The Indigenous Affairs Committee today tabled its report on food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities.
The report finds that food costs are very high in many remote communities, reinforcing long-held concerns regarding food security for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who are living remotely, however we did not find evidence of systemic price-gouging taking place in remote community stores.
Food security issues for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not new. For many people living remotely, food security is a constant concern. The supply of quality and affordable food is often unstable due to poor infrastructure, seasonal changes, the high costs of living and operating stores remotely.
However, despite these challenges, the Committee also learned that there is a very good story to be told about what happened in remote communities this year during COVID-19.
My full speech is below and you can read the report here: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Indigenous_Affairs/Foodpricing/Report
On behalf of the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, I present the committee’s report, incorporating a correction to the report, entitled Report on food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities, together with minutes of proceedings. In early 2020, while many Australians were watching toilet paper supplies disappear from supermarket shelves, stories were emerging of people in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities facing extremely high prices for particular food and grocery items. News outlets reported an iceberg lettuce costing $7.89 and a jar of coffee selling for $55. This inquiry was initiated in response to those reports and other longstanding concerns regarding the availability and affordability of nutritious food in remote communities. The high prices reported in the media were put to the relevant stores, and while there was an answer to each of those reported prices, it became clear that these stories reflected a persistent disquiet regarding the supply of affordable, nutritious, quality food in many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. That supply is tenuous and needs to be improved.
Food security issues for remote First Nations communities are not new. For many people living remotely, food security is an annual concern. The supply of quality and affordable food is often unstable due to poor infrastructure, seasonal changes and the high costs of living and of operating stores remotely. Community stores are not a lucrative business. Stores are operating in situations that are very difficult and where costs are much higher than in urban centres. A broken fridge can’t be repaired quickly and cheaply when the closest fridge repair person is located 200 kilometres up a four-wheel drive track. Goods can travel halfway across the country before they arrive at the stores, and there is substantial cost and fragility involved in food supply to remote places.
However, despite these challenges, the committee also learned there is a very good story to be told about what happened in remote communities this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March this year, biosecurity zones were created to keep very vulnerable remote communities safe from the coronavirus pandemic. Those biosecurity zones meant that more people were returning to live in remote communities without the capacity to travel into regional centres for supplies. Population influx coupled with state border closures heightened demand on stockpiles, and social distancing affecting manufacturing put additional pressure on the already fragile supply chain. With a potential new crisis emerging, industry, NGOs, communities and governments of all stripes collaborated with stores to ensure food supply was maintained despite these myriad pressures. The advent of the Supermarket Taskforce and the Food Security Working Group allowed for essential collaboration and solution-directed planning to occur. The committee heard stories of food being donated, new initiatives like food baskets being developed at pace and competitors helping one another to remove blockages to ensure problems were solved.
We have an opportunity to harness some of the lessons of the Supermarket Taskforce and the Food Security Working Group and we can build on the networks and goodwill generated through that process. There is an opportunity to make some important changes that could make a positive difference to the food security and health outcomes experienced by people in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This report recommends several measures to build on the cooperative momentum of 2020, including a real-time price monitoring and disclosure mechanism through a point-of-sale data system across all remote community stores; a national system of licensing and inspection of remote community stores; a strategy for food security and nutrition for remote First Nations communities in partnership with states and territories and First Nations people; and maintenance of the Food Security Working Group that was established successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also recommend measures to support local food supply, to improve governance and oversight and to ensure that competition between management groups continues.
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that this is the third time that this matter has been examined in recent years, and none of those previous inquiries have resolved the concerns about food prices and security that have been expressed. Consequently, complaints concerning food pricing need to be examined by a body that’s equipped to do the thorough forensic examination that will satisfy the public. That’s why the committee is recommending that these matters be investigated by the ACCC, undertaking an enhanced market study, which they’ve never done in remote communities. In addition, real-time price monitoring and much better governance training and testing at the local level should help bolster public confidence.
On behalf of the committee, I would like to acknowledge and thank all those who’ve made submissions or given evidence. The committee received 128 submissions and conducted hearings between June and November. Conducting this inquiry was particularly challenging due to our inability to travel, but we were able to gather evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including residents and remote community business operators. I want to thank the Deputy Chair, the member for Lingiari—I always enjoy working with him—and the other members of the committee. I also want to acknowledge the work of the secretariat, Jenny Adams, Kilian Perrem, Louise Milligan and Sarah Brasser, and particularly acknowledge the strong support that I received from Annette McHugh in my office. I hope this report leads to positive change and I commend it to the House.