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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
25/07/2012

EADE, Ms Kay, Executive Officer, Chamber of Commerce NT

[14:23]

CHAIR: I welcome our next witness, from the Chamber of Commerce NT. Thank you for taking the time to appear before us. You understand the information around parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and their evidence?

Ms Eade : Yes.

CHAIR: Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Eade : The Chamber of Commerce Central Australia encompasses the area from Elliott down to the South Australian border, and to the Queensland and Western Australian borders, so it is about 110,000 square kilometres.

CHAIR: A significant area. Would you like to make an opening statement, and then we will go to questions.

Ms Eade : I have put the questions out to our members—to the business community and business sector in Central Australia—and they are a little bit hesitant about commenting on the concept of the LAF Bill, the name you instigated, because they have found that, if you legislate against a substance in a bill, there is always some other substance that will be found to replace it.

For a personal view: I have been here in the Territory since the mid-eighties, and we have gone through different substances—one gets taken off the shelf and there is another. We do not know whether prohibition is the answer. The business sector are actually paying the price every time something is prohibited. That is their view at the moment.

Senator SIEWERT: I would like to pick up on that issue of substitution, because it is an issue that has come up during the last two days. The point that was made to us yesterday was that, yes, they did think that substitution is potentially an issue and, yes, they did think there would be substitution—in fact, we heard that through our previous two Senate inquiries—but, because people, particularly younger people, can get access to sniffable fuel very easily, it is found that they have not had that substitution with other substances as much as was expected, and that has provided a space in which to do diversionary work with young people to achieve change so that they do not then go on to abuse other substances. Have you or any of your members talked to any of the groups that are working on this issue, to look at that most recent work that seems to be emerging from the ongoing involvement in communities?

Ms Eade : A lot of our members are from the communities. The most successful program that we have found that has worked was the Mount Theo one—I do not know whether you have heard about that—

Senator SIEWERT: We know about it well.

Ms Eade : It is tough life love basically, and taking responsibility for your actions. I think that is the viewpoint of most people, because there has been leniency in a lot of these things and there is no accountability. I think that is where the people are saying that enough is enough. With communities such as Alice Springs and those in the remote regions, the mainstream community pays the penalty for these types of things, as in fuel. On fuel, most mechanics—I will not say all of them—say, 'Don't use it in your car.' You cannot use it in older cars, so you use the premium, which is available side by side with the Opal fuel but is 10c dearer a litre. Most businesses use the premium, so they are paying premium prices for this type of thing. It seems like mainstream businesses get penalised every time everyone tries to counteract an issue with people's health. That is the common thread that I am getting from businesses. No matter what you do, there will be something else.

Senator SIEWERT: Are all your members not paying any attention to any of the work that has been done that clearly demonstrates the reduction in the number of petrol sniffers in Central Australia?

Ms Eade : They do, and they appreciate the work. Most of our members will bend over backwards to try and give people employment and everything else, but we just cannot seem to get the traction or engagement. Much as the businesses have tried and tried, they are not getting any rewards for their trials and tribulations and the costs that go with that—for training and everything else. Businesspeople do not want to see this happening, because it is just a waste of a life and the health of these young people. We have got so much work here that we can give young people, but there does not seem to be the engagement or the willingness for employment, which is sad, because businesses want to use these young people, because they are not transient like the people we see. Our unemployment in Alice Springs is around 1.4 per cent, I think.

We are just desperate for workers. Businesses are willing to do everything to get these young people on the right track and employable. It is just not there. Their confidence is not there. I am not quite sure why we cannot get that traction, but something is missing there. I do not know what it is. Whether it is to do with self-confidence or self-worth, I honestly do not know.

Senator SMITH: Would you agree that there has been a reduction in petrol sniffing across Central Australia?

Ms Eade : I think there has. A lot of communities have done a lot of good work in that area. Alcohol seems to be our biggest issue at the moment. Sniffing used to be a big issue. You would just see people walking around with bottles around their neck. They would be young people from the age of 10 or 11. It was quite sad.

Senator SMITH: Was that damaging to the image of Central Australia, do you think? Was that damaging to local business interests?

Ms Eade : It was, but it was not in everyone's face. I do not think that people who did not live here knew what they were looking at. I have heard from a lot of people in the communities that it was really damaging to their communities because petrol sniffing has a different effect on people's personalities to alcohol. Petrol sniffing makes their personalities quite volatile and they become quite dangerous and aggressive. So we have noticed a difference in that area, which is good.

Senator SMITH: Reduced violence and aggressive behaviour?

Ms Eade : Yes. You still have that with alcohol but is mainly to do with the need to get what they want. If they cannot get it legally then it leads to break-ins. Last year we had a very bad summer. I did a survey of businesses in a five-week window and asked them what the damage was to their business. There was something like $120,000 worth of damage from break-ins within that time frame in the mall area of Alice Springs.

Senator SMITH: Attributed to alcohol issues?

Ms Eade : Yes, the breaking in.

Senator SMITH: What would most of your members attribute the reduction in petrol sniffing to?

Ms Eade : I think a lot of the communities now only have diesel, which is a good thing. Most businesses that service the communities use diesel. We did have a lot of break-and-enters into car sales yards. They were siphoning petrol out of the cars. That has decreased because the car yards no longer put petrol in the cars. They leave them on empty and just fill them up for test drives as needed. So that has decreased. Also, they have security fences. But I have not seen petrol sniffing personally for a while. Then again, a lot of people in Alice Springs do not go out after dark anymore.

Senator SMITH: But your members would accept that the introduction of Opal has been a contributing factor to the reduction in petrol sniffing?

Ms Eade : I would say so. I did hear—I do not know if it is true; it is just a rumour—that they have devised a way of adding an additive to the fuel to have the same effect. I do not know if that is true. That is just a rumour. I have not been able to clarify that.

Senator SMITH: How has the chamber been involved in increasing the level of confidence of motorists across Central Australia that Opal fuel is safe?

Ms Eade : I have asked quite a few mechanics and fuel distributors about this and it is hard to get an honest answer. Some mechanics are old school and will definitely not deal with it at all. There are others that say that it is okay.

At the end of the day I have not been able to get a common thread—whether it is A-OK for businesses to use in their vehicles or it is not. Most of them say they prefer to use the premium.

Senator SMITH: We have had evidence here over the last few days—and it may well have just been in the written evidence—that a key motoring association has come out and said that Opal is safe to use in motor vehicles and in other mechanical devices. Have you seen that at all?

Ms Eade : I have heard about that. I have mentioned that to quite a few mechanics, et cetera, and they are still adamant that it is not damaging—but it is not good. That is what they say. They say the fuel economy is not as good. I personally trialled it. I have used Opal for four years now and I have just gauged what I was getting. I was getting eight kilometres per litre. Somebody said, 'Well, try the premium and see what you get,' so for the last three or four months I have tried the premium and I am now getting 13 or 14 kilometres per litre. I cannot tell you about the damage to the motor vehicle or the motor—I am not a mechanic and I have no idea—but all I can say is that it seems a lot more economical using premium, but then you are paying 10 cents more. I do not know if you have had a look at our fuel prices but they are nothing like the eastern seaboard. I have just come back from Cairns and it was $1.40-something. Here I am paying $1.70-something for a litre of premium.

Senator SMITH: Just prior to you we heard some evidence from a fuel outlet—a distributor—who talked about possible incentives that could be given to private businesses to facilitate the rollout of Opal. Has anyone spoken to you about those? Has anyone made any representations to you?

Ms Eade : No.

Senator SMITH: How many fuel distributors are members of the chamber?

Ms Eade : To tell you the truth I could not tell you off the top of my head. I would have to go back and look at my database, but I know we have a few of the bigger fuel distributors—I think one, two, three or four. They are the distributors; they are not the petrol stations.

Senator SMITH: Is Caltex a member of the chamber?

Ms Eade : Yes.

Senator SMITH: Is Shell a member of the chamber?

Ms Eade : I was talking more about companies like Sabadin and Ausfuel that distribute to those petrol stations.

Senator SMITH: Ausfuel—that is on my list.

Ms Eade : Yes.

Senator SMITH: Is Woolworths a member of the chamber?

Ms Eade : No. Because they are an Australia-wide company they would not be.

Senator SMITH: Great. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Ms Eade, as a result of the questions you have asked, has there been any indication of interest in having some kind of chamber forum to look at this issue?

Ms Eade : Whether to use Opal or not?

CHAIR: Not whether to use Opal, but the issues around Opal. You have already, as a result of coming to see us—and we appreciate your evidence—sent out the questions to your members and had some responses. Because Central Australia is the heart of the discussion around the use of fuel it seems that you have some of the experts in your region who are leading the issues around the use of low-aromatic fuel and some of the people—who are your members—who are opposed to it. It might be a useful forum to stage to keep the debate going. We had the city council yesterday who talked about the very heated debate that was held in the Alice Springs region before the process of the fuel rollout about seven years ago now. The gentlemen gave us an indication of how strong the issues were and the strong campaign that was run then to educate and respond. I am wondering whether, seven years down the track, it might not be time to do it again when you have raised such serious issues of concern from your members.

Ms Eade : This may sound a bit blase but with all the issues that keep on coming across the table about Indigenous health and misuse of substances we get a bit blase—which is sad—because if it is not one thing it is another.

As much as the community try and help, we just find we are battling uphill trying to help these people with their health issues and no substance abuse. It is not only Indigenous, it is all walks of life, I appreciate. But Indigenous is the main issue in Alice Springs. You do not notice it so much and you get a bit desensitised, I suppose is the word, until you go away and then you come back to it. You think, 'Goodness.' You do not see these issues elsewhere as big as it is in Alice Springs.

I honestly do not know the answer and I do not think many people in Alice Springs do know the answer. You can ban alcohol, you can ban everything you like, but there will always be something. So it has to be more than just cutting these things, taking them away. Most professionals and researchers will tell you that prohibition really does not work at the end of the day, it is something more. If somebody had the answer we would not be here. I honestly do not know the answer and I think most of the community and the business community would really like the answer because the Indigenous people have got so much to offer and we are just missing the mark here. We need these people on board in our community as a healthy community and at the moment it is just not happening. I do not know whether having Opal fuel is going to do anything. If it is not that, will it be something else? Will it be aerosols back again or the glues or the methylated spirits and the vanilla essences and the Listerines we have all taken off the shelves. Since I have been in the territory all these things have been taken off the shelves but there is always something waiting.

CHAIR: The city council yesterday was very proud of its record in terms of working to have these voluntary-based processes in Alice Springs both in petrol and in the various aerosols. They were promoting that as something that they had done and about which they were proud. That is not the shared view of the chamber?

Ms Eade : But this is all the business community that has been doing this. All the hardware stores and everything else, they have done this voluntarily, and the petrol stations, they have gone out and done all this. So they are proud of what they are doing. I am not trying to be negative but what I am saying is that they keep on trying and trying but nothing seems to be working. I think the business community are a little bit deflated at the moment. You have got the GFC, you have got the tourism trade down, everything else that is coming against business. They are still trying and I think this is just another thing for them to tackle, the social conscience of what they sell. Everyone is trying; don't get me wrong. They are not out there promoting bad stuff. They are taking everything off the shelves. The council are saying they are doing this but it is a business community that are doing it, these private enterprises. The business community want Indigenous involvement and engagement within this community. We have had Opal fuel here for quite a few years so it is no skin off our nose anymore because we are used to it. That is like with anything: once you are used to something it does not faze you anymore, it is not a big issue. Everyone jumps up and down and has their two cents worth and they get on with it. But will it make a difference at the end of the day to the health of young people? I do not know.

CHAIR: On this one it is a good story, and maybe we can send you some information about how good this particular process has been. You are pointing out the great pressure that people are under and their sense of frustration, but maybe if they see the positive process that has been achieved by what they have done in Alice Springs it might be good for them to know that. It is that link we need to fix up.

Ms Eade : Yes. A lot of our business sector are not privy to how it has improved their health. All we see is has it improved employment opportunities for the businesses, et cetera. We do not see the health side. We see what is needed in town is involvement and engagement in employment in business and as a mainstream so we can all work together, not the separatism there is at the moment. That is what businesses want. They want inclusion of Indigenous in the mainstream so we can all work together as a community to build the economics of this town, and it is just not happening. I think it is far greater than substance abuse and all that other stuff. It needs to be self-worth or something. I do not know what it is.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Eade. We will suspend for a short time for afternoon tea.

Proceedings suspended from 14:45 to 15:08