Above: Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee and Central Land Council CEO Joe Martin-Jard, observing physical separation at today’s media conference.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
High prices and scarceness in remote regions of food, clothing, blankets and disinfectants vital to protect people from COVID-19 came into sharp focus this morning with calls for manufacturers to set aside supplies, and a point of sale scheme under which the Federal Government would pay 20% of shopping costs.
Central Land Council CEO Joe Martin-Jard, supported by Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee, addressing local media, urged immediate action as shortages are driving people from locked up communities into Alice Springs.
It’s the part of the country the NT Government has clearly forgotten in its Coronavirus responses.
But both side-stepped questions of self-help, including calling for assistance from the secretive Aboriginal investment company, Centrecorp.
Asked whether the CLC is hearing of people breaking biosecurity laws, Mr Martin-Jard said: “Yes, we are. We certainly don’t encourage it. We are in very dangerous times right now.
“We’re at risk of seeing a whole generation of people wiped out if we are not careful. This is how serious it is.”
He says 50 to 100 essential items, not including tobacco, sugary foods and drinks, should be covered by the scheme.
Ms Ah Chee says there is an increase in grog running, within Alice Springs and potentially outside.
On the weekend, police say, two men travelled from their remote community to Alice Springs and were intercepted at a checkpoint on their way back.
They were unable to provide the authorised paperwork allowing them to return to their community. The driver was issued an infringement notice and both occupants were taken back to Alice Springs to quarantine.
COVID has brought to the fore “the age old problem” of prices in the bush: In the 10 years to 2017 there was a 38% price hike in communities, 5% in regional towns, says Ms Ah Chee.
While no new confirmed COVID cases for about two weeks is good news, the pandemic must be stopped from entering Aboriginal communities where there is a “higher burden of illness”.
Mr Martin-Jard says even the bigger players, like Outback Stores, are in trouble, only getting 70% of their orders filled.
“People are not getting into Alice Springs as readily as in the past,” he says.
“We’re hearing that shops close to Alice Springs are increasing their orders by six times.
“They are expecting a huge run on warm bedding, clothing and food.
“They have to shop all over the place to fill their orders. In one case the business grew from 4000 [customers] a week to 24,000 a week.
“They are competing with all the other regional centres around Australia, too.
“Some people make their case to the CLC that they have to come into Alice Springs for their shopping, for white goods, for warm bedding and clothing for the kids.
“We are helping where we are allowed to, but that’s not sustainable.
“In the next couple of weeks people will be getting more income. The pressure will only grow.”
Mr Martin-Jard says “these big manufacturers” cannot be let off the hook. A better system must be created, and the National Cabinet must put on the pressure.
There is some progress with Woolworths sharing warehousing with Outback Stores.
The Alice Springs News raised questions about help from Aboriginal owned Centrecorp which is rumoured to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
We put to Mr Martin-Jard: Most of the government COVID support programs are subject to asset tests. Is it not fair for Aboriginal assets, via Centrecorp, to be disclosed as well?
He said the details of the company appear on the Charities Commission website, but this is incorrect.
It only discloses details of the Centrecorp Foundation (total gross income from donations and bequests $1m; total expenses $1.2m). It does not give details about Centrecorp Pty Ltd which has disclosed some of its property but not its value nor other financial details.
The commission’s website describes assistance from the foundation for some 1900 students returned from interstate boarding schools because of COVID.
The following exchange took place during the press conference:
CLC MEDIA OFFICER: Joe is not a spokesperson for Centrecorp. Is this clear? Can we just keep to the Coronavirus topic.
NEWS: I am. [Mr Martin-Jard] is a spokesperson for Centrecorps’s largest shareholder.
MARTIN-JARD (smiling): We have a minority shareholder, too.
He was obviously referring to Ms Ah Chee who was sitting next to him.
Congress has two shares in Centrcorp. The CLC has three. Combined those would make it five out of seven shares, a comfortable majority, and capable of applying the firm’s massive assets to the current crisis. (Tangentyere holds the remaining two shares.)
There is another opportunity for making goods cheaper in the 26 remote stores – Mr Martin-Jard’s figure – that are owned by communities: Waiving rent which is paid – well – to the community.
“They would pay some lease payments to traditional owners where they are sitting on a land trust. That’s pretty normal,” says Mr Martin-Jard.
Could the land trust waive the rent?
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any lease agreements.”
Ms Ah Chee says Congress is pushing for four of the nation’s 83 fast testing sites announced recently to be located in The Centre.
One will be in the Alice hospital, capable of producing a result in 45 minutes.
At present it takes 48 hours because the sample has to be taken to Darwin.
The other three stations, says Ms Ah Chee, should be in remote places.
“This is hugely important for remote communities,” she says.
UPDATE April 23, 4pm
The office of Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt says: “While the Government appreciates there are additional financial pressures associated with COVID-19, it does not support a direct subsidy or rebate on groceries at this time. The Government is addressing cost pressures with the extensive economic support packages announced in March.
“The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is also prioritising its activities in relation to monitoring for price gouging on essential products.
The Coronavirus supplement is being paid for six months at a rate of $550 per fortnight to both existing and new recipients of the JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance jobseeker, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit. The $550 per fortnight is on top of existing payments.
“A $750 stimulus payment for Australians on income support has been provided this month, and for those on income support and eligible concession card holders that do not receive the Coronavirus supplement, a second $750 stimulus payment will be made automatically in July.
“The NIAA has been, and will continue to be, in regular contact with stores and suppliers to identify issues impacting Indigenous Australians and escalate them to the appropriate State, Territory or National forums as required to limit the impacts of COVID-19.”
UPDATE April 24, 10am
The office of Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt says: “The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012 includes a food security measure, central to which is the licensing of community stores that have been determined to be an important source of food, drink or grocery items for an Aboriginal community.
“Licenced stores are expected to provide a reasonable ongoing level of access to a range of food, drink and grocery items that is reasonably priced, safe and of sufficient quantity and quality to meet nutritional and related household needs.
“The Act provides authority to the Chief Executive Officer of the National Indigenous Australians Agency to revoke a licence if these expectations are not met, however this power has not been used.
“There are other avenues available to address matters of concern, including variations to licence conditions, to ensure stores continue to meet the expectations under the Act.”
UPDATE April 24, 3.25pm
Linda Burney, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, comments: “Food insecurity and unreasonable pricing is severely undermining the public health response to COVID-19.
“Remote Aboriginal communities should be able to access affordable basic and essential items.
“Labor is calling on the government to secure affordable goods for remote communities to ensure the supply chain is working, as well as begin to monitor prices in these areas.
“Price parity was a problem in remote communities before this pandemic, and the government needs to address this beyond COVID-19.”
UPDATE April 24, 3.40pm
We invited Mr Mr Martin-Jard to respond to Minister Wyatt’s statements.
The communications Manager of the Central Land Council replied: “Thanks but no thanks, Erwin.”