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Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —That brings us to the open forum. We will open up to the floor. Is there anyone who would like to make a contribution and say something to the committee?

Mrs Symons —We moved up here about four months ago. I have got a family of seven. On the Sunshine Coast I would have spent maybe $350 a week in the supermarket, whereas if I were to buy exactly that product up here, I would pay maybe from $550 to $600 a week. You cannot do that; you cannot live that way. So we, on our trips down to Cairns, have looked at just going to the supermarket down there, as I know lots of other people up here do, and then shipping it up. We did a costing on it. We would pay maybe $3.80 for a tin of peaches down in Cairns. Up here we are paying $5-something, yet the freight on that one item would have only been about 30c, so somewhere there is a big difference in the middle there. That is a real concern to a family budget, and I am sure there must be lots of others who are in similar situations.

CHAIR —So you are now ordering most of your groceries from Cairns and having them freighted up?

Mrs Symons —Whenever I go down there I will make a huge order and just buy up large on what I think we will need for the next few months. Then I just buy fruit and vegies up here that I need on the top of that.

Mrs Nona —What Mrs Symons has just described is true. I heard what the previous speakers were saying, but we are spending a lot of money just to do the shopping down at Seisia and IBIS. As you probably know, we have got a very high chronic disease rate, and it is very expensive for us even to just put basic good food on the table. The cost at Seisia, at IBIS and at the Alau supermarket is very high.

I was hoping that if I were to be here today, as a mother and a grandmother, I could say to you that up here in the remote area not everybody actually gets the allowance. We actually do not get it. We cannot even afford to bank the money we get and we cannot even afford to buy a decent house because we are spending most of our dollars in buying basic food at the supermarkets.

Mr TURNOUR —We have a variety of supermarkets here. I know it is just a straw poll, but if we could get from those providing advice from the community your thoughts about the quality of the fruit and vegetables from IBIS and the private stores in this region. Where do you prefer to buy those fresh fruit and vegetables from?

Mrs Nona —I prefer to buy my fruit and vegies from Seisia because there is a lot of turnover. I think it is also the access; it is convenient for people who are actually working. After work they just pull up and buy fruit and vegies. Again, the fruit and vegies at Seisia are also very expensive.

Mr TURNOUR —Would you suggest that it is of better quality than the fruit and vegies in IBIS?

Mrs Nona —It is better quality, yes.

Mr TURNOUR —Thank you.

Ms Townson —I am from Seisia. I agree what Patty and the other lady have said in relation to the prices. When there was only one barge coming in, the Sea Swift, we saw the prices escalate like you would not believe because there is no competition. Our people are suffering because there is only one barge coming up to service us. That is a really big thing. A lot of our families do not have dinghies to go out to fish and hunt. Other families supply them with that. You are looking at not only the grocery price but fuel prices and all that sort of stuff that we have to face. You have families here that have lived here forever and we have also had massive turnovers. It has affected not only our health but our education, our kids at school. It has affected local businesses and those people who have come here to visit as a tourist and loved the place so much that they have come back, set up home here and now they are locals here with us. They face the same trauma.

I hear you Bob when you talk about Defence allowances. Teachers get allowances here. We do not get allowances. We are locals; we work here. I would like to ask questions of Mr Smith. I know he is not here right now. How much money is his business putting back into the community? I want to know about community control. When we set up a business or when we invite these people into our communities to set up business, how much is community controlled? How much money are they putting back into the community that they have set their business up in? I know they are not here to answer those questions and it is unfair to ask you that, but that is one of the big things that I would like to know—how much money in dollars? He has stores wherever, Dauan, Badu Island. How many local people is he bringing in to work in his store who have backgrounds as artists, as dressmakers and that sort of thing. Is he actually bringing that into the store? That is my question to Mr Smith.

CHAIR —We can put that question to him in writing, so it will form part of the record.

Mr TURNOUR —In terms of your perception do IBIS, Seisia or Umagico put a fair bit back into the community? What are your impressions in relation to that because it is such an important issue to you locally?

Ms Townson —Local enterprises have been set up. I can only speak for Seisia. I do not know what IBIS are doing in relation to putting back into community. Seisia, because they are an enterprise, give back into the community. They give back infrastructure; they give back in supporting our young people in our community. I am only speaking highly of Seisia because I live there and I am a local there. Seisia Supermarket is putting a lot back in. Umagico is too; it is putting a whole heap back into their community. But, to tell you the truth, I am really disappointed in IBIS, that they are not here. They close at six, so it gives them enough time to come down and answer questions, I guess. It is unfair to comment at this stage because they are not here, but a lot of questions need to be asked of IBIS.

Mr TURNOUR —I think you have answered my question. To be fair to IBIS, we have had IBIS present to us over the last few days at other places as well.

CHAIR —And we are about to go and have a look at the IBIS store.

Mrs Adidr Poipoi —I have lived in this community for nearly 40 years. I am here as a mother and as someone who has lived here forever. I am actually a tenant of IBIS in the state owned building that they have, the shopping complex. I am also a member of Bamaga Enterprises; I am a former director but just a member at the moment.

I heard you asking about how fresh the vegetables are at IBIS. They are only getting the boat in with vegetables once a week, whereas Seisia is getting it in twice a week. I also know that, going back more than 30 years, Bamaga Council have been asking the state government for that particular building because they wanted to run their own complex. At IBIS, the people who run it, the managers, do not have much authority or freedom to purchase where they want to purchase from in order to get better pricing and to get what the community wants. The bigwigs in Cairns buy for the people in Bamaga, which I do not think is right. There is never the stuff there or the food that we want, whereas at Seisia it is a bit more expensive than at Bamaga but the vegetables are fresher and they have more variety and the hours are longer.

Seisia also employs more local people whereas IBIS do not employ as many local people. They have gone from employing about 10 people to two people last week, then they just have casuals. Yet this week I saw three people come over, people who do not live in the community but who do their circuit. They have just come over to assist here, so the money that they are making here is not going back into the community; it is being taken away from here.

You would be aware of BEL, Bamaga Enterprises Ltd. We create employment here and the funds or profits get distributed back into the community—like at the Centrelink building; you would know what happened today. I am speaking for myself as well here because I have been renting a shop in the complex for 20 years now and never once has it been painted inside. So I leave it up to you guys to think about Bamaga community as well. If you have competition here in Bamaga as well as Seisia then the prices will probably drop because they will be competing against one another. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Mr KATTER —Chair , if I can just respond to what has been raised, we have had evidence from a whole range of people but, clearly, IBIS’s central administration is in TI, so money is floating away from here to the central administration in TI. The CEO is in Cairns. He would be on a very substantial amount of money, let me tell you. That money is floating off, of course, to Cairns. If this business was locally owned, such as Richard and Helen’s business in Badu, all of that money would be recirculating in this community. Clearly it is not. So I would just say, yes, on the evidence we have got, the administration is in TI and the CEO is in Cairns.

CHAIR —I think the head office is in Cairns, actually.

Mr KATTER —I stand corrected, because Richard has just said that their central office is in Cairns. I am quite appalled to learn that. That is not something that I picked up myself from the evidence, Chair. That is infinitely worse still.

Mrs Seden —I actually live on TI. I want to add to what Lynda said before about freight. Since about 1998 I have weekly ordered my shop from Coles because it is way cheaper. However, I went away for a couple of years just recently and came back to TI in 2006. I do not know how all of this all works, but I now find that, for my chiller and freezer, it does not work for me to get them from Cairns anymore. When I looked at the cost of my shopping, the freight has actually doubled. Before when I used to do my shop, the freight component would be around $35. Now it is more like $77, so it has more than doubled. I am not sure why, and I will continue shopping from Coles for other things, such as cat food, cleaning products and cheese. I do not have time to try and figure out the price difference. I know they are processed goods, and maybe they are seen as foods that we should not be eating or what have you, but it is extremely expensive to feed a cat or to have a range of cleaning products and buy them from IBIS. I thought I would share that because for many, many years I have been shopping from Coles because it worked better for me, but now I cannot do that anymore for my chiller and freezer. It is a choice. I see my choice as being limited, so that is probably one aspect as well. You can buy from Cairns but now that choice has gone for me. However, I would like to support what IBIS is doing on TI in terms of their specials. Some of the specials are really good on fresh food, and the range of meats—I think it must be from that Thiess place—is much better.

One thing that I would say is that I am over here three days a week, and since the Seisia supermarket opened—and I can only guess that it is the same situation for IBIS here and that maybe they get the same range—I have had a list from several people of stuff to buy at the Seisia supermarket. I have my own list too, because the range at IBIS has dropped dramatically. In teas, you can get Bushells, Lipton and maybe some lemon ginger teabags from Seisia. It is the same with the range of tinned fish. So I am going down to the supermarket tomorrow before I go away and buying up all the types of teabags, fish and a range of other things. It is like what Joseph and a few other people were saying before: it is the kind of stuff that you want to buy. I do not know what has happened with IBIS, because they used to have a good range. They seem to have increased their range in the meats and in some of the deli stuff but in other things the range has gone down. The canned goods, the cleaning goods and other stuff like that seem to be more expensive than ever, and then there is that freight thing—I cannot figure that one out.

Mr Revs —I have been listening to most of the conversation. I have a bit of a history in this place as well, going back to the early to late eighties. I worked for the DCS for 15 years, and I am aware of the history of the involvement of IBIS and so forth. I can back up what Jo-Ann was saying, because BCI, Bamaga Island Council, were indeed trying to acquire that building to take it on as a private operation for the council. That did not happen. Moreover, to do with the conversation about Seisia, my family and I certainly shop down there on occasion, but we also have the opportunity to buy from Cairns, which certainly equates to a large saving. In the last couple of years there has been a bit of a turnover in management in Seisia, and I have personally seen that the service and quality have got better over the years. Today the quality is quite good, and the service is not too bad at all. I go back to what Joseph mentioned about staff asking you what you want to see on the shelves, which is a good thing.

But the main issue that I find which has the biggest bearing on this discussion is in relation to subsidisation for the cost. That is the biggest issue. Costs are hurting all of us here and today’s global climate is making it worse. High levels of blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and diabetes are impacting on every one of us in these communities today, right through to children as young as 12 and 13, and they are due to issues around the cost of shopping. So we really need to address that but, if we are going to address it, we need to get some real subsidies happening. I try to keep up with most of the national news and so forth, and in recent months I have heard about the subsidies happening for Tasmania for getting things across to the mainland and how they are subsidised at a rate of about $12 million per annum. Up here, we are basically scratching the surface of maybe $1 or $2 million, so there is a vast difference in how we get subsidised. So I put the question to the committee and to the Senate: how are the real issues on the ground here going to be addressed? We cannot keep talking and talking. This conversation about the costs of living here and how they affect all of our families and the community was around more than five or six years ago. So my main question is about subsidies. If I could put that forward as my main issue, that would be good.

Mr Wong —I work as the director of enterprises for the regional council. I just heard Marika say that she comes across to buy some stuff from here: the Seisia supermarket will start exporting next week. My issue is a dilemma, really. We try to keep margins as low as possible but, with the climate and the government saying that you have to be economically independent, we cannot keep the price margins as low as possible. To grow we probably need to try and get some stimulation from government, whether as freight subsidies or, as Joseph was saying, as tax breaks somewhere along the line. Otherwise we will just stay stagnant and we will not go anywhere. We want to keep margins down.

Mr KATTER —There was a lady who said that dog or cat food was a lot more expensive. You have the freight up here and there is GST levied on that. When it arrives here, you have already paid a lot more than a person in Cairns would have paid because of that freight plus the GST. Then the cost price is added to that. A margin of 40 to 50 per cent is put on and the GST goes on top of that. There is no GST on food, but 60 per cent of the money spent at supermarkets is not on food. The amount of money you have to buy food up here is reduced very dramatically by the effect of GST, which is a discriminatory tax upon people such as you.

Mrs Seden —At some stage you just say, ‘Okay, what is the bottom line?’ You just respond to how much things cost. I do a weekly shop now, but before I used to do it monthly and I used to get 30 400-gram tins of cat food such as Whiskas. I do not know what it is like now—there were two of us, there are four of us now—but the savings that I made just on the retail price of the cat food, if I were to buy them at IBIS at that time, covered my freight bill. I thought that was quite incredible. I used to tell everyone, and show them the facts and try to get them to shop from Coles—it was that remarkable.

Mr KATTER —But now it does not work that way.

Mrs Seden —I am not sure because I have very little time. Before I was interested because I had just moved up here and I could not believe how much things cost. I know now that I cannot seem to justify shopping for fresh fruit and veg and freezer goods any more and paying the freight on them. The freight on chiller and freezer stock is just not viable for me. Maybe the freight is different for the big companies. Maybe that is why you should buy vegetables locally.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Sailor —My wife and I have lived here for over 20 years. Bob, you mentioned that guy who had stores at Badu and York. I think you need to look at how much these guys are selling their goods to us for. I want to repeat what Neville was saying before. We have been to a board meeting which was similar to what is happening now. For me it is as though we are reinventing the wheel. We have had health meetings; we have had meetings on every topic under the sun—Bob you know that. Here we are again, going round on the merry-go-round. You guys obviously want to take these things seriously and you have listened to all the mothers here—I am a grandparent myself. You have probably already had a talk to the chairman of the health council, Mr Pedro Stephen, who is also the mayor for the Torres Strait Islands. I am on the health council board, but I do not want to comment on that because I am here for myself. Not long ago we addressed the board and we said the same old, same old.

The road is opening to tourism now. We have stores here that can barely cope with that. We need a continuous service of fresh fruit and vegetables up here and a price tag on them. We do not have people here that can go down south on a voluntary basis and look at all the price tags and compare them with the stock in other stores. You need things like that to get the whole picture of what is actually happening here. You need to look at infrastructure in the community. We pay $20 for only a few days of electricity. There are environmental changes and things like that.

We have people in the Torres Strait on Sandy Cay Island who cannot grow things there on them—growing fruit and vegetables to cater for the needs of their community. We have had big farms here in Bamaga in the past. We have had a CDEP actually working on the farms. We had one successful one down at Umagico that was selling goods outside the supermarket store that had fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm.

Going back to what Joseph was saying about the ability of the people here in this community, we need special training. As Joseph said, he finished school in grade 7. I went to school on TI and finished grade 10. I was the first one in my family to get the junior certificate. Education here now is crumbling. Reinventing the wheel is not very good for me. I want to see something in progress immediately. Every time you talk about this, you are going to go back and change governance. When you change governance, you go back to square one again. We can talk like this until the cows come home. My kids are suffering. All the kids here are suffering. People come up here and find a high cost of living, add alcohol to that and the rest of them think it is killing us. You have probably heard all this before.

Mr KATTER —No, this is really good.

Mr Sailor —Every time you hold a meeting we recognise and acknowledge sympathy for our people who are dropping like flies all over the place. The health system is crumbling. There have been some good things that came out of the health system. We have had healthy programs in the community which address diabetes and all the other problems. It is like the sick leading the sicker.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Lui —I am a local government councillor for the community of Umagico. I have been on the council for the last 11 years. I pretty much grew up here and if I had the choice, I would shop in Cairns just as the lady said. It is really expensive to live in the NPA whether you buy food or clothes. Even a night out is a bit expensive. I would like to ask our federal member to give some support to the people of the NPA for an all-weather access road from here to Cairns so that the people of the NPA have another option for freight services. Today we have spoken about freight and also Jackson touched on mark-ups in supermarkets. I would like that investigated as well. I cannot believe that the prices of groceries and basic food items are blamed on overheads and things like that when most of these enterprises have been subsidised by the CDEP for the last 30 years. That is all I want to say. Thank you.

Mr TURNOUR —The peninsula development road is a very high priority of mine. We will get the road through to Laura, but it is a long way from Laura to here. That is why this inquiry is looking at other things as well in the interim as we continue to seal that road. Do not worry; it is a high priority.

Ms Townson —Is this the first consultation? Is there another one after this?

CHAIR —Let me explain the process. We are going to have to close this meeting; otherwise, we are not going to be able to see the stores and is important that we do see the four stores that are here. This is an inquiry into remote community stores throughout Australia. We are making three trips, one to the Torres Strait and the top of Cape York, which is this one. We are making another trip to Central Australia in about five weeks and a trip to the Top End of the Northern Territory and WA in July. We will then consolidate all of that into a report. I should say, along the way, we have also been taking evidence from government departments in Canberra about this. We will put a report in to the House of Representatives in around September of this year. It is then a matter for the government as to whether or not they take up the recommendations that we have put forward. I should say that we have been specifically asked to look at this topic by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. This is a real issue for concern on the part of government and we have been sent to have a look at things and try to provide an answer.

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.

I would like to thank Hansard, the secretariat and the House of Representatives media unit, who have covered the proceedings today. If anyone has access to Sky News or APAC the coverage of the proceedings will be broadcast on that. I will hand over to Jim for the final word.

Mr TURNOUR —Thank you to everyone for coming today. I have been campaigning federally since before 2004 and coming up to the cape since the mid-1990s. I know that people are passionate about this and we have heard that this afternoon. The Rudd government has been in office for 12 months and we are looking at how we can improve things. We have heard a range of different evidence this afternoon that will be useful for us in making recommendations for government. Thank you all for coming along today. I know we have run over time, but it is appreciated. Your evidence is on the record now and you will be able to follow that up and see what happens over the period of the inquiry as we also go to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory through the internet as well

Committee adjourned at 6.02 pm