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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS - 31/03/2009 - Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —That brings us to the open forum, but we do have one witness who we will kick off the open forum with, and that is Hilda Mosby. Is there anything that you would like to say in relation to the community stores and then we can ask you some questions?

Ms Hilda Mosby —Thank you. Having lived up here for the last 30-odd years, I have seen the costs compared from back then until now. I know that the cost of living is too high. When we talk about cost, it is not only food costs. There is freight as well as the cost of airfares. The cost of living up here is humungous.

CHAIR —Do you have a comment on the quality of the fresh food that you can buy from the IBIS store and the mini-mart?

Ms Hilda Mosby —As far as the quality of the food goes, I have been working for IBIS many years ago in the old days when we had the generator stores. The quality then compared to now has improved.

What is on offer here is not a lot compared to markets down south. It is fairly poor. It is not as fresh as down south. It takes four days to get up here. It is not like in Cairns where you can go to Rusty’s and get fresh produce from the markets. Up here we live by what we get, our income. The cost of living for a family is a lot, taking into account the freight cost. There is no competition. There are no other freight services up here. As previous speakers have said, there used to be two freight companies servicing the Torres Strait; now there is only one.

CHAIR —Have you noticed an increase in prices since the second freight operator stopped?

Ms Hilda Mosby —Yes. I have noticed a lot of changes. I cannot really compare the prices in the two stores. It is what you get offered and how much you have got. You either take it or not. At the end of the day if you need to eat two fruit and five vegetables then you have to pay for what is there. But the cost! It is not only what is here; it is what is given to us from management down there.

CHAIR —Is there a lot of competition between the two stores here? Do the prices seem to be different?

Ms Hilda Mosby —I buy dry goods from one and fresh fruit and vegetables and meat from the other.

CHAIR —Why do you do that?

Ms Hilda Mosby —I find the fruit and vegetables a little fresher at one of the stores than at the other. IBIS at times do offer specials. But I do not know how true the specials are because it is not like specials down at Coles, Woolies or Bi-Lo.

Mr TURNOUR —Is that because the prices do not  show how much the special is—you just get told that it is on special but not by how much?

Ms Hilda Mosby —It is whatever they advertise. But I do not know how true it is. One fortnight to another you have live.

Mr TURNOUR  —Are you suggesting that fruit and vegies are fresher at IBIS or at the Island and Cape?

Ms Hilda Mosby —I would say Island and Cape is a little bit fresher. I am not being biased in any way; I am just being open and honest. You get to see it every day. I would prefer that before the next barge comes that you have no fruit and vegetables left so you have fresh produce on the barge.

Mr TURNOUR —We heard that yesterday IBIS had their fruit and vegies cut to half price to clear them. Is that a regular thing? That is not a regular thing? Normally they do not put a special on at the end of the week or cut the price of their fruit and vegies to move them on before the next barge comes in?

Ms Hilda Mosby —That is not necessarily the case because I have only seen that myself yesterday as well. I said to their regional manager when he came—I told him what I thought, that it should be happening all the time. It is no good trying to put fruit and vegetables on sale the day before the standing committee arrived.

Mr TURNOUR —Obviously this is run through Cairns and the system that they have in place, but when the new produce arrives on the barge do they put that out straightaway or do they wait for the older product to be sold.

Ms Hilda Mosby —As far as that goes, I do not control the management of the store so I only get to buy what I see.

Mr TURNOUR —Have you observed whether the new product is put out? If you were in the shop a few days before the barge arrived, say on the Monday, you would obviously see what product is around. Then if you came in on the Tuesday, after the barge had arrived, do you notice whether the new fruit and vegies are out on the Tuesday?

Ms Hilda Mosby —Yes, most time yes. It depends on what time the barge comes in. If it is late in the afternoon you will not see it until first thing next morning. You cannot expect them to stay here late.

Mrs VALE —Thank you very much, Hilda. The questions I was going to ask you have already being asked, but thank you very much for your time.

CHAIR —Thank you Hilda for giving us your time today. Would anyone else like to say something?

—I am pleased that you have come because we have an understanding. Yesterday we had a meeting about your arrival here. I prepared myself to say something to the committee about the store. I grew up here and I am a former chair and branch manager here. Joe spoke about what we went through. I am 68 years of age. How hard it was then. We carried cargo and it was good fun but we have lived through changes. Right now we talk about the high cost of living. My vision is not much good. My daughter Hilda goes to the store. They come home and they yarn about the cost and the high prices—especially petrol—and the cost at the mini-mart, the convenience store, the differences and all these things. Like they said, we live through that. Besides the high cost of living, they talk about the airfares and all that.

I think it is right for me to say something because you are here to inquire about this. I told some of them that I wanted to say something to this committee about the ATM at the store—it is a St George’s ATM. I do not know whether that is okay because most of us have National FlexiCard accounts. I am not an accountant but I talked to some of my family and they know and they understand. They said it would be good if we had a National ATM then we would save our pocket. We are talking about the high cost of living.

Even when we went to school we kept in the back of our minds what we learnt, such as to save our pennies and the pounds will mind themselves—how you spend for your living and try to save for airfares et cetera. That is one part I want to clear up and I am happy to mention it. Before, we bring our passbook, we sign our pass paper and get cash payments at CPS, but with all the current changes of income I just wonder why there is a St George’s ATM in the IBIS store there.

CHAIR —Thank you, Glorianna. What would you like to say to the committee, Daisy?

Mrs Kabay —I have this thing in my mind all the time and, every time I want to say this, something stops me from saying it. We are talking about the high cost of living and I want to talk about the fuel card. When we go to the store we buy a fuel card. We go down to the bowser, we get fuel and then when we come back we have to give them the card back. Sometimes people do not give it back; they keep it. Someone will say, ‘Where’s the card?’ I think, ‘I’m not going to give you the card, because I bought the card. If I want to throw it away, I can do that,’ which I didn’t. I have that thing about the card in my mind all the time.

We had another change here a while ago. If you go to buy a fuel card you have to present $10, then we go down to the bowser and we get fuel. When we come back and present that card we get the $10 back. I should not have to give the $10 back. If I bought the card there and they want the $10, I should not give the $10 back. If I had taken the card back—they said it is from IBIS, but it is not from IBIS; it is money from me when I present there. They do not give me that money back. So I want to talk about that. I do not know what people think about this. You put the card there and give them $10 and, after a while, we put the card back, then they give us the $10.

We buy 44-gallon drums of petrol at the shop and they always tell us to take the drum back. So when we take the 44-gallon drum back they give us $30. I can understand why we have to give $10. I think IBIS should give us the $10 if we bring the card back, because we bought the card there. If I want to throw the card away—no. We would take the card back. All the time in my mind I am thinking this is not right about the fuel card. You understand me?

CHAIR —Yes. Thank you. Is there anyone else who would like to make a statement to the committee?

Mr McConnell —I am a mechanic on the island, employed by the Torres Strait Regional Council, but I do not speak on behalf of the council. It is appropriate that I talk now as I can respond to Daisy’s concerns about the fuel part, because I am responsible for that deposit being charged. It took me three years to make that happen. I suggested to Richard Bowler, who is the CEO of IBIS, that that deposit be charged to overcome the problem whereby when you went to buy fuel from the IBIS bowsers you could not because there were no cards on the island. They had all been thrown away or left in cars or were in someone’s pocket. By charging $10 deposit, at least the cards came back and could then be recharged. It is also a considerable cost to IBIS. If they lose that card they then have to replace those cards and that cost then gets passed on to the consumer, or the purchaser, of the petrol. That leads to another problem that I have had since I arrived four years ago: the quality of the fuel and the lack of fuel storage. 3,000 litres, is totally inadequate.

There has been a considerable increase in the council vehicles on the island, let alone boats and private cars. Two came on the barge yesterday. That is two more which will be purchasing unleaded fuel from our facility. The system of ordering is such that on a Tuesday afternoon after the tanks have been topped up, IBIS fax to the Cairns branch how much fuel is in the bowser. Ideally, the tanks should be full and they supply according to that fax. But if there are 2,000 out of 3,000 litres left, they only send one top-up—that is, 14,000 litres comes back. Consequently, we are often running out of fuel. It is even worse at Christmas when there is a break in the delivery of fuel because of the lack of barge services. You have the best weather, the cray season has just started so there is an opportunity to go out and catch a lot of cray, but you can’t because there is no fuel. The problem used to be overcome when there was a fuel barge anchored out in the so-called ‘Crab Pot.’ Captain Tom supplied a lot of fuel to the island. I bought all the council diesel and unleaded fuel from that fuel barge at $330 for a drum of unleaded. Two weeks ago the price from Sea Swift per drum, delivered, was $494.70. So you can now see there has been a large increase in the cost of unleaded fuel to community members who want to go fishing.

The main reason I did not use the IBIS bowser is that when I first arrived here all the vehicles were breaking down and had leaking fuel tanks, and I thought ‘Why is this? Some of these vehicles are only two years old?’ I went to the bowser and took delivery of fuel from the bowser the first time Sea Swift delivered to IBCs. I got approximately 75 ml of water in the bottom of a two-litre coke bottle and a considerable amount of red sludge, like Weipa dust. I sent that sample to IBIS in Cairns. It was analysed and not only was there water in the bottom of the coke bottle but 70 per cent of the fuel in solution was water. The last thing you can afford to be doing in this environment, when people depend on boating, is giving them water in fuel and sludge that very quickly blocks up carbies. At the workshop I often see people accessing my air supplies, blowing out carbies because they are full of water and sludge. It is a serious problem. Fuel is at a high price, $2.29 a litre, and has been for an eternity. It has been up to $2.60 plus, and now that there is no more fuel available from the Captain Tom fuel barge this will have a major impact on the cost of living on this island. We were the only island that I know of that was fortunate enough to have access to cheap unleaded fuel. I will leave the fuel issue alone for now, other than to say it is of insufficient capacity. Here, we need 6,000 litres minimum; we have 3,000 litres. What do you do?

CHAIR —Could you explain what has happened with the fuel barge? When and why did that leave?

Mr McConnell —The fuel barge was owned and operated by Portsmouth Fuels from Cairns. Its primary purpose in the ‘Crab Pot’ was to service trawlers—to provide diesel to the trawlers and supply alcohol and some fruit and veg. That was serviced by a mother ship from Cairns every two weeks. That barge has been sold to Sea Swift, and at this stage it probably will not be coming back. It was Portsmouth Fuels’s own decision to sell unleaded fuel to the island.

CHAIR —So they were primarily servicing the fishing fleet, but the fishing fleet happened to be near the island and they allowed you to purchase from them?

Mr McConnell —That is right.

CHAIR —You have raised an issue about the quality of the fuel. Has that changed at all? Has that improved, or is what you said how it is now?

Mr McConnell —I took a delivery from the bowser this morning. Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the first delivery after it was topped up from empty, which is the best time to get an indicator. I still have sludge. I do not have any water. Above-ground tanks must condense internally. I talked to Richard Bowler, the CEO, three years ago in November, and said, ‘Put a water and sediment trap in the delivery line that goes down to the bowser.’ I know for a fact that they were here on, I think, Wednesday last week. They came and had to dismantle a pump, because it was blocked up with rubbish. Prior to that, they have had to remove the whole bowser and clean out the sump, because it was totally blocked. It was so blocked that you could not get fuel delivered through the handpiece.

CHAIR —Who came last Wednesday?

Mr McConnell —IBIS sent a gentleman from North Queensland Resources or North Queensland Petroleum. He is a service technician. He had problems with two other facilities the same as ours on two other islands. When I called Peter Holcroft, who is the freight manager in Cairns who supplies the unleaded fuel to the island, I told him that I was really unhappy that we had run out. I had already spoken to him previously about the fact that the council would be buying from him a considerable amount of fuel above what would normally be purchased. He came to the island and dismantled the pump, because it was gushing fuel into the sump of the bowser. It was blocked.

Mrs VALE —Thank you very much for your testimony; it is very interesting. I am concerned about the fact that this poor-quality fuel could be given to the people of the island. It could lead to an unfortunate event when they go out fishing.

Mr McConnell —Absolutely.

Mrs VALE —Where does the sludge that you say was in the fuel tank come from? I do not understand anything about the transport of fuel, but I thought that you put fuel in a container. Is it not a clean container? It has sludge in it?

Mr McConnell —Originally, the containers were sourced from Horn Island and the fuel delivery was coming from Horn Island. After I sent that sample down to Bill Asher, who at the time was in IBIS in Cairns, he then arranged BP. I think the fuel comes from Reliance Petroleum. They now guarantee the quality of the fuel in the IBCs—the fuel delivery container. I am not sure that the sludge is not actually still in the pipe between the tanks and the bowser. Certainly it is there.

CHAIR —The tanks and the bowser here on the island?

Mr McConnell —That is right. It is a very difficult thing to clean that out, because it is a long length of pipe that goes from the bowser. The two tanks are above ground in the humidity, which in my opinion is why they condense so badly. They said, ‘We don’t ever put water separators on our facilities.’ I said: ‘What happens when you pour fuel into a stainless steel tank above ground? You’ll make water.’ It makes water.

Mrs VALE —It is similar with an aircraft, isn’t it? One of the things that pilots do in pre take-off checks is to check the fuel and make sure that there is no water in the fuel. It must be a similar principle.

Mr McConnell —It is a similar principle. There is supposed to be a sample point on the bottom of each tank. When those tanks were installed, one tank came with a sample point but there is no real way of it being a low point in the tank. It is just a take-off beside the delivery elbow, and the other tank does not have any sample point because it is on the elbow, which means that the water has already gone down and is sitting in the pipe that goes underground before it gets to the bowser.

Mrs VALE —Is there any maintenance of these tanks? If this is the fuel source that is used by the islanders, isn’t there any regular maintenance that happens on the tanks?

Mr McConnell —I am not aware of any maintenance that has happened. Because of the problem that we had with the pump unit gushing fuel and the fact that while it is doing that it cannot be used, IBIS asked me to go and have a look at it. I actually put a blockage into the outlet pipe that was gushing the fuel. Once that happened, the pump was incapable of bleeding and every time it ran out of fuel—which was quite regularly—I had to go and bleed the pump manually to get a fuel delivery out of the handpiece.

Mrs VALE —It sounds like you need a new facility for storing fuel here on the island.

Mr McConnell —It is certainly totally inadequate in that it is very complex. Until I spoke to the gentleman who came to repair the pump last week, I was actually pushing to get a similar facility as is now being installed on Hammond and, I think, Mabuiag. I thought that they were a better facility, but he tells me they are not; it is just a different bunding method, which is catching any possible leakage. They use the same bowser, which has a swipe card, which is exactly the same process—I am sorry, Daisy. I know that when they introduced the bowser systems Qbuild were involved and it was a total disaster. It cost them somewhere between $600,000 and $1.2 million to make them usable, and it was inadequate from the day it was put in.

Mrs VALE —How long since they have been installed?

Mr McConnell —I think it was about 5½ years ago. Ned, would that be right?

Mrs VALE —That is not very long, is it, in the life of a fuel capacity storage.

Mr McConnell —It is actually terrible. When I spoke to this gentleman he said, ‘Do you know we can kit out a service station for $100,000?’ I shudder to think how many millions were spent on this facility, which is very complex because it has to have a capacity to remember what is on the card when you swipe it. I am using $500 fuel cards now to supply the council’s vehicles, and the card has to remember, when I come and go, how much is left on the card. So it is quite a complex facility. It does not seem to give a lot of problems, but the biggest problem we have is lack of cards, because they are not returned or they are lost, or they are not recharged fast enough. Another problem is lack of fuel. Sometimes there has been fuel here and IBIS have not been able to supply enough two-stroke oil. So you can buy fuel sometimes, but you cannot buy the oil that you need to run your outboard motor. It is just a delivery thing.

Mrs VALE —Who actually owns the storage facility? Who put it in in the first place?

Mr McConnell —I presume it was the Queensland government.

Mrs VALE —It was a government initiative, was it?

Mr McConnell —As I understand it, for QBuild to have been involved in the installation and design, it has to have been a state government system that was implemented.

CHAIR —Who is responsible for the tanks now?

Mr McConnell —IBIS have to pay the maintenance. They had to pay to fly these people up here to repair it. They do not want it. He said to me, ‘We don’t want it.’ Even David, who was here this morning, said, ‘We don’t want it.’

CHAIR —Who was the first person who said to you that they did not want it?

Mr McConnell —Richard Bowler.

CHAIR —When you rang him a few years ago to talk about putting in a separator, what was his response?

Mr McConnell —He said, ‘Good idea.’ I spoke to Peter Holcroft, the freight manager, only a few weeks back now, when I first told them that the council would be buying fuel from IBIS. He said he had been told it could not be done. Yet the repair man who was here last week said it could be done. It does seem to be a long way after the event.

CHAIR —You said he came up on Wednesday. Was that a result of an inquiry that you had made? Why was the person up here on Wednesday?

Mr McConnell —He came simply because I said that we had no fuel and that it required bleeding every time we ran out of fuel.

CHAIR —When did you make that complaint?

Mr McConnell —I made the complaint on the Monday and it just happened that this guy was coming to the islands. Otherwise, it may have been two or three weeks before he came to fix the bowser.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for making that contribution.

Mr McConnell —Okay. Could I just add something else, on a completely different matter? It would be an interesting question for you to ask the community that is gathered here how many people check their dockets for pricing. In my experience in the past four weeks, IBIS are advertising products in the newspaper, in the Torres News, and the cash register is not charging those prices. IBIS get sick of me calling them. I have rung Simon Cloonan, who is their purchasing manager in Cairns, to ask, ‘Why are you charging full price for items you are advertising as being on special?’

CHAIR —What was the answer to that question?

Mr McConnell —He said: ‘I don’t know. We’ll look into it.’ I asked him: ‘How does it happen? Does it happen at the store here or does it happen in Cairns?’ He said, ‘It happens in Cairns.’ They had not amended their pricing. They are selling rockmelons at full price when they are advertising them, as you can see on the door over there and in the newspaper, at a reduced price. I have been watching. They had snow peas for $14.99 a kilo. The next week they were on special for $8.99 a kilo. The next week they were $44 a kilo. That was the same week that Mark Johnston, who is the Chairman of the IBIS board, put an article into the Torres News saying that their prices for fruit, veg and meat were now cheaper than in Cairns. I asked Simon Cloonan, ‘How can it be that you’re charging $44 for a kilo of snow peas when your chairman is saying that you are cheaper than Cairns?’ I did a shop around in Cairns, and $26 was the top price you would pay for a kilo of snow peas in Cairns. They were $44 here, so I took them back, as you would. It was the same for watermelon. It was $4.95 a kilo. You do not pay $4.95 a kilo for watermelon in any city—or any main city, anyway—in Australia. Even today it costs $2.39 for a basic watermelon and $3.69 for a seedless one. That is still outrageous for a fresh fruit with a tick on it.

Mr KATTER —What is the solution on the fuel? What do you think would be the optimal solution?

Mr McConnell —To solve the fuel problem, you need a 6,000-litre minimum capacity. They have two tanks at 1,500 litres each, so they can only supply in 1,500-litre IBCs. Because of delay and because the weather has a big impact on how much fuel is sold, I would recommend 8,000 or 10,000 litres. That would be far less complex a system. There is no other solution, really.

Mr KATTER —What about the water solution in the fuel?

Mr McConnell —Trap the water before it gets to the bowser. They have a sediment strainer in the pump, and it is just not up to it. I have not bought fuel from them for three years, so I do not know how good the quality has been, but I still see the carburettors coming off outboard engines into the workshop to get the water blown out of them, so it is happening.

Mr KATTER —Is the water lighter or heavier than fuel?

Mr McConnell —The water is on the bottom, which means it goes straight to the pipe that is in the ground. Then it runs out. The poor person who comes to buy that first lot of fuel, who comes when IBIS delivers the 3,000 litres, buys what is just a mix of everything that is in the line. That does not happen in the mainstream very much. I think there is always at least four inches or a fair bit left in the bottom of each tank so it does not suck the sediment out of the bottom of the tank, and they come and pump them out to get rid of that rubbish. With this it all goes straight to the bowser, and it is expensive water.

Mr TURNOUR —Can I follow up the issues in relation to pricing. We heard evidence yesterday about similar problems on Thursday Island. Are you saying the rockmelons are advertised at a special price but when you buy them they are full price?

Mr McConnell —They are full price.

Mr TURNOUR —Is that a regular thing that you experience looking at your shopping docket over a long period of time?

Mr McConnell —Yes, there is a lot of inconsistency. What you see there in the store today is not an accurate representation of what it normally is. There is normally no indication on the shelves of what the pricing is, so you do not know until you get to the checkout what it is. And there is a pronounced lack of staff training. It is obvious that there is little happening. I heard it discussed before that things do not come out immediately on the barge. Sometimes it is three or four days later that fresh stock appears; sometimes you have to ask for it. There is also a problem with rotation and use by dates. I can remember someone bought something that was out of date by 18 months.

Mr TURNOUR —Are you saying that the effort that has gone into the store relates to the committee’s visit today?

Mr McConnell —Absolutely, no question, and it goes a lot further than that. There is a lack of operator awareness. I bought a watermelon this morning and was charged a higher price. The manager from TI happened to be there and I said: ‘It’s charged at a higher price. How does that happen?’ He said that that particular case was an operator error but that the sheet that they are using dates back to the days when Jessica was managing the store. I do not know how long it has been since Jessica was in the store. It might be 12 months. They were selling royal gala apples on special two weeks ago. There is no way they can charge out a royal gala apple on special when they do not even have it on their list. I rang Simon about that. I said, ‘How come I got charged a red delicious when it was royal gala?’ He said, ‘We’re calling that apple red.’ I said, ‘It is not a red apple; it’s yellow.’ I talked to Elizabeth about it and she said, ‘We’re still using the same sheet for our codes that we had when Jessica was running the store.’ It has been 12 months, perhaps longer, since Jessica was there. There is a gross amount of overcharging going on in Torres Strait and it is wrong because the dollars simply do not go around. I was not surprised that Mark Johnston said that they made $500,000 profit last year for the first time. I can see where it came from—all the stores in the outer islands and the IBIS store on TI. He is out of touch completely with what is happening out here.

Mr TURNOUR —While we are having this discussion about the stores, do you see similar problems with the Island and Cape store in terms of the pricing and the products?

Mr McConnell —I have not seen that problem down there, but I do not use it much either. Initially when we arrived we were tempted to buy our fresh fruit and vegetables direct from Cairns. My wife and I—just the two of us, no children—would get two polystyrene boxes, the small broccoli boxes, sent up. That cost $33 in freight for around $80 worth of fruit and vegetables. Now, the same two polystyrene boxes cost $55 in freight on Sea Swift, minimum charge. There is no alternative. You must pay $55. The two polystyrene boxes actually work out to be over the minimum charge anyway, so it is about $63 for $80 worth of fruit and vegetables from Cairns direct through Quality Fresh. The freight is a terrible problem now with Sea Swift’s pricing. It is around $400 a cubic metre, how ever you get it. Unfortunately, if you order a packet of biscuits, something that is dangerous goods like a battery, something that has to go into the chiller or something that has to go into the freezer, each one of those items attracts a minimum charge. It is an incredibly difficult problem.

CHAIR —Thank you for that contribution. Is there anyone else who would like to make a contribution to the committee? Father Douglas Billy.

Father Billy —I want to add to what Glenn was just saying in regard to the prices at IBIS. Just a week ago I bought three items from the IBIS store, which cost me about $10. That was just for three items: two cups of noodles and some biscuits. Someone was just telling me that seven items she bought today cost her $7. Before that, if she had bought seven items it would have been something like $20. We know for sure that, like everybody has been saying, Richard was out here and it is amazing to see that all the fruit and vegetables are down to half price, whereas before it was as Glenn said.

With regard to fuel, it is unreal that the price of fuel is so high, especially for fishermen if they want to go out fishing. There is no capacity for the fishermen to go out. If we bought 200 litres down south, on the mainstream, it would cost about $280. From the fuel bowser here it would cost us $500 for a fuel can, which contains 200 litres, which are 10 20-litre fuel drums. The difference is something like $220, and that is apart from freight. You are looking at another $100 dollars or more on top of that $280 for the fuel to come with the barge, which is Sea Swift. I am speaking on behalf of all the fishermen and everybody in the community. I think that is about all I want to say.

CHAIR —Thank you for that contribution. Is there anyone else who would like to make a contribution this evening?

Mr Messa —I want to say something about opportunity for choice. When we talk about remote areas, I want to make a bit of a comparison between Indigenous communities down south and us islanders up here in the Torres Strait. There is a big difference when you are speaking of a remote area. The opportunity for choice they get, we up here do not get. The opportunity for choice they have is that they can jump in their car. For example, at Hope Vale, if they want to do some shopping, they can jump in their car and drive to Cooktown, whereas up here we have to pay to catch a plane to Horn Island or, if we are planning to go down to Cairns or somewhere else down south, we have to pay to go from here to Horn then on to Cairns. Previous speakers have spoken about the prices that we face up here and the lack of choice we have. We do not have the same opportunity for choice that other Aboriginal people down on the mainland have. They have the opportunity to go and shop wherever they want, whereas we have to accept what we have been offered.

When you speak about remote, we are surrounded by open waters, and it takes four days for the barge to come with all the goods. I have witnessed some goods in the store that will last only a day before they get rotten. I am speaking about the opportunity of choices that we do not get up here compared with our Aboriginal families down on the mainland. We have to accept what we have been offered here. We have not got choices here. We have to take what comes day by day and just accept it. When you speak about remote, we Torres Strait Islanders live in a remote area. We are surrounded by sea. We do not just jump in the car and drive to the next town to do our shopping. It is remote. Compared to our Indigenous brothers and sisters down in the south, they can jump in the car and just drive. So when you speak of opportunity, we do not get that choice of opportunity. We live in a really remote area because we are surrounded by sea. It is easy for people to say that, because they have those opportunities of choice down south compared with us up here in the Torres Strait. We have to fly into TI or down south, and with the cost of air fares it is harder than hell—even the freight. We do not have the opportunity of choices here. The only choices we have for shopping are IBIS and our convenience store down the road.

We accept what we have been offered. Previous speakers have spoken about prices and fuel, the cost. We are living in a remote area and we do not have that choice or that opportunity of choice, but we have to accept what we have been offered.

CHAIR —Thank you. Would somebody else like to make a contribution?

Miss Gamia —I would like to comment on fruit and vegies at the local shop. I am a mother of three. My partner is on normal CDEP wages, and when I do the normal local grocery I end up spending nearly all of our income on groceries and then we have whatever is left for the next fortnight. Healthy eating is being promoted throughout the community, and it is pretty hard to give our kids healthy stuff when our fruit and vegies come up here rotten and spoilt most of the time on the barge, so we are left with no option but to stop our kids from eating fruit and vegies at home. It is first in, first served at the shop. I just wanted to comment on that.

Mrs Morris —I just want to support what Nazareth said. I am a mother of five, and I am trying to promote healthy eating. I support what Robyn was saying earlier about the high cholesterol rate in our community. Basically, with my budgeting I can only afford Home Brand, which is not a healthy option for my kids, and I would like a betterment for my kids’ health, but I cannot because of the price range within the shops. I do my meat shopping at the mini-mart because it is cheaper than the IBIS, and I do my fruit shopping at the IBIS because it is cheaper. But I am on family payment tax benefit and it is not even enough with the prices we have here.

I lived down south five years back, and a trolley full of groceries from Biloela cost up to 70 bucks. But shopping here at the IBIS I pay $250 and up to $300 and it is not even for a full trolley. It is like we are used for wastage or for reduced or damaged products. It is sent to us up here. It is just not fair dinkum to us when we are trying to promote healthy eating. I cannot even budget to spend for a whole household. Trying to get cleaning stuff would cost me around $50 to $80. That is for 10 items. That is just ridiculous. Down south it would not be that much. We are just asking, from young parents’ point of view, that you support the statements that we are putting in to you guys. Thanks. That is about all I want to say.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Thank you both for your contributions. Is there anyone else who would like to make a statement?

Mr Mosby —I just want to say something about the holistic approach to community wellbeing. First of all, I just want to say on the lifestyle in the community that we did gardening before but now with the development of the community it has stopped. With the Westernised lifestyle, people sit back. Have a look at whether the shops are putting anything back into the community. This community wellbeing reflects back into the healthy lifestyle system. You have listened to what we have said about diabetes. All of that comes into it. Even having a look at the shops, at the variety of things that we sell, it is all black and white products. It is not a very good product, even though it says that it is sugar free and all that. It has not come up to the standard where you have 10 different varieties of product up on the shelf. You can only get two out of 10 in the shops. If you say, ‘Well, we wanted to put a healthy product on one shelf,’ you will focus on substituting something so that you can have a healthy thing, but then the price goes up because you are targeting that product. The management I think looks at where more has been taken off the shelves and then the prices go up. The value is how much profit they have made out of that, but it does not reflect back out into the community, where the healthy lifestyle occurs.

Mr Turnour asked whether there was a customer loyalty program coming into the community. We are working on it. I hope there will be some financial assistance so that we can really get this going on as a program in the community. Now we are looking at really starting off something and really coming back into having fresh fruit and vegies and different varieties. We should have different varieties of food that really cater for this environment—not everywhere but only this environment. The last thing I want to say is this. You can always buy fruit and vegies at the shop because they are half price. It is about the wages that you get compared to the prices. You get paid once a fortnight. You do your shopping. Then you cannot do your shopping again the next week because your money limits you to shopping only for that period of time. It has to last you for a fortnight. That is it. Thank you.

CHAIR —Are there any other people who would like to make a contribution?

Mr G Nai —I would like to speak on the freshness of the goods that come through the IBIS store—both stores, anyway. Just yesterday we had a boat. We came to the store yesterday and bought a pumpkin. This morning the insides are runny. It is a spoiled pumpkin. I have the pumpkin in my car if you want to see it. It is not a good-looking pumpkin. I am a pumpkin eater. I love my pumpkin. But somehow that pumpkin did not look good to me this morning; there was water all on my kitchen bench.

Especially at issue is the price range of fruit and vegies. When the doctor came through and said to the chronic patients, ‘Stick to the fruit and vegie diet’ and all that, this is the thing that we are looking at. Our money is not that big compared to what the doctor requested of us. I ask the committee if there is any way that the government could subsidise anything in the stores, the freight or anything to make it a lot easier for people up here in the remote area of the Torres Strait. It is okay for us; sometimes we have a direct flight to Cairns. We have friends that fly and we can get vegies fresh; we got them yesterday and today we get them. But now the airline is a problem. We are not ever going into the bush again to do gardening, because a small twig will give us a scratch. It will get infected because of this chronic disease. That is why we all turn to the IBIS store. We look at that as the main source of fruit and vegies for us, especially when fresh. Fresh is best, naturally. That is why if something in the IBIS store is not good enough we have to go to the convenience store; it is more convenient over there.

We get our fruit and vegies mainly from the convenience store. We know that it is guaranteed. It does not matter that you get some higher prices and some not so high over at the mini-mart. It is good. As I and some previous speakers have said already, there is a lack of training, studying or whatever of shop assistants in the IBIS store that will let them know that what is out of date is out of date and to put it away, not try to sell it if it is out of date. We get a lot of that in the store here at low prices. They put the price down in specials and that is okay but, for some people, as previous speakers have spoken here, money is the big problem up here. We are low-income earners and we live with higher costs. For instance, the power line up there costs us about $20 a card. You try to live with $20 a card through the week. Mainstream get a power bill of about $100 or $200 a month, and here we pay that for one week of power. On top of that we have to pay for our food.

Mr KATTER —You are saying it is $20 a week for electricity?

Mr G Nai —For some houses. But now we have air conditioners in the houses it is $20 a day.

Mr KATTER —You are supposed to be on the same tariff as everyone else in Queensland.

Mr G Nai —We are not. We are in a different system up here.

Mr KATTER —Mr Chair, could I direct that to Jim Turnour, the federal member. Jim, you might have a look at that, because there is definitely an agreement that throughout Queensland it is all the same price. The total, all-up cost of electrifying the Torres Strait Islands with solar power was $30 million. That was to last for 25 years and there would be no cost for diesel—or very little. It might switch on for four or five days per year. The system was designed that way. And there was to be some cost for batteries. Every seven years they would have to be replaced. But, really, the first cost was the complete, all-up cost. For reasons best known to some lunatic, they switched over to diesel. Not only does it have a horrific cost, but you have the cost of repairs all the time. A diesel engine requires an awful lot of maintenance, whereas with a solar system there are no moving parts.

On Coconut Island that system was put in to meet the demand at that point in time, when there was no electricity at all except for household generators. We said that over the next three years the consumption would double and that over the next five years it would grow to be the same as that of Townsville. It was programmed so that the system would increase. The system was not increased; therefore they said solar energy was not working and they would put in diesel. Ergon were absolutely determined that they would not put in solar power. I do not know why. They just had an absolute crazy madness about it. And they got their way. When the government fell, in 1989, they proceeded to put in diesel power and completely scrap the solar energy system, which would have had no ongoing cost. The Queensland cabinet had agreed to spend the $30 million to electrify all the outer islands in the Torres Strait. That had already been agreed to and passed and is a matter of record in cabinet. I was the minister; obviously I know. I hear what you are saying and I recoil with anger.

CHAIR —Mr Nai, do you have anything else you would like to add?

Mr G Nai —Yes, especially on wages. Most of the island workers are on CDEP. You try to take a payment in there and do a decent shop but you cannot do a decent shop; you have to think about your power bill as well. Once you have put all your money into your shopping and fuel, you end up with what? You do not have much money for the power bill. That is our main concern on the island. We island men have a different way of looking after one another. Our ways are unique. If you do not have a power card, I will give you one. That is how it is on the island. We say, ‘If you run out of sugar, come and ask me. I’ll give you sugar. I’ll give you milk. I’ll give you peanut butter.’ But if we go down to the mainstream it is a totally different ball game. That is why we like our little paradise up here. It is unique. If the government can subsidise us in any way—in freight or anything—just to get the IBIS prices or the mini-mart prices down, please do it. If we are going to live like this we are going to die young anyway because of heartache. Thank you.

CHAIR —That brings us to a close because the time is getting on. I would like to thank all members of the secretariat for the work they have done in making today happen, as well as Hansard. I thank all of you for setting up today. As I said at the opening, it is a wonderful setting that we have had today and we greatly appreciate it. I will hand over to your local member to close from our point of view and then Councillor John may want to close the meeting at the end.

Mr TURNOUR —I will follow up, as Bob suggested, in relation to electricity. Can I thank Councillor Mosby and the community for coming out today. I have campaigned about cost-of-living pressures in the Torres Strait and Cape York since becoming a member of parliament. I have been a member for only 12 months. It is great to have the committee here. I get to travel around and see the conditions that people live in and the type of life they live, but it is great to bring other members of the parliament to Masig and to other parts of the Torres Strait to see and hear firsthand from you about the situation here on Masig and other islands. Thank you so much for your welcome. I really appreciate that. Thank you for letting us stay here tonight. I pay my respects yet again to the traditional owners and elders for having us here on this island. Thank you.

Mr John Mosby —Thank you to Mr Chair and to our local member, Jim Turnour. Before I say other things, on behalf of the community, I just want to apologise for members of the community who did not have time to speak. Time is not on our side. I want to say thanks to all members of the community who participated and who spoke up about the high cost of living so that the committee could hear that. In closing, I think it is important that I ask you to provide feedback to us the community as to where to from here.

CHAIR —Sure. The committee is doing three tours within Australia as part of its inquiry. Coming to the Torres Strait is the first. We were on Thursday Island yesterday and we are going to Mer Island tomorrow and then we are going down to Bamaga and some of the Cape York communities to finish off the week. In about five weeks we are going to Central Australia, the top of South Australia and around Alice Springs. Then in July we will be going to the Top End, to the top of WA and to the Top End of the Northern Territory. Along the way we are also receiving evidence in Canberra from a number of government departments—for example, AQIS and also the Queensland Health department—to answer some of the technical questions which have been raised along the way.

We are scheduled to report in relation to this inquiry around September this year. We formally give a report to the House of Representatives. This inquiry is happening because the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has asked us to undertake this inquiry. In giving that report, we also give the report to the minister. It is then a matter for whether or not government decides to take up the recommendations that we make. This is clearly an issue of concern to the minister. That is why she is keen we have a look at this issue. It really goes to the heart, as we have heard throughout the day, and the whole question of closing the gap in terms of health outcomes, life expectancy amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I have no doubt that she will be waiting with interest to see what the report says and then, as I say, it will be a matter for government to implement any recommendations. That is the process from here.

Mr TURNOUR —With some indulgence of the chair, as your local federal member I have heard evidence over the last couple of days that I will refer to the Office of Fair Trading to have a look at in the interim. While they are directly related to issues of the inquiry, I think issues of pricing and the like in terms of the local store are things that I as your local federal member can take up with the Office of Fair Trading. I will do that for the community, Councillor Mosby.

Mr KATTER —I crave the indulgence of the chair for one moment. What Joey Mosby said before went back to the Bjelke Petersen government. Every single service here was under a single department. Just to give you one example, Nigel Tillett was the executive officer for the whole of the Torres Strait. He was married to a lady from Badu. Nigel headed up the Island Industries Board as well as being paid as an executive officer. He has been replaced by a bloke called Bowler who lives in Cairns. I do not know what he is paid but I imagine it would not be much short of $150,000 or $200,000 a year. He is not up here; he is not doing anything. That is just an extra supernumerary position. There is a profit of half a million dollars. So there is $1 million locked up in two items—(1) the fact that now there is a boss that lives in Cairns and (2) there is a profit. When a government department ran IIB there was no profit and we tried to keep the price as low as possible. The mainstreaming and the closing down of that department—Joey Mosby is right on that. That has been absolutely disastrous. I have not been up here since the collapse of the government in 1990. This is the first time I have seen how badly things have gone with the mainstreaming. Clearly, it has failed miserably in my opinion.

CHAIR —Thank you, Bob. So does that answer the question in terms of what the process is from here?

Mr John Mosby —Thank you. I just thought I needed to ask, that is all. I think many people will hear that. I hope you can see the turnout here because high cost is of concern to us. We are grateful to be one of the communities—I think I mentioned this in my opening statement—to have the opportunity to speak up. You are consulting all islands in the Torres Strait but basically you will find the same answers, I guess. Thank you again. I ask the committee that we close with a prayer. I apologise that we never committed these hearings to the hands of God. I ask that we close these hearings with a word of prayer.

CHAIR —We will leave it in your hands, John, to close it now.

Mr John Mosby —Father Mosby, can I ask you to close the hearing with a prayer.

Father Ned Mosby —Praise God. Let us pray. Father God, we thank you and praise you, Almighty God, and we thank you for this time. You are God yesterday, today and tomorrow. You savvy everything. We ask you this time, this day to share this meeting here.

Father, as I speak you savvy everything. The discussion that we present here comes from the heart, and you already savvy that. Father, we ask that you, God, make sure these people from the government are listening. We ask that your spirit be teacher, guide, confidant at this time. We know that the spirit of God moves within us, ministering to each one of us in a special way, giving people courage to stand up and talk.

We ask also for your knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We remind all these representatives here before us that you have given them the responsibility to look after our wellbeing. You have allowed this time to happen. We savvy that after the discussion that we have here more will come that will end our trouble. We ask that their decisions will be blessed by you. Once again, Lord,  may no trouble again. May you continue to look after them. As you minister to them, may you also minister to our people and families back home as well. May we all be covered by the blood of your Son, Jesus. May the road that we follow and the ground that we stand up on be holy ground, and once again we give you all honour, glory and praise, and also to your Son, Jesus. Amen.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Turnour):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 6.40 pm