographs of salami that has had its date crossed out and then been put on sale. I have the same with sausages that have had their use-by date crossed out and had a new date written in. I also have a photograph of bread—but this one is not very clear, because of the reflection on the bread—that was incredibly mouldy and was still for sale and on the shelves. I have those if the committee would like to see those.
CHAIR —That would be good.
Mrs Devine —There are things like the lettuce mix: if you lift it up it is sopping underneath; it is juicy and wet. I never realised that it was such a problem until I saw on TV that it is one of the worst things for food poisoning. Food safety, handling and looking at all the laws and regulations all seem not to apply in practice. The onions are black. It is over $16 for a kilogram of Black and Gold cheese which in Cairns is about $6. I know there is a $1.39 charge for every kilogram of freight they bring up, but it does not mean charging twice the price for a block of cheese that you can get in Cairns for less than half the price.
There have been issues about the lack of availability of fuel raised by friends of ours on the outer islands. IBIS regularly run out of fuel. They run out of fuel at the beginning of the crayfishing season, so none of the crayfishers can go out, start catching crayfish and start earning money. The fuel bowser on St Pauls broke in December and was not fixed until about two weeks ago, so no-one had access to fuel for their dinghies. There is a man called Keith Taylor on St Pauls, whose details I would be happy to provide and who would be happy for me to provide them. He talked to me about talking to an IBIS manager, who said, ‘IBIS isn’t even interested in selling fuel anymore; they don’t want to do it.’ Darnley and Badu have been out of fuel and out of oil, so that means people cannot run their main mode of transport or earn a living.
A lot of goods are not priced at all. There are no prices on the shelves, like Tim said, so it is a bit of a guess what you are going to pay. You do not know if you have been overcharged, because there is no price there. That was another thing that was going to be addressed after Peta Ison met with Richard Bowler but which has not happened. My husband was out on Dauan last week on Monday. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables whatsoever in IBIS. There was no milk and there was no bread. Last week at IBIS there was a poster advertising their healthy food program on the side of a bin. In the fruit bin there were tomatoes that were all black around where the stalk of the tomato would go in. They were full of black bits and soft bits. I talked to one of the other shoppers and said, ‘Is this part of the IBIS healthy food program?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ It was the sort of stuff you would not feed to rabbits—if you could have them in Queensland.
Locally, the fruit and veg section in IBIS is known as ‘the compost heap’. We will ‘go and see what is available on the compost heap’ because that is oftentimes what it looks like. One of my issues is that I now order groceries from Coles—I have been here about four years—which I had not wanted to do, because it was about supporting local business and keeping it local, but I was fed up with getting ripped off by IBIS’s pricing issue. I now get my groceries sent up by Sea Swift, but a lot of people do not. You have to have a credit card to be able to do that, and a lot of people do not have that option open to them. When IBIS advertise their fruit and vegetable specials in the paper they never say what the original or proper price should be; therefore, you do not know how special the special is. You do not know if you are saving 2c, 20c or $2. You know how, when you are in a supermarket down south and you get an item scanned, you have a computer screen and it comes up with the amount that you pay? That does not happen in IBIS. The only person who can see the amount that is scanned is the operator. The only thing you get told is the total at the end. You cannot even see and think, ‘Hold on; that has come up at $2.99 and it says $2.09 on the shelf.’ You will not know that unless you check your docket at the end.
I get vegetables sent up, and the See Hops store sells fruit and vegetables. I cannot understand how my grapes come and my grapes are crispy and IBIS grapes are soggy. You can go to See Hops and buy fresh fruit and vegetables, not—
Mr KATTER —What is See Hops?
Mrs Devine —See Hops is a locally owned grocery store. You can buy things that are fresh there; it is not a compost heap. I think if See Hop can do it and if I can get fruit and vegetables that are still fresh when they arrive, there is something going on with IBIS’s processes, in that they are holding stuff in the back of the shop. They leave things on the shelf when they are mouldy and when they are old until they are sold and then they bring out more mouldy stock from the back so that we can buy more mouldy stock. I would suggest a complaints register, but I do not have any belief in the integrity of IBIS as an organisation. I think they would fudge it like they have obviously fudged their submission to make them sound great when they are not.
CHAIR —Since you have been ordering stuff online and getting it delivered through Sea Swift has that been more or less expensive as an option for you?
Mrs Devine —It is less expensive, even with the freight on top. But I still have to buy fresh produce because I only do an order from down south about every two or three months. You do a big bulk order to make it worth your while. But, as I say, to have an account with Sea Swift and to pay the grocery store down south you need a credit card, and that is not an option for a lot of people here. People like me who have a half decent job and blow in can do it, but the people who really need that assistance with health and being able to buy affordable goods are locked out because of their lack of credit cards.
CHAIR —Thank you very much, Samantha, for that evidence. We will now hear from Leo Akee.
Mr Akee —I currently work as a public servant but I am here as an individual from the community. What initially turned out to be a three-page presentation has actually gone to 10, but I will not go through each page; I will just touch on the salient points of the presentation. I acknowledge the time that you have given to come here for this important community stores review.
IBIS was initially set up to benefit the local indigenous people. Money was set aside from pearling to set up a company. But over time IBIS has lost its focus. Especially now that it has taken on the mandate to run as a business, it has lost its focus on providing a service to the community that it was supposed to support. Bill Arthur, in his comments in a report that he did, identified that the subsidised nature of IBIS operations gives them an unfair advantage over local retailers. I have put together background information on some of the discussions about IBIS that have taken place in the community, and I would like to give a copy to each of you. I have also done some pricing. As at 25 March there was quite a disparity between the prices that you would pay on the mainland as opposed to what you would pay here locally for goods from IBIS.
The Port Kennedy Association held a number of community forums in 2006, from which we identified that the key organisations needed to get together to form a working party to discuss the finer details as to how IBIS could work better for the benefit of the community—and I would like to say at the outset that the late Miss Ellie Gaffney was a strong advocate of those forums. She is no longer here with us. The frustrations of the community are quite evident with regard to IBIS. People say that, because of the overpricing, we cannot get any reprieve from the high cost of living in this area.
When I attended the remote Indigenous stores conference in Adelaide, I talked to a couple of local people from a group of Aboriginal communities that formed a cooperative, and I asked them, ‘How much would you pay for an apple in your community?’ and they said, ‘40c.’ I did an exercise before I left to go to that conference in 2006, and I paid $1.20 for a large apple. A number of community groups have expressed an interest in taking over the stores. Not only the community councils but a number of community people have expressed an interest in running the stores as a business enterprise. All the advocacy regarding this issue has fallen on deaf ears.
The community knows full well that whilst people say that the freight impacts quite a bit on the cost of the goods, I want to say that I have the deepest respect for Sea Swift, because in the last five years that I have run the local festival and community projects, I have knocked on Sea Swift’s doors and they have come forward—even recently with the garden project for the youth association—and given us free freight all the way from Cairns to TI and from TI to the outer islands. This is $22,000 worth of goods that we purchased in Cairns. I have done a personal exercise about the cost of freight. I can land $760 worth of meat from Cairns here on TI for $40 on the freight with Sea Swift, and that equates to roughly $4.68 per kilo. That is for rump and everything else. So what people are saying about the high freight is really incorrect.
In particular, we have a community on the outer islands—you may have had some presentation regarding Ugar, Stephen Island. The closing of the store on Stephen Island impacted greatly upon the local people, especially when you consider the water that exists between Darnley and Stephen. After the store was closed there was an incident, that has not been recorded, where our local policeman, just before he retired for the night, decided to make a trip around the community and spotted a torch light in the darkness. He organised a dinghy and they found that a family had gone over to Darnley to do their shopping and, on the way back, they had run out of fuel. If he had not taken the time to do that particular round, who knows what would have happened to that family.
With respect to the high cost of fuel, in particular, with IBIS there is no incentive for the local fishermen to work at the moment, because there is a negative impact. The price of fuel does not allow them the opportunity to go as far out as they can from the island to dive. When they do, they can only get whatever they make in that half-hour or hour before they have to return to the island. So there is no incentive in the community for those fishermen to go out and work—plus the fact that there is a fear of running out of fuel on the high seas.
It is concerning that when the price of fuel dropped to below 99c a litre on the mainland, IBIS was selling fuel up here at $1.89 per litre. In 2009 it has only just dropped down to $1.69. Before the second half of the year, it will slowly start going up again.
The national benchmark of eating two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per person is an unrealistic goal, mainly because of the high cost of living. When you apply this to a family of five, it equates to $22 per day, $220 per week, and it is quite unachievable because the community is mainly all welfare recipients.
Mr KATTER —Is that for a family or a single person?
Mr Akee —A family of five.
Mr KATTER —A family of five, is it?
Mr Akee —Yes. The government has a national strategy of two serves of fruit and five serves of veges per day, but when you apply that here it just does not work. Many people cannot afford the high pricing of the branded products, so they go to the black and gold labelled items. You will see from the pricing I have done for you that the prices of some black and gold products are just below the prices of branded products. Where local people would have had the opportunity to buy some black and gold products, even that pricing puts those products out of their reach. The staple diet is flour and rice. A 10-kilo bag of rice just before Christmas was $90. At the beginning of the year, it was selling at about $43.
The other thing I want to mention is about the high cost of living. If you are going to get results with the health statistics and with the mortality rate of our people, there are two things you have to address: the high prices being charged by IBIS and the rental issue. If you address those two issues, you will find that people will have money in their pocket to buy the things that most people on the mainland take for granted.
Mr KATTER —Is that rental for their housing?
Mr Akee —Rental for housing at the moment is worked out at 25 per cent.
Mr KATTER —25 per cent of social security payments?
Mr Akee —Total income, yes. I know of an instance with a family where the father worked and had an income, and the kids chose not to go on the dole but housing chose to apply some rental as if they were working. Where they would have had some reprieve from that rental and paid, say, $90 a week, they were paying up to $200 a week on rent.
I made some recommendations in my submission for your benefit. Firstly, that the government, after consultation with the community, consider ways of putting the control either of IBIS or a similar entity back in the hands of Indigenous people. If that was done, we could put the best possible prices on foods. Richard Bowler mentioned that he was not aware of people who had the appropriate background. Before I came to TI, I managed the Buchanan’s Hotel in Townsville when I was 19. I did that for three years. I have worked my way up the public service and now enjoy a $100,000 salaried job. There are people in the community who have the capability of doing Richard’s job or sitting on the board of IBIS to manage the decision-making role. I think the government should review the operation of the community stores in the Torres Strait and how it is impacting on people. If you address the high rental and the food pricing, you will get a better result with the health statistics of the people in our community.
CHAIR —Thank you, Leo. Is it the wish of the committee that the submission from Leo Akee be accepted as evidence? There being no objection, it is so ordered. Leo, that means that this is now a formal submission to the inquiry. I now call Michael Higgins.
Mr KATTER —Can we ask a question?
CHAIR —We are running out of time, Bob. I think we will move on. Can I say to all of you: thank you for giving evidence. If there is any material you would like to give us, and you have referenced some material in what you have said, we would really appreciate getting it. You can speak to the secretariat about that. Also, can you let the secretariat know that the capacity in which you interact with the community stores so we can get a sense of the perspective from which you are speaking today.
Mr KATTER —I cannot remember criticism of the IIB like the criticism we have heard today of IBIS. There has been wholesale criticism today. IIB was not that bad, was it?
Mr KATTER —I cannot remember criticisms of the IAB like this. There have just been wholesale criticisms today. But IAB was not that bad, was it?
Mr Akee —IBIS initially had local Indigenous leaders on the board. There were some issues with the finance of the organisation. So many of the enterprises within IBIS, which included freight—they had about three of four barges operatings—were actually sold off to pay for the debt that IBIS was in at the time. But you will find that the information that I have provided is based on consultations that we have had with the community. I have written a number of articles in the local media about issues with IBIS. All the information provided is based on facts.
CHAIR —All right. Michael Higgins.
Mr Higgins —Most of you probably ate at my cafe today.
CHAIR —Can you tell us the name of the cafe that you run?
Mr Higgins —It is called Island Health Foods or the Island Cafe. It is run out of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre. We are a non profit health food place, and we started off on the main street here. My background is in diabetes education and nursing, and our aim is to try to do something about the problem of diabetes and obesity and so forth. I wanted to point out that, from my experience of being with communities down south and up here for the last seven years or so, Thursday Island is unique in the sense that we have two communities living here not side by side but one on top of the other. There is the government community with a lot of very well paid government workers and a huge influx of cash coming through government funded projects and buildings. That is mainly on Thursday Island but it goes to the outer islands as well. Then we have the local community that, which is a separate community within this very wealthy community.
Looking at it from the perspective of private business, private businesses that service this community are focused on the government—that is where their money comes from. They profiteer off of the government. To give you a couple of examples of how that happens, I went from working in a small business that was known to be private to now working out of Gab Titui, which is a government organisation. So I appear to be part of the government, although I am a private, non profit organisation. I had a local refrigeration company that serviced the same fridge 13 times in eight weeks and basically did not resolve the small problem. They perpetuated the problem because it was worthwhile, because that is what they have always done there. They service other organisations as well. I do not pay those bills; the bills for that are paid for by the government. I have seen a different service provided to me—
CHAIR —So a worse service?
Mr Higgins —It was worse. It was profiteering. They know that the government is going to pay the bills so they profiteer. But then they do not know that I am private. They serviced my fridge for 2 hours and charged my $660. That was the one bill that I had to pay. It is just ridiculous that I should pay $660 for a machine that took two hours to fix.
What I particularly wanted to point out is to do with freight. Running a private business I know the impact that freight has on the final price of food. We are putting out healthy food and healthy food is expensive to start off with. It is also very bulky. Fruit and vegetables take up a lot of space. I was with Endeavour and we received business discounts and very good customer service. Overnight, Endeavour shut down and their assets were all purchased by Sea Swift. There has been a cycle of other freight companies coming into the market and then disappearing overnight but Sea Swift continuing on. I pay $380 for a cubic metre of fresh food, and a cubic metre is not very large. I have to add $380 on the base price and then have to figure that into my GST and so forth. IBIS said before that it was about 25 per cent. It is a huge thing to add 25 per cent on to my final cost, which I then have to pass on to the community.
CHAIR —So that figure would be right for you to?
Mr Higgins —It would definitely be right. So freight is a huge thing. I have had in-depth conversations and emails with Sea Swift saying: ‘We’re non-profit; we’re trying to do something about diabetes. Can you give us some sort of business discount?’ and their response was, ‘Let’s look at what you’re doing for the first six months,’ even though we have been operating with Endeavour and before that with them for several years. We then sent further emails after six months saying, ‘Can we please have some sort of a subsidy or something that we can do here? We need to try and watch the price of our foods.’ But there has just been no response. So there is no business discount. Sea Swift, in my opinion, has been the major contributor to my foods having gone up 30 per cent in the last six months, because our other shipping company has closed down and we are paying such a huge price for shipping.
As to private business, I will just point out that private business see this island as a government island. That is where the business is going—14 per cent of the business for Sea Swift. You were saying that IBIS is only about 14 per cent of fresh fruit and vegetables. The majority of the money is coming from government, so there is no real incentive. And there is no true interest, I think, in the individual, especially when it comes to Torres Strait Islanders because they are, again, at the very bottom. They have the lowest wages and they have the worst housing standards and so forth.
The reason we see these problems in housing is because of these two communities. One is very wealthy—the government has a lot of money, an endless supply of money—and the other, the local community, has very little. But private business do not see that. That is not their focus. This is not what Thursday Island is about; it is about the government, and that is where the money is coming from. That is why you would start a business here—that is why you would bring your business from Cairns or Western Australia or China or wherever. The reason you would set your business up here is that there is a huge government presence and a lot of money to be made. You come here to make your money, and then you leave. So that is what business is doing.
CHAIR —Thank you very much, Michael. If there are any other thoughts that you have we would appreciate them. It would be really good if you could, if you have the time, put them in writing and send them to us, because we would very much appreciate your contribution. Vonda, would you like to make a statement?
Ms Moar-Malone —I am here as a community member. Firstly, I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners. I would also like to acknowledge the committee and to thank you for holding this inquiry, and to thank the chair and Minister Macklin for taking the initiative. I am probably the last speaker for the day, so there may be some things I mention that will already have been mentioned, so I apologise for that, but I want to make sure they are on the record.
I would like to say that I speak on behalf of the low-income people, because a lot of our people are on CDEP, the Community Development Employment Program, and they are only receiving up to $10,000 annually, and within that they have to live and provide for their families. The high cost of living impacts on families and their livelihoods; so does rent. A lot of the community members are paying high rent, and that includes those in the Torres Strait as well as the NPA. So altogether, when they have to pay for all their living expenses and their rent, they do not have much left to live on.
There is not much available through IBIS in the way of a variety of healthy food choices, unfortunately. There are lots of Black and Gold products, but there are concerns in the community that there are just not enough healthy food options. So we have a ready supply of Black and Gold products but also at very high prices—they are not at the affordable prices you would think they would be.
The other thing is the quality of fruit and vegies, as has been mentioned before—people are concerned that the things that are put out on the shelf are not suitable for consumption. I also want to mention that recently I was at the NPA over at Seisia community, and there is a supermarket there that is run by the Seisia community and was actually funded by the TSRA under the community enterprise scheme. That supermarket is run by the community and the goods supplied through that small supermarket are way above what IBIS provides on Thursday Island. On my last two trips over to the NPA I have actually shopped over there because their prices are a lot better, and their fresh fruit and vegies are of higher quality compared to what we have here on Thursday Island. I believe that IBIS is government funded and I thought that the standard that they would provide would be a lot higher than the community-based enterprise.
The other thing I would like to reiterate is the freight cost. People have mentioned that the average person of low income will not have a credit card and will not be able to have that option to buy fruit and vegies or general supplies from elsewhere, so they are stuck with what they have got. The supply to the communities on the outer islands is such that often when the boats deliver the cargo if you do not shop on the day that the goods arrive you miss out. I particularly notice in Mer or Saibai by that the supply is not sufficient for the population.
I also wanted to raise a question about whether the Australian consumer commission does visit here and provide a watchdog on the prices that we have to accept as local community members. Would that be something you would look into as a committee?
CHAIR —If who would come here?
Ms Moar-Malone —The ACC, the Australian consumer commission.
CHAIR —The ACCC. I understand.
Ms Moar-Malone —I wanted to raise that because over TV regularly we see that if general community members throughout Australia have a concern about prices they go through that process. I hope that could be more common up here.
On the cost of fuel, people are risking their lives because of the fact that if they want to come to Thursday Island for shopping or for other services they have to bear the cost of fuel to get their families in to Thursday Island. If they cannot afford to fly, they will be risking the lives of their families to transport them to Thursday Island.
Regarding the Australian quarantine regulations, the other concernd that members of the community felt is that there is a general perception that the laws that were put in place in regulating movement of plant materials between the zones should be raised with this committee on whether they were put in for the convenience of the actual government authorities, because we felt that the movement between the zones should be also looked into. Thank you.
CHAIR —Thank you very much, Vonda. The next person is Betty Tekahika.
Ms Tekahika —I have just come in because I heard about this meeting. I was visiting next door and I thought I should drop in and listen because it is open for the public. Before I go further, I voice my respect for the land-holders of this place we are sitting in and speaking in. On IBIS, the question from me to Richard is not here. I saw him once out at Kubin. I am from Murray Island originally but I lived in Kubin for almost five years. I went to a shop at Kubin, the IBIS store. I wanted to buy meat. Meat is out there at Kubin. The boat comes in every Monday and we do not get red meat, we get black. The meat comes unpacked, it does not look good, it looks black. I cannot buy meat there. I come to TI to buy my meat.
I whinged about this to Richard at Kubin, but I am living back here on TI again. My other question is to Richard—but he is not here now. Every time I send money from Kubin to my children—they go to boarding school in Cairns—they have to pay $30 to pick up the money. I send the money through IBIS for my children to pick up at this end and they have to pay $30 to pick up the money. If I send $100 for my children, they cannot get that $100; they have to take half and then half goes to IBIS. That is the only question that I wanted to put across.
Mrs Devine —That does happen. There is a $30 transaction fee—
Ms Tekahika —It is really too much.
Mrs Devine —Betty is right: there is a $30 transaction fee that IBIS charges community members for every transaction it conducts on behalf of their members. My husband and I ran a shop when we were first here. Sometimes people might want to buy things that were $20 and they would want to go to IBIS and transfer the money and it would cost them $30 to make the transfer for a $20 purchase. After a little while I found out that, if there were post office facilities on an island, the post office would perform the same function and would not charge the community member at all. But a lot of people do not know that and a lot of times the service is not available because there are no actual post offices on islands. When I heard Richard Bowler today talk about all the services they perform for the community, I was thinking that that $30 every transaction has to be quite a money earner for IBIS. It is not a service; it is a way of making a profit.
Mr KATTER —Why can’t you make those transactions through a bank?
Mrs Devine —There are no banks.
Mr KATTER —There is not a single bank operating here?
Ms Tekahika —On the island the quickest way is to put money through IBIS but we have to pay the $30 fee and, on the other end you cannot pick up the full 100 bucks, you have to pay another $30 to pick it up.
CHAIR —Can I just be clear on that. If you are transferring money from here to your kids in Cairns, you are paying a total of $60?
Ms Tekahika —Yes.
CHAIR —So it is $30 here and $30 there?
Ms Tekahika —Yes. It comes off no matter how much you want to send.
Mr Turner —It is $15 if you do that through the community council. The advantage that IBIS has is that it is open longer hours and also on the weekend. The IBIS store here is open on the weekend so, if you want to do a transaction on the weekend—as opposed to doing it through the community council—it has to go to another facility in town here like the post office which is not open. So as far as banking is concerned, that is true. People in the outer islander just take it as a given that you pay that $30 in order to do the transaction and give your brother some money when you get paid. That is the cost of the transaction. There is no broadband—there is dial-up—and there is no mobile phone coverage, so you just pay the $30 and that is it.
CHAIR —We have one other person who wants to speak, Peter Ah Loy. Peter, can you state the name of the store that you run or own?
Mr Ah Loy —I own See Hop Trading on Thursday Island. I am a bit of a bugbear to IBIS but I am trying my hardest. I get a lot of complaints about IBIS but I cannot give you all of them. The biggest one is about bread. You fellows gave IBIS a $3 million refurbishment loan. We have already got two bakeries on TI, and IBIS are going to buy two brand new ovens and try to start up their own bakery—and they are only going to use frozen dough, which is full of preservatives. I would not sell back to them anyway due to the simple fact that, when I was selling bread at $2.95 I was giving it to them at $2.75 and selling about 100 loaves a day through IBIS’s main store.
Then the next minute I was selling only 25 or 30 loaves of bread a day. The IBIS manager said, ‘I want you to take all your old bread back and put in new stuff.’ I said, ‘There is no way in the world. I am watching your stock. You put me right down in the corner where nobody can find my bread, and you are charging $4.75 for my loaf of bread.’ I said, ‘People on TI can count, you know. I’m selling it for $2.95 and you’re selling it for $4.75.’ Now comes the real sticky question. You go to the health department and find out how you can sell frozen bread. They import frozen bread from Cairns and they put it on the shelves with a note saying, ‘Stored for your convenience.’ According to Queensland Health, you get it out frozen, you have got to sell it frozen—not ‘defrosted for your convenience.’ I would not sell to IBIS anyway, with my bread. There was another bakery here, they stopped buying their own, and you are supporting them by giving them money to put us all out of business—even with the fuel bowser.
I have IBIS staff come down with notepad and pen and take a note of my price of fuel. I used to have premium, and I have got unleaded, diesel and outboard. They have got only diesel and unleaded. Gee, it must be hard to remember two figures. Not only that, but the other day, 2½ weeks ago, someone from IBIS was sent down to my shop with a full-blown computer printout of all their products. She was sitting in my aisles writing own my prices. I said, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m writing your prices down.’ So I found out from fair trading that that is legal. But, hey, I am not a government-subsidised store. If I do not make a profit, I get a kick up the ass. Then I also found out that I could ask her to leave. So I did. I said, ‘That’s bloody ridiculous. You subsidise the bloody store and all they are doing is trying to put all the private business out of business.’ There used to be about five independent private stores on the island. I am about the only one left. That is what I have to say about IBIS.
I try my best. I try to get the best of the vegetables and everything I can, but I have not got the buying power of IBIS. They can go to Brisbane and get all the IGA prices. I have to get it out of Cairns and I am still bloody competitive. I still have to put up with Sea Swift’s freight.
CHAIR —You source your fruit and vegetables out of Cairns?
Mr Ah Loy —Yes.
CHAIR —There were some estimations given by IBIS and by Michael about the percentage of the total cost that was freight, and they were estimating that it was between 10 per cent and 20 per cent. Michael may have said it was a bit higher than that, I think. Is that consistent from your point of view? What is the percentage of your prices that would be accounted for by freight.
—It would be closer to 30 per cent. I think they should go back and do their homework, because Sea Swift is charging me $398 a cubic for a chiller or freezer. It starts off at about $330 but you read the fine print: 9½ per cent miscellaneous charges. That used to be fuel charge. When the fuel price dropped down, it suddenly changed to miscellaneous charges. Then you have got 10 per cent GST on top. This is why Perrotts, or Endeavour Shipping was way below their cost. You could sell things a lot cheaper, but with Perrotts gone you have got no choice. You just have to adjust your prices accordingly. You cannot run at a loss. They have no competition. It is just like you fellows with your deregulation on airlines—you only put Qantas in the air. They can charge and do what they like. If you had put two airlines in you might have got a decent rate. Now, if you are not there an hour before, you lose your ticket. You cannot always be there an hour before. But that is up to you fellows.
CHAIR —Thank you for that, Peter.
Mr KATTER —Can I ask a question?
Mr KATTER —I am quite staggered. When I was minister I had IIB and in all my years of coming up here—and I probably came up every three or four weeks—I never heard anything like this. I am quite staggered by this. Does the minister come up here?
Mr Ah Loy —Which minister?
Mr KATTER —The state minister for community services.
Ms Moar-Malone —I remember seeing you on a plane but nobody else.
Mr Mosby —From the forums that we held in Weipa, we sent a letter to the minister to come up here and discuss the IBIS issue but it never happened.
Mrs Devine —I would like to make one more comment. I want to follow up on Peter’s point about the bread in IBIS. IBIS has not sold any fresh bread whatsoever to the community since probably the middle or early last year. You cannot buy fresh bread anywhere other than from See Hops and the other bakery. The IBIS store does not sell fresh bread at all. You can buy frozen bread from the freezer or you can buy thawed frozen bread—which I have not seen for a while. IBIS has not stocked any fresh baked bread for a long time, which probably is not helping people’s health.
Ms Moar-Malone —The frozen bread is always white bread. There are no healthy choices in bread when you buy from IBIS.
CHAIR —I thank everyone for coming today not only for listening during the day to the witnesses who have given evidence but also for participating at the end. It was really valuable for us to hear what you had to say, and we really appreciate that. You saw the process of us receiving a submission from Leo, who came with one prepared. If any of you want to put anything in writing—and we would certainly encourage you to do so if you have something to say—please give it to us and we will then go through a similar process the next time we meet and it will become part of the formal record of this inquiry. There is a process by which you can, if you want, provide us information in camera—that means confidentially. It will still be read by us but it will not form part of the record. If you feel more comfortable doing it that way, please feel free. But, if you are happy for it to form part of the public record, we encourage you to do it that way.
Thank you for having us on Thursday Island. We very much appreciate your hospitality and being here. We have certainly learnt a lot here. Thank you for your attendance. I also thank the Hansard reporters for their work today. The committee will be taking into consideration everything that we have heard today, and we will be reporting to the parliament around September this year. We present a formal report to the House of Representatives and that will be a public document that you can all access. From there, it is a matter of the government picking up our recommendations—and state governments can pick up our recommendations as well—and either acting or not on the basis of the report that we ultimately present.
Resolved (on motion by Mrs Vale, seconded by Mr Turnour):
That, pursuant to the power conferred by paragraph (o) of sessional order 28B, this committee authorises publication of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.
Committee adjourned at 6.49 pm