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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS - 01/04/2009 - Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —At this point we are going to move into an open forum. So I open it to the floor and ask whether there is anybody who would like to make a contribution or say something to the committee.

Mr Malone —I have lived here on Mer for the last 10 years. I just want to go into the amount of money people have to spend versus what things cost. It seems to me that everybody is taking bits out here and bits out there, and a good demonstration is the IBIS transfer fund fee. I think when we first came here it was $10 to transfer and then the IBIS manager came from Cairns. He was shocked at that and he said, ‘I’ll fix that up.’ He fixed it the other way: it went up to $30. People only have so much to spend and if you are paying fees like that the $30 has to come out of your groceries or something like that. That is a pretty disgusting situation. The only way to pay bills on the island, if you have not got access to a computer and internet transfers, is to go to IBIS and transfer the money through there. So if you are paying a $100 phone bill you have to add $30 on top for the transfer fee. And that money has to come out of stuff that you would buy at the store. So people are just running, chasing themselves around in circles all the time.

The price of stuff at the store is really over the top. For the quality you get some of it is just ridiculous, especially on the meat side of things. I think that the whole system just needs a clean out. I do not know whether we could have subsidised freight, or something in that direction, to bring the price down. People only have a limited amount of money to spend and that is it. Most people here get paid on Wednesday and by Friday the money is finished. So if you have not brought anything then you just have to make do until the next pay day. Thank you.

CHAIR —In your view has the situation got worse in recent years?

Mr Malone —I think so; yes. I think it is has. The old IBIS store was ere—someone brought this up—and when we got the new store we were all pretty happy about that because we were going to get fresh food and vegies, but if you look at the chiller department there where you buy your fruit, it is only two metres long. As Sainty said, everything else is sitting on the floor. People are walking around it and stepping over it, and you have to help yourself out of the box. The store should be two or three times the size that it is now so that they can control the goods properly.

Mr TURNOUR —Through the chair, can I ask you whether you have noticed any differences between the docket price and the marked price in the store?

Mr Malone —No, I am one of those who buy my fruit and vegies down south. We go to the store and just buy bits and pieces here and there. We do not really take much notice of what is advertised in the paper or anything like that.

CHAIR —How do you buy your fruit and vegies from down south?

Mr Malone —We fax an order down to Coles, I think it is, for what we want and they send it up. As long as they get the order before Tuesday or Wednesday they put it on a barge that same week and it arrives on Monday.

CHAIR —What state is it in by the time it gets here?

Mr Malone —Good. The vegies that we get from there would last twice as long as the stuff you buy in the store—maybe three times as long. Some of the stuff you buy in the store only lasts two or three days before it has had it.

Mr TURNOUR —How much does it cost you to freight that up?

Mr Malone —Usually about $100.

Mr TURNOUR —For what sort of volume or amount or package?

Mr Malone —We usually get a full box of bread, probably two or three boxes of vegies, a carton of meat and we have a separate carton for chilled stuff. Sea Swift have a minimum charge of, I think, $53, so if you buy a small box it is going to cost you $50. Once you get over the $50 mark it comes down in price.

Mr TURNOUR —How often do you do that?

Mr Malone —Maybe once a fortnight or once every three weeks.

Mrs VALE —Your fruit and vegies come up on the same barge as the IBIS supply?

Mr Malone —Yes, that is right.

Mrs VALE —Can you explain, then, why the quality of your fruit and vegetables is better quality than what is given to the IBIS store?

Mr Malone —I believe that the fruit and vegies that come from IBIS come first from wherever they market it down there and go to Thursday Island. I do not how long they keep them—maybe for another week; they must—and then they send them out here. So where my vegies take four or five days to come, the IBIS vegies might be taking a week or two weeks to get here.

Mrs VALE —But didn’t you say they come up on the same barge or the same boat?

Mr Malone —They arrive here on the same barge. I am not sure of the IBIS system but I believe that it goes first to TI and then comes out here. You will have to ask the IBIS people.

Mrs VALE —But if your fruit and vegies are being purchased in Cairns and IBIS goods are being purchased in Cairns too and they arrive here on the same barge—I am assuming they do not change barges—

Mr Malone —Yes, they do.

Mrs VALE —Your fruit and vegies change barges?

Mr Malone —Everybody’s groceries, or whatever comes up to the Torres Strait, comes on a ship from Cairns to Horn Island. Then it is unloaded and it is put on other barges to go to the different islands.

Mrs VALE —I see.

Mr Malone —I am not sure, but I believe IBIS sort their stuff out and then they send it out here—so that might be another week added to it.

Mrs VALE —So the ordering done in Cairns does not isolate particular islands, such as one for Mer and one for Masig?

Mr Malone —I am not sure. I think most of it goes to Thursday Island and then gets sent out here.

Mrs VALE —Because it is a curiosity to me on the committee that you can actually order from Cairns and yet your fruit and vegetables arrive in good condition. After what I have seen down there this morning with the ginger—it is just appalling.

Mr Malone —I think that is the reason. It all goes via Thursday Island and then comes here. So it might take an extra week to get out here, whereas mine only takes two or three days.

Mrs VALE —Something is happening. It is either that the supply of the fruit and vegetables is poor quality and done very cheaply to start with from the source or it is being delayed inordinately in transit.

Mr Malone —I think so.

Mrs VALE —I have one more question, Kevin. Thank you for standing up and giving your testimony; it is very helpful. I had heard about the money that is charged for fee transfers and I made the assumption that people were transferring money perhaps to friends or relatives on the mainland or wherever. What you said this morning is that this actually occurs when people pay for their utilities.

Mr Malone —That is right.

Mrs VALE —So you are paying for utilities and then you have to pay another $30. If you go to IBIS to pay your phone bill, what else would you pay for? Your electricity?

Mr Malone —No, you buy electricity here. They use a card system. That is on the island. For any bills where you are making payments, such as for school fees or anything that has to be paid down south, if you have not got a MasterCard or internet transfer because you are not able to access a computer then you have to go through IBIS. There is no other way.

Mrs VALE —And it is very hard to access those other avenues of transferring finance if you are on the CDEP, isn’t it?

Mr Malone —That is it.

Mrs VALE —It is impossible.

Mr Malone —Yes.

Mrs VALE —That must cost quite a bit of money. Thank you very much, Kevin.

Mr KATTER —Kevin, the thing that strikes me—and I wish that Mr Passi was still here—is that when I was a minister and I had a responsibility for IBIS we never got any complaints then. It seems to me that it is only after the last three, four or five years that the thing went bad. The complaints of most people have been over the last few years. If you go back five or six years, it was all right. Why is the situation deteriorating both in terms of their income versus the cost of food and the quality of the food? Why has it deteriorated so badly? Have you got any idea? Someone else might like to answer that question.

Mr Malone —I am not really sure. I think that even in the old IBIS store the food was not real flash here as far as the quality. It might have improved a little bit since the old store. I think it is maybe just the money thing. Everything costs a lot more these days and people are just not getting the extra money to spend.

Mr KATTER —That does not explain why the fruit is poor quality and old now when it was not then. When you came here it was not like this. The fruit and vegetables were reasonable when you first came here.

Mr Malone —I do not think so, no. It has been pretty much the same.

Mr KATTER —Right through? On the second question of income versus the cost of food—what is your take on that?

Mr Malone —Like I said, everybody’s money has usually run out in a week. If they get paid fortnightly then there is just nothing left to spend. The instance you have of the transfer fee from IBIS going from $10 to $30 is a big lump out of people’s meagre pay. Most people are on CDEP. Other things have risen, like the cost of electricity. Everything has gone up with inflation. There is just not enough money to spend and not enough stuff to buy really. I do not know if you are stopping overnight but over the next two days there will be not much left in the store in the way of vegies. It will all be gone because it is payday today. People will go and do all their shopping today, tomorrow and Friday, and then everything will have run out. The vegies will have run out and the money will be getting low.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for that contribution. Is there anybody else who would like to say something to the committee?

Ms Tapau —I am a resident of Murray. I live in Townsville now but each time I come to Murray nothing has changed at the shop. We have a problem with the fruit and vegies but also the ATMs, because the ATM we are using here is St George and nearly all of the communities have an account with the National Australia Bank. We have been having this type of problem for years and years. People have been complaining. If you talk to the community they are going to be saying the same things over and over. Even if you get a ‘ricey’ bag, as soon as you open it there is a lot of mildew.

Mr KATTER —You get a lot of what?

Ms Tapau —‘Ricey’ bags that you get from the shop. That is also happening even with dry products. A similar thing is happening with the fruit and vegies and even the meat. Even if you get a packet of T-bone steak with only two T-bone steaks in the packet, it is probably nearly $25 for one little packet. If you get four, it is over $80. And it is not even fresh. Even if you get a carton of eggs, as soon as you bring the carton of eggs home, the eggs are rotten. There are kids—innocent kids—living off the things that their parents get from the shops.

CHAIR —Can you explain what a ‘ricey’ bag is?

Mrs Tapau —A ‘ricey’ bag is what nearly all the community lives off—a bag of rice. When people get those, as soon as they open it there is black mildew inside the rice bag. Complaints have gone to the shop, but nothing has been done about it.

Mr Zaro —I have been a community member for over 10 years. Since the upgrade to the new shop, I have asked this question a lot of times. When the shop was built, it was built the same way as all the other shops around the straits. When you look at the community size, we have the greatest number of community members besides Darnley and Badu Island. As you can see, we as workers do not go in until the morning when the bus gets in and all the bread and all that stuff is gone. We understand that there are children and all the families come in and buy it. By the time the workers go in, there is practically nothing for us. And that is especially the case with vegies, as you have heard, and all the main stuff—the meat and all that. By the time we get to the potatoes, they are all soft. We get practically the worst ones there. With the size of the shop, there are families all lined up in the aisles and families walking around with trolleys. There is not enough space for the families doing their shopping. Once you are all lined up, half the aisle is sitting outside waiting for the next load. When they all come in, most of the fruits and the other stuff are gone. You have a counter that is sitting right next to the aisle where all the shelves are. With everybody trying to get through, it is just not big enough for us.

The other situation there is that there are not enough staff. There will be one staff member working with a big line up the aisle. I do not know what timetables they have, but it slows the community. People working need to get that moving. Everybody has to wait. We have to work, but when we go in there we have to spend nearly an hour in the shop just to get an item. If one staff member is working, there are two registers that are not active. That is a big problem for us.

There are also telecommunications problems here. If Telstra goes down, the whole line goes down and the whole shop shuts off. Then you have power problems. With there being only one shop on the island, it is a bit of a problem. If you look at Thursday Island, they have four shops. They have the major shops and three other shops out in the suburbs around the island. Big islands like Darnley and Murray should have bigger shops that can help the whole community. Another issue is that when they do stock taking, it is a day off for the shop and that shuts out the community for the day. We have kids that want to have something for school. We want to be able to buy milk and break. When they do stock taking, the whole shop shuts off. When stock taking happens in other communities down south, they stay open. Why do they have to shut off when it means the community has to suffer?

So these are the things that have been major problems, as I see it, in that area. There has been a bit of a problem. You can see the size of the community, and when they all go to the shop, especially on payday—today is payday—you have half the island sitting there and others sitting outside. There is not enough covered area for them. When it rains, they all have to bolt under one area. I am looking at the health and safety issues there as well.

CHAIR —How often are there stocktakes?

Mr Zaro —Stocktakes are probably once every month. But they are open Monday to Saturday and during that time we have to have the shop open. We have a lot of feastings happening on the island. You have cultural stuff on the island. Also we have the school, the dongas. When they do not have food, everybody walks into the shop. When you have the cultural events, everybody comes into that shop. So the community fellas, the people at home, have that much respect for each other. They respect the cultural events. They have a big stock of food sitting on one side and that shuts off the other people who come in to get whatever they want. So these are the major factors involved when it comes to cultural issues, as well as all the enterprises on the island. If they do not have their stuff, everybody comes to that shop and they take many of the boxes of bread, boxes of milk, all the meat. We have nearly 400 or 500 people on the island and others are living at the back there, so we are a bit unfortunate in that area.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for that contribution. Is there anybody else who would like to speak?

Mr KATTER —Could I just ask a question of that gentleman? Once again, I ask this question. What is occupying my mind is why we have suddenly gone bad up here. What changes have occurred so that suddenly now the prices are very high and the quality is very poor? Kevin said the quality has been poor for 10 years. Have you got any take on that, as to why suddenly the prices are very high relative to your income?

Mr Zaro —I want to work that out too. We just do not know. All we are doing is just walking in and buying the stuff and we find that everything has gone up and nobody can afford it. Why? When you shop down south you can walk out with a trolley full and you still have change in your pocket. That is $200. If you walk out of this shop you will get $400 worth of trolley out. I cannot explain why. We would probably think it is the freight on the barge. The freight weight is probably the only thing we can think of. Whatever the department has, we just cannot work it out here. We just get the community the stuff out here.

CHAIR —Thank you. Kay, could you please state the capacity in which you appear here today.

Mrs Marou —I live here on Murray Island.

CHAIR —And what do you do?

Mrs Marou —I work at the enterprise, the Mer Island guesthouse.

CHAIR —Is there any statement that you would like to make about the quality of the food and the service that is provided by the IBIS store here on Mer Island?

Mrs Marou —Yes, I would. I find difficulties—I am sure you have heard from past speakers as well—with the services of the IBIS store. Being so very small and having only two tills within the island, it is very difficult—with only one staff there as well. As you know, I am the manager of the guesthouse. I have to have food prepared for my guests up there. Sometimes my food does not come on the barge on time for the guests that I have up there, so I have to get food from the IBIS store. Then there is a great big line-up, especially on paydays. We have to wait. Money runs out from the ATM. We only have one that is provided for us at this very moment. As you know, today we have had difficulties with it too.

On the quality of the food, I noticed that when we have got vegies from the IBIS store they have not lasted us for a week. I am speaking just for the enterprise buyers from up where I work at the Mer Island guesthouse, because it does not last us for a week.

Mr KATTER —It runs out or it goes bad?

Mrs Marou —It goes bad. We do not get to use all of the food that we get. Sometimes the vegies that we buy today go off tomorrow, or it is off when it is sent to us so we do not get to use it at all, and that is a waste of the community money that we provide for the food up there at the guest house. Not only that, we also find difficulties with bread. I have a boy that goes to the school here, and we do not have enough bread that comes into the community for us. There are other issues. There are some products on the shelves that have used-by dates that are past. And we are still buying them from the store.

Mr TURNOUR —Like what?

Miss Kaigey —Like tinned stuff. I have bought several tins from the store which had a used-by date on it. I have also bought a bottle of milk from there. If it is due today we still use it the next day. Even though we have bought it we have to finish it before tomorrow—but we still buy it from the store.

Mrs VALE —Through you, Chair, did you say that the bread runs out?

Mrs Marou —Yes, they do not have enough bread provided for the whole community.

Mrs VALE —And does the bread come in once a week?

Mrs Marou —The bread comes in every Monday on the boat. It might finish on the day and all the people who come later to buy bread find that it is not there.

Mrs VALE —There is not enough bread. Okay, so they go without.

Mrs Marou —So some of our families miss out.

Mrs VALE —What kind of bread is on offer? Is it just white bread or do they have wholemeal?

Mrs Marou —We get sliced bread and we get white and wholemeal. We get fruit loaf.

Mrs VALE —Yes.

Mrs Marou —We do get those, and we sometimes get buns on the island.

Mrs VALE —But they are all sold out usually by the first day.

Mrs Marou —They are sold out before anybody else.

Mrs VALE —Is there no storage for frozen bread on the island?

Mrs Marou —There is a fridge for it but the bread does not last that long for anybody else throughout the week.

CHAIR —Have you raised that with the store?

Mrs Marou —We have. I think we had an issue with it about two weeks ago. There was a guy that was here—Tony Flint, who is one of the regional managers—within the community. I spoke to him about the issues that we were having here on the island, because he stays at the guest house. I spoke to him about the bread issue. It is first in first served. And you do not worry about whoever comes later on. There is just not enough for us.

CHAIR —What did he say?

Mrs Marou —He said that he was going to get some more in. I have never seen that happen. He spoke to me a week before but a week later I did not see it until it just came in recently. Normally on the pay week we do not get enough products sent in for us. On the off week, yes, sometimes we do and sometimes we do not.

Mrs VALE —But on the off week when it does come in people do not have any money.

Mrs Marou —That is correct. They do not have enough money to budget to buy food.

Mrs VALE —So there is bread that comes in on the second week?

Mrs Marou —Bread comes in on the second week. Bread comes in every week on the barge. Every Monday, whenever we have the barge, it comes in.

Mrs VALE —Just so that I can understand it for the committee, on the first week it is all gone by Tuesday or Wednesday, if it comes in on Monday.

Mrs Marou —That is right.

Mrs VALE —And the second week’s bread lasts a bit longer because there is not enough money in the community to—

Mrs Marou —Sometimes it does not. Whichever family has money will take all the bread. You do not see the bread for other families who come in. We had bread issues, recently, all the time.

Mr TURNOUR —How many years, going back, have you had bread issues or is it just recently?

Mrs Marou —Just recently. Half way through last year and for the beginning of this year we have had issues. I cannot recall all the other years, though.

Mr TURNOUR —It is sold out every week?

Mrs Marou —It is sold out every week, yes. Whoever is at the shop will buy bread, and then it is gone for anybody else who comes in to get some.

Mrs VALE —Are they ordering less bread now, Kay? Is there less bread?

Mrs Marou —I do not know how there ordering system is with the IBIS store. I cannot say, but as a community member I know that we have not had enough bread on the island to feed our family.

Mrs VALE —Might I ask, then: in the absence of bread what do families usually eat?

Mrs Marou —They go back to the island food. They used to make damper or scone or whatever they have.

Mrs VALE —So damper, scone and flour food.

Mrs Marou —Yes.

Mrs VALE —And the mothers will make this?

Mrs Marou —They will. We are finding it very hard now because children now eat a lot more bread than they eat rice or flour. It is not like when we were young.

Mrs VALE —We have had some evidence to say that when the bags of rice are opened they are often mouldy. Have you had any problems with the bags of rice? Rice is an important—

Mrs Marou —I haven’t with the bags of rice but I have with spaghetti. It has had weevils in it. I have bought spaghetti that has been on the shelves with black weevils. I bought a couple of those for the guesthouse as well and I had to throw them away. I did not ever take them back to the IBIS store to get reimbursement.

Mrs VALE —Will they reimburse for articles that are found to be faulty in any way? Is that a policy they have if you have to take goods back?

Mrs Marou —Before, they used to, but now you have to show a receipt to get reimbursement for your product.

Mrs VALE —Why would you have to show a receipt?

Mrs Marou —To state that you have bought the food at that shop.

Mrs VALE —Where else would you buy it?

Mrs Marou —That is the only store that we have. That is right.

Mrs VALE —Exactly. I would have thought it was the people who were on CDEP and do not order themselves who would be—

Mrs Marou —We do not have any other IBIS store bar the one that is here with us now.

Mrs VALE —And it is probably not a habit of most people on the island to keep receipts anyway.

Mrs Marou —That is right. I don’t. Sometimes I forget where I have left them. I have gotten into the habit of throwing them in the bin straightaway, then if I want to take a product back I have to look for the receipt, and it is not there—it is in the bin.

Mr KATTER —I think Kay has put her case very well.

CHAIR —So you freight up some of your own stuff for the guesthouse?

Mrs Marou —Yes, through the Tourist Straight Island Regional Council. They run the enterprise up there where I work. I work for the council.

CHAIR —You have food brought up here independently?

Mrs Marou —I have food brought up here, but if it does not come on time I get products from the shop.

CHAIR —Are you using Sea Swift?

Mrs Marou —Yes, that is correct.

CHAIR —What is the cost of freight with Sea Swift?

Mrs Marou —I do not know. You will have to ask the island manager.

CHAIR —So that is done by someone else?

Mrs Marou —Yes. I do not hold the account.

CHAIR —How long has there been an ATM on the island?

Mrs Marou —The ATM has been here for a couple of years now.

CHAIR —Right. Has it always been a St George ATM?

Mrs Marou —The first one was. I do not know about this one. This one was only replaced last week.

CHAIR —I see. So the ATM has been replaced in the last week?

Mrs Marou —Yes, and we are still having problems with it today.

Mrs VALE —I want to talk about the quality of your food, Kay. Your food is delivered on the same barge as the IBIS food?

Mrs Marou —That is correct, but mine comes from Cairns.

Mrs VALE —But doesn’t the IBIS food also come from Cairns? I am just trying to get a tracking—

Mrs Marou —I am not quite sure. I do not know where their products come from. I cannot really say. I know mine come from Cairns. I cannot say where IBIS’s come from.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Kay, for the evidence you have given today. We really appreciate what you have done. I will ask your local member to make some final remarks to you on behalf of us, then I will call on Councillor Day to close the meeting for us.

Mr TURNOUR —I want to again thank everybody for coming today. I pay my respects to the traditional owners and elders for having us here on the island. We do appreciate the evidence that you have given. Thank you, Councillor Day and Vera, for assisting in the organisation of this hearing. We look forward to coming back. The inquiry will go to the Northern Territory in the middle of the year, to Central Australia and to Western Australia, and we plan to report in September this year. I look forward to providing you with the report when it is finalised. Thank you very much for having us.

Mr Day —On behalf of the elders, the youth, the women folk and all of the community members, I express our appreciation for the visit by you parliamentary members. I am sure you are very busy people but you have made time to come here. Thank you very much for this opportunity to make our concerns known to you. We hope you have a pleasant trip home. I believe you are off to Bamaga next, and after that we wish you a pleasant flight back. We have food and refreshments. I will ask Pastor Cec to bless the food and to then close the meeting with a prayer.

Resolved (on motion by Mrs Vale):

That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

The meeting was closed with a prayer in English.

Committee adjourned at 12.16 pm