Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Indigenous Affairs Committee; Report
I rise to make my contribution to the food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities report, which was tabled in the House. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this parliament sits and all other places in this country. I acknowledge elders past, present and emerging as the custodians of the longest-living culture in the world and that this was, is and always will be Aboriginal land. I'd like to start by acknowledging and thanking the committee members for their work during this inquiry, especially the work of the chair, the member for Berowra, and the deputy chair, the member for Lingiari. Mr Leeser and Mr Snowdon have guided and pursued the evidence for the set of recommendations we have before us with professionalism and passion. From my behalf, it has truly been a pleasure to learn so much from both of you. I also acknowledge the bipartisanship and friendship of the other committee members; the member for Newcastle, who is with us today, and the members for Longman and Curtin. I'd also like to especially acknowledge the work of the secretariat during this hearing. Their dedication and support, as always, was exemplary.
The need for this report grew out of the circumstances of panic-buying and pressures on supply chains that were evident through the early months of 2020. I am sure there were extra challenges for the secretariat as they dealt with the disappointment that we could not visit many communities in person. When an extensive trip was planned and then had to be cancelled at the last minute, it was Kilian and his team who dealt directly with the communities to explain why. I thank all of the communities and interested parties for their generous and warm invitations to visit. Hopefully, at some point in the future, when the health advice warrants it, I can visit and see firsthand what the committee heard about in evidence. The emergence of COVID-19 and the global pandemic that followed changed not only travel plans for this committee but also our way of life. It has clearly put into perspective the ways that life is difficult and precarious for many people, especially if there is little or no work or just casual work, and there are the challenges of distance and broken supply chains.
This is the second inquiry into food security by the parliament in 11 years. Like the closing-the-gap targets, little has changed or improved for the Australian Aboriginal people who live in remote communities. I urge the government to implement the recommendations in this report as soon as it is practicable and have parliament make meaningful changes to the lives of those living in remote Australia. The first recommendation made by the committee is for the Treasurer to direct the ACCC to undertake an enhanced market study into food and grocery prices in remote stores. This is a critical recommendation as it addresses the consumer protection laws that have led to egregious price gouging in some remote communities. Everyone deserves access to fresh, nutritious food, they deserve to be able to pay a reasonable price for it, and they deserve to have the means to pay for it. The committee heard evidence that the health and choices of communities improved significantly when the rates of income support like JobSeeker were raised because they could then afford to buy fresh food.
The committee also heard evidence from a number of shops and suppliers that, at the peak of the panic buying in supermarkets in cities across the country, orders they had made were often only 40 per cent delivered and quite often not what they really needed in the community. In these communities that means having to wait for another week or two for the next order, not the next day—and it's important to reiterate this point. Amid panic buying, people in cities would have only had to wait a couple of days or less for toilet paper and staple food supplies, but people in remote communities had to wait, at a minimum, a week for these essential supplies. It is important that there is a reliable and affordable supply of food and necessities to outback remote communities. Being able to feed your family is a basic human right.
For me, the evidence that was the most distressing about the lack of reliable food chains and supplies came from an Aboriginal woman elder in a remote community who told us that she fully expects that her children will be hungry for at least three months a year because of the lack of deliveries during the wet season. That is heartbreaking—and, in 2020, it is unacceptable and intolerable in a country like ours. The government and this parliament are obliged to find the means to help all Australians and to ensure that they have access to clean drinking water and sufficient fresh food supplies, so that everyone, no matter where they live, can have their best life. I commend the report to the parliament.
I mean no disrespect to the previous speaker, but the language they use just makes the people who live there laugh, because that's all we can do. They say, 'We respect the elders,' and they use all this language, but they don't realise that they identify themselves as people who are in the Australian Labor Party—and the ALP, when elected in Queensland, removed all of the market gardens. The only reason that a large proportion of our First Australians are alive in Queensland is because of the Christian missionaries. Terrible things were happening and our First Australians would have been annihilated as a group of people except for the Christian missionaries. They herded us up and put us in protected enclaves, which were called missions. White fellas were not allowed in the missions. We're talking about three million acres—a lot of land—which received 24 inches of rainfall. Most people in Australia would kill to have 24 inches of rainfall. The Christian missionaries were very heroic people, and we pay them a great tribute here today. The people couldn't forage for their food, as their lives would be at risk. So the missions put in market gardens to supply them with fresh fruit and vegetables—and there was nothing like the horrific death rates that are in these communities now.
Each year we have these Closing the Gap targets, but the assessment has now been abolished—because the assessment tells us that it's getting worse. It is so patently obvious that there is a problem with malnutrition. We know that malnutrition causes diseases like diabetes, kidney and heart diseases, and other diseases that I won't go into. We all know that—everyone knows that—but you removed the market gardens. But, worse than that, this place and the Liberal Party here were the major people involved in another act, where, to protect the Great Barrier Reef, people had to get a licence to fish on the Barrier Reef. Most of the Torres Straits sits on the Barrier Reef, and people were told that they now had to get a permit to fish there.
Now, the fishing on Badu Island was bringing in $3.2 million a year in the eighties, so make that about $7 million or $8 million now. Three hundred dinghies were working there. This is dinghy fishing—mostly crayfish but a hell of a lot of other fishing as well. All of the islands had freezers and agents, so you went out in your dinghy, caught your fish and brought it in. They paid you for it and it was put in the freezers.
When Richard Marles headed up a committee—and I don't go on committees, but I made an exception in this case—when we went to show him Mosby's island in the middle of Torres Straits, Joey Mosby, the long-term mayor of this island, kept shouting out: 'They're murdering us, Bobby. They're murdering us.' Now, when I was minister, Joey was not one of my fan club! He was one of the very few that really just wanted to be an Uncle Tom. But since those days Joey had obviously become a real good leader of his area. And he kept screaming out, 'They're murdering us, Bobby,' and Richard Marles leaned over and said: 'What's he talking about? We're not murdering.' Well, you are.
You banned commercial dinghy fishing. We had to get a licence. A commercial fishing licence for a dinghy? There was no mechanism by which a dinghy could get a commercial fishing licence, so commercial fishing stopped. Well, that was our income. You just took our income off us. And it was a very sizable income. One island alone—and there are 15 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait—was pulling in $8 million a year, but you had to protect the Barrier Reef and passed laws, so we died. We had to die to protect your Barrier Reef.
You whitefellas. We were here first and we had access to the Barrier Reef for 40,000 years. What right did you have to take it off us? Badu Island is not on the Reef. As if a couple of hundred little dinghy fishing boats are going to destroy the Barrier Reef. Give me a break. Did you care about us dying of malnutrition? No, you couldn't care less. Every time I've tried to have a press conference here, they start asking me about some ridiculous thing like whether there are blackfella members in parliament. Well, there are about seven of us who claim to have some blackfella in the family tree already here, and I don't know that we're achieving very much, so I don't see what difference putting an extra couple in is going to make.
But let me get back to what we're talking about here. Their income to buy food was taken away from them. Their only source of income was taken away from them. Now it's worse than that. They then proceeded to abolish the backyard fruit and vegetable gardens. Every single home in the Torres Strait had fruit and vegetable gardens. They really haven't become, for lack of a better word, a 'Western' society or a 'mainland' society; they still worked with their own local fruit and vegetable gardens. They exchanged fruit and vegetables. As minister, I probably had about 300 to 400 meals up in the Torres Strait during a six-, seven- or eight-year period—whatever it was. I can never remember having a single piece of food that wasn't locally grown: turtle, dugong, crayfish, of course fish, prawns and also yam, taro, sweet potatoes, mangoes and bananas. Everyone had them in the backyards and, when you had a meal up there, they shared all these things and they were paid for providing them. But you, the government of Australia, abolished their backyard fruit and vegetable gardens. How could you do that? Why would you do that? Marles said, 'Why did we do that?' I said, 'To save Australia from diseases coming in from New Guinea.' Richard Marles said: 'That's ridiculous. The boats have been coming down for 10,000 years.'
Ever since the land bridge vanished, trading and raiding vessels have been coming backwards and forwards. You only have to look at the shape of the faces of the people in Cape York to figure out how much of New Guinea is in Cape York and vice versa. Whatever diseases we're going to get here are already here, and the government's position at the time was hypocritical. I was pleading and screaming for screening of all food items at the Horn Island Airport and at the Jardine ferry. There were only two ways to get into Australia: through the Horn Island Airport and the Jardine ferry. The government did not have quarantine officers at either place, yet they we're starving us to death. They took our gardens away.
Torres Strait Islander are great fighters and, over a period of 13 to 15 years, they got back the right to dinghy fishing. But all the freezers were closed, all the agencies had gone and there was no infrastructure to facilitate that action.
Do I proceed here with no chairman in the saddle? What's going on? Here we go. Mr Deputy Speaker Gillespie, I'd like an extra couple of minutes because you weren't in the chair and I didn't think I could speak.
Ms Claydon interjecting—
What's your problem?
Righto. I just make the point that the lady over there with the fair hair is trying to cut my time down; I'm saying things that are fairly unpalatable to her. The likes of you can take responsibility for what's going on, where we have people—
I would like another couple of minutes, Mr Chairman. In the Torres Straits, life expectancy is 20 years lower than it is in the rest of Australia. The state Labor government—but the Liberals have been doing exactly the same thing, so I don't want to pick them out for that reason—will not give up the figures for the First Australian mainland communities, but I got them, sneakily, for one community. Life expectancy in this community, which is quite a substantial sized community in Cape York and the Gulf—I won't mention the name—is 43 for males and 51 for females. The figures for Australians in the rest of Australia is 81 and 83. Surely, you people must feel ashamed. Don't you feel ashamed that this is the way that you are treating the First Australians? You pass your laws to suppress the symptoms or to look after the barrier reef or because some diseases will come in or because of some other issue, but you don't take into account that we're literally starving to death, dying from malnutrition. Nearly a thousand people a year are dying in the Gulf, Cape York and the Torres Strait as a result of the actions and inaction of the government in this place. The people of Australia gave us the power, through the referendum, to act, and we're not acting.
You cannot own a piece of land. There is no machinery by which a First Australian can own a block of land. Well, yes, there is. Last year they instituted it. I go up there and I'm deeply embarrassed because people put both their hands on my hand and they say, 'I have a cattle lease.' Now, I want to put on the record that I had nothing to do with that. I asked the people what they wanted. Surprise, surprise—they wanted to own their own house, their own farm, their own pharmacy. A lot of their kids who have been at university come home and open up a pharmacy, a service station or whatever. But if you can't get a piece of land and a title deed, you can't borrow money from the bank and you have nothing.
The ban on alcohol means none of them have blue cards, so they can't get government jobs. Is it any wonder that they're starving to death? I was promised market gardens 17 months ago and there still isn't even a contract to put a market garden in anywhere. They were removed by the government that came in after we were defeated in 1990. Proudly, I say we kept the market gardens going for the 35 years that we were in office in Queensland.
It is very gratifying to read the recommendations of this committee. In the Northern Territory we are unfortunately all too familiar with some of the horror stories around the availability and cost of food in our remote communities. Submissions to this committee are a stark reminder of the differences between our bush communities and the relative ease with which those in our capital cities, including where I live in Darwin, can obtain affordable, high-quality food. The Yothu Yindi Foundation says that the cost of food for remote communities in the NT is almost double that of the major cities. But we know that many people in those remote communities depend on the pension or Newstart or JobSeeker as their sole or main source of income. So they're paying twice as much on incomes that are barely more than half of what they actually need. In a typical three-bedroom home in a remote community there are often 15 to20 occupants. Securing food in that sort of an environment is just not possible. First Nations people in these communities face food insecurity levels at 10 times that of the general population.
There is no getting around the fact that the biggest obstacle to a healthy lifestyle for our remote Australians is money. Local stores that are well managed still have to deal with diseconomies of scale, limited purchasing power, inefficient logistics, high in-store cost per dollar in sales, high freight costs and low-income customers. That is a permanent problem that has been assuaged in recent times due to the coronavirus supplement. But, as we all know and fear, the snap back on the incomes of these Australians is going to make that permanent problem continue.
The pandemic didn't help. Some remote supermarket prices inflated due to the reduced supply lines which crunched these residents of remote and regional Northern Territory and Australia even further. We've heard reports of a single head of lettuce for $10, $8 for a sausage roll, $13 for a stick of celery, $42 a kilo for mince meat—not high quality meat; mince meat. I have heard of small chocolate cakes going in some communities for $90, 10 times what you would pay in a Darwin supermarket.
So I am very happy to see that the committee is recommending that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, is going to take a look at food and grocery prices in remote community stores. They're suggesting that the ACCC recommend ways to increase competition in remote areas and push food prices down, and look at making any necessary changes to consumer protection laws to prevent price gouging, which current laws simply do not address. Although the committee hasn't uncovered any overt price gouging that is going on, I think it's clear from the prices we're hearing that something is very wrong. A real-time price monitoring and disclosure mechanism across all remote community stores is a great idea.
I also really welcome the recommendation that the government invest in roads and infrastructure in the NT to make it easier and more efficient to get food to our remote communities. We hear a lot about the infrastructure spend of this government, but it's always well out on the never never, not actually happening on the ground, which needs to stop. There needs to be not just announcements; there needs to be follow through, bitumen put down, bridges built. We are forever calling for federal funding for our roads to actually appear, and this is one of the reasons why. No-one should be eating rotten or mouldy food, as has been reported, because the supply chains aren't good enough to get the food there fresh. Having wholesalers establish distribution centres closer to remote communities is a terrific proposal for the same reason, along with improving cold storage and dry storage.
We owe it to our remote populations to help them build in as much security and resilience as we can, so I support the recommendations to invest in local food production schemes like community gardens, fishing initiatives and mobile abattoirs.
I heard the member for Kennedy flapping his gums about community gardens when he was a minister or something, back in the day, and I'd just like to know what the member for Kennedy is actually doing about community gardens—actually doing—because I'll introduce him to the president of Community Gardens Australia, Naomi Lacey, who I met with recently. I'm working with her on getting some support for what is really a preventive health measure. Community gardens will help with food security, but they will also make sure that communities are healthier, through growing their own produce. So I commend Naomi Lacey for the work she is doing, and I'm right behind her. And I'll be introducing the member for Kennedy to her.
We want to be able to go into communities and see what's going on as local customers see it. That's why I welcome the national licensing and inspection scheme and the recommendation for removing the requirement to give advance notice of inspections. Officials should just be able to turn up in a community, without warning, so that they can see what people in these local communities are experiencing.
Developing reliable electricity for our remote communities' stores seems like a no-brainer as well, but supply can often be interrupted by storms and floods in the wet season. That's why it's so great that the Northern Territory is investing in large-scale solar. Our remote communities could be almost entirely powered by solar, which is a cheap and plentiful solution to what can often be painfully expensive power bills. I commend the Northern Territory government for the work that they're doing to roll out solar to the remote communities of the NT.
The committee has noted also that this is the third report of this type in the last decade or so. A report 11 years ago made many similar recommendations. So it is my sincere hope that this latest iteration doesn't just gather dust on a shelf. Our remote residents deserve a lot better, and the pandemic has shown us that we can't afford to waste any more time.
When you consider that the current federal government is into its eighth year now, it is simply unacceptable that we weren't prepared for the pandemic and that this issue hadn't been addressed a long time before now. So I encourage them to take these recommendations seriously, because our remote residents deserve a lot better.
As I said, the pandemic has shown us that we can't afford to waste any more time. I don't want—as I am sure you, Mr Deputy Speaker Gillespie, don't want, and my colleagues certainly don't want—to hear about skyrocketing prices, food shortages and a lack of supply in the communities. I don't want remote Australians fearing that they'll starve if there is another situation as we've experienced in the pandemic. In 2020, that just isn't good enough. We need to take action now, and I encourage the government to take these recommendations seriously, in the interests of improving food security, food availability, food quality and the price of food in remote places in our nation.
It's with great pleasure that I rise to make a contribution in this parliament on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs most recent report, on food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities. The report was tabled just last week. I do say a very big thank you to the chair of our committee, the member for Berowra, Julian Leeser, who worked very collaboratively with all members of the committee. I certainly also want to acknowledge the leadership of Labor's Deputy Chair, Mr Warren Snowdon, the member for Lingiari. Together, they really helped set a tone and focus in that committee that was very helpful indeed. I would also like to acknowledge the work of my Labor colleague Anne Stanley, the member for Werriwa, who was present at, I think, pretty much every single hearing, and indeed of many of the government members: the members for Curtin, Longman, Herbert and Leichhardt. It was, as I said, a good, collaborative approach, as committees in this parliament should indeed be.
Thanks also to the secretariat, who do all of the heavy lifting in these inquiries. Clearly, because of the health restrictions with COVID-19, we were not able to travel. It's the first time that I am aware of that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs was not actually able to go and sit down on country to talk face to face with people about the issues that are most important to them. I think it was challenging for a lot of people to present via telephone conferences and video links as a mechanism to try to overcome those barriers. Not only is the technology challenging at times; I think that, when you're trying to communicate when English is your fourth language, there are additional barriers in using video links.
But I give heartfelt thanks to all of the witnesses. There was great coverage. We had 128 submissions to the inquiry, with an additional 23 supplementaries. Across 13 public hearings, 55 different organisations, communities and groups actually appeared as witnesses, as I said, via telephone and video link. I think that, given the tough circumstances, that was really quite good coverage.
In the limited time here today, I do want to acknowledge just how important it was for us to expand the original terms of reference that came to the committee. It was very focused on the issue of food pricing and the price gouging that it was reported was taking place during COVID-19 in many of the remote parts of Australia. The committee really sought to ensure that the focus was broader than price gouging and did in fact look at an issue that has a long history in Australia: the issue of food security or, indeed, the insecurity of food in many parts of Australia, particularly for First Nations communities. There was an agreement around expanding that.
This is not a new problem in Australia, as I just indicated. Indeed, this report is the third in recent history that has come before the parliament on the issue of food security in remote Indigenous communities, which really should ring some alarm bells for all of us in this parliament. There's a good body of work that's been done by previous committees. We've added to that now, and I do take on board the certain frustrations that members have had around when we get to implement and how we make sure of the implementation of these recommendations.
This brings me to recommendation No. 10. They're all important recommendations, but this one really goes to the historical failure to implement our previous work. It calls on the Australian government to take a leadership role but in a genuine partnership with the states and territory jurisdictions and, indeed, with First Nations people and their communities to develop a national strategy for food security and nutrition for First Nations communities.
We have had a national plan before. We have had a national plan focusing on food nutrition, but, as the ANAO reported back in 2014 when it was asked to look at this, there is still a lot of work to be done. The national plan on food insecurity was in need of significant review because it was not being implemented in the way that it had been intended. Sadly, despite the ANAO's attempts to get that review underway since 2014, we're now in 2020 and that has not happened. We've wasted six more years, quite frankly.
So there is that level of frustration that people remain living in communities where the cost of accessing fresh food is almost prohibitive. We know that food security is recognised as a social determinant of health. I'm very pleased to see a couple of medical professionals in this room right now. You of all people would understand the need for access to quality, nutritious foods. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote parts of Australia experience a disproportionate burden of diet related chronic disease. Again, I think there is no dispute on this issue. This occurs, however, in an environment where the cost of store purchased food is outrageously high and cash incomes for people and families are ridiculously low. You've got these two factors that affect both food insecurity and health outcomes.
A national strategy that is committed to, that is properly resourced and indeed backed by all of the jurisdictions, would deliver a coordinated and targeted approach to providing a secure, sustainable and healthy food supply into remote communities. I don't think anybody here thinks it's okay that people are paying $10 for an iceberg lettuce or $5 for a piece of fruit, when perhaps, at the very same stores for other reasons, they can buy sugar drinks cheaper than water. I know a lot of communities are doing amazing work to flip that on its head and ensure that healthy foods are prioritised and made affordable, but there are significant barriers in place. Many of the recommendations in the report go to that.
I briefly want to pick up on one issue. Indeed the member for Kennedy was a witness at this inquiry and put on record his concerns around local food production. There is a recommendation here that goes to the heart of those concerns expressed by many First Nations communities. That was that the Australian government must better support local food production in remote communities and help meet food safety standards. There were some issues of concern there, but this report absolutely backs in local food production in the form of community gardens, fishing enterprises, mobile abattoirs. There were lots of fantastic suggestions that came forward and are absolutely deserving. They should be given support and encouraged so that communities make a greater use of locally sourced food. I commend this report to the House. I sincerely hope that the third report in recent years finally results in some action.