A parliamentary committee has called on the federal government to partner with state and territory governments as well as First Nations people to develop a strategy to tackle long-standing food security issues in remote Indigenous communities.
The Indigenous affairs committee on Monday tabled its report on food pricing and food security in remote communities.
There was a lack of evidence of systemic price-gouging taking place in remote community stores, the inquiry found. However, the report noted that food costs were very high in many remote communities.
“While those high prices appear to be reflective of the genuine cost of operating supermarkets in remote communities, this reinforces long-held concerns regarding the food security of people living remotely,” it said.
Committee chair Julian Leeser noted that the issues the inquiry explored were 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,” he said in a statement.
“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. We have an opportunity to harness some of the lessons of the Supermarket Taskforce and the Food Security Working Group that were established this year in response to this pandemic and can build on the networks and goodwill generated through that process.”
The report has made 16 recommendations to government to “build on the cooperative momentum of 2020”, including maintaining the Food Security Working Group which was set up by the National Indigenous Australians Agency during COVID-19.
The committee said the working group should undertake a number of tasks, such as identifying improvements to the logistics of food and grocery supply into remote communities; ensuring food supply during pandemics, natural disasters and seasonal changes; and finding ways which the major supermarket chains can help drive down food prices and guarantee supply for remote communities.
Leeser noted that the parliamentary inquiry was the third time this issue has been examined in recent years, as past probes have failed to resolve concerns about food prices and security.
“Consequently, complaints concerning food pricing need to be examined by a body that is equipped to do the thorough, forensic examination that will satisfy the public,” he said.
That is why the committee has called on the treasurer to direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to undertake an enhanced market study into food and grocery prices in remote community stores.
According to the report, the study should make recommendations about how to increase competition in remote areas and put downward pressure on food prices, and ways in which remote community members can be better informed of their rights as consumers.
It should also identify better complaints handling mechanisms for people in remote communities, any changes to the consumer protection laws that might need to be made to address price gouging in these communities — which the current laws do not address — and a consideration of the impact, if any, of rebates.
The committee has recommended the government work with the states, territories and First Nations people to develop a strategy for food security and nutrition for remote Indigenous communities.
Consultation should also be held with state and territory government agencies to develop solutions to deliver reliable electricity to remote communities.
According to the report, the government must also:
- Establish a real-time price monitoring and a disclosure mechanism through a point of sale data system across all remote community stores,
- Investigate the need for upgrading the infrastructure and shipping lanes in the Torres Strait and coastal areas of the Northern Territory, and road infrastructure into remote communities,
- Encourage the establishment of more local distribution centres by wholesalers in major regional centres closer to remote communities,
- Institute a national scheme of licensing and inspection of remote community stores,
- Introduce a remote community competitive grants program.