COVID: Trouble in the bush


Above: Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee  and Central Land Council CEO Joe Martin-Jard,  observing physical separation at today’s media conference. 

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.”


  1. With 25% unemployment and a trillion dollar deficits it would be wise to close these remote communities now and consolidate into four main ones, two north and two south.
    This is more manageable and possibly within budget.
    Then again with such fiscal constraints on our door step maybe not.
    We better get used to tightening our belts, this is a serious recession / depression.
    We just do not have the money anymore for this type of false economies.
    We never did really.
    The next budget will be a shock to the nation like never before.
    Time to get used to reality of things, money is scarce. Change is here.

  2. As part of its additional commitment to food security in remote communities, Woolworths has donated 4000 food boxes which contains essential items such as flour, milk, pasta, tuna and juice.

  3. A close source to Treasury has advised: All NT Government Departments have been given their 20/21 budget and the cuts are savage.
    Only the top executive line has been advised, they are being told to prepare to shed government workers.
    Charles Darwin University may cease to exist.
    Many non essential NT and Federal agencies will lose workers and again not be funded as an ongoing basis, meaning closing operations.
    GST arrangements are being discussed and the Northern Territory only having 245,000 people may be cut again as NSW and Victoria argue for more GST.
    Indigenous Australians in community must now understand that the days of spraying money around as if it grew on trees are over.
    There is a lot of people unemployed now and there will be cuts also to Indigenous groups to their budgets and possibly also join the unemployment lines altogether.
    This is the reality of Corona virus.

  4. “Community members” have a wide range of benefits that very few others receive.
    My understanding is that they have had their welfare payments increased along with everyone else. They have not had to face the heartbreaking issues of losing their job and trying to make their household budget balance – because very few have jobs!
    They are not the owners of businesses which will not recover from the current crisis, after working their heart out to provide for their own families.
    Community members and the organisations who say they speak for them, who do not believe that they are part of the wider society, will continue to receive the huge (and you could argue unnecessary!) tax payer funded support.
    Those that produce goods, provide services, grow the food, transport the goods, pay the taxes and are productive members of our society, will have to handover even more.
    Community members have had a large increase in their income which should more than adequately cover any increased costs at this time.
    Communities are not the only places were shortages are occurring.
    Everyone else is facing them as well.
    However, we have to suck it up and get on with it.
    If community members ran healthy households, with even just a small amount of forward thinking, they should have some non-perishable foods in their cupboards – just like everyone else does.
    Your skin colour does not mean you are not responsible for your own actions.
    Community members have allowed and fostered the current process of having a large organisation run most of their stores.
    Community members have also allowed the land councils to hold a level of power that could be called abusive.
    Funny how land councils are happy to “help” when times are good, but never ever question them about what real benefits have been achieved by them.
    Or what they have done with the billions of dollars that they have received, stockpiled and hidden.
    No white organisation would get away with the blatant disregard for transparency that occurs in many (not all) Aboriginal support organisations. THAT is racism!
    Time to stop the poor bugger me, time to take some responsibility for your own actions, time for land council and many other organisations to be held accountable for their roles in keeping communities in the dirt.
    Time for community members to find their own voice and not be subservient to the land councils.

  5. @ OK: In the States we had [issues] of Indigenous Companies embezzling government funds about 10 ten years ago.
    The fraud uncovered by Inspector General of the Intelligence Community which is responsible for overseeing programs, promoting efficiencies, and detecting fraud, waste, and mismanagement throughout the federal government.
    The monies recovered were in the billions.
    Imprisonment of directors and those fraudulent were massive in numbers.
    I hear Australia is ramping this up and it will only get more acute as we try and pay back the massive national debt.

  6. While much of what you say is a reasonable expectation that people help themselves, what about the lack of housing, the overcrowding that is the everyday reality in these communities.
    It’s a huge health and safety issue for both children and adults.
    It’s not new but it’s being highlighted once again.
    This is the base people on communities are operating from.
    How much longer is it going to be tolerated? By the NT Government? By Aboriginal people themselves? By us the electorate of the NT in our urban comfort?
    It reflects badly on everyone of us, I believe.

  7. @ We Cannot Afford This: I feel that it will take a little while but the idea of racist policies against mainstream Australian will become a thing of the past.
    I agree that the $33 billion spent each year on Indigenous people will end, how that plays out is fairly clear. There are no funds for remote communities as have been.
    The idea of government spending a million dollars on building a house for people who wreck it is unacceptable.
    I cannot comprehend the mindset that overcrowding is an issue? The issue of high unemployment and debt means Indigenous communities either become economic or close altogether.
    Entertaining the idea of overcrowding and other bleeding hearts at this time is the sign of someone about to be mugged by reality.

  8. It’s not financially viable to maintain so many little communities.
    There is minimal if any tax revenue received from each community.
    The concept of living remotely comes with the challenges of not having modern facilities, services or products.
    If you choose to live remotely you can’t expect food and services to be similarly prices in a community compared to a city / town.
    Much like people in Alice Springs can’t expect to pay the same for a tradie to install a carport for the price of someone in Melbourne might pay.
    It sounds nice to be able to support this kind of living however it all cost money and lots of money.
    It would be a good idea for all communities to become a little self-sufficient and grow some of their own fruit and veggies.
    Or even produce some of their own requirements (for example bread baking and things similar).

  9. I thought the whole concept of living on your own land and owning it was to revive your original lifestyle of being part of it and not being dependent on everyone else.

  10. Couldn’t agree more with regards to pushing the communities together.
    Not only would this save millions of dollars, it would also improve there own welfare as well as the welfare of the ones that are helping in the community.
    Resources wouldn’t be as stretched.
    I know some people say there would be an issue with warring families.
    But it is time for them to be dragged in to the 21st century and to realise that its no longer white man’s fault and they can be in control of their own situation.
    With regards to overcrowding, I would have thought the answer was simple.
    If you can’t provide for your family, then don’t have one.
    It is not up to the rest of the population to provide for those that choose not to work.
    People aren’t even trying with housing, let’s face it, I have seen the ingenuity that some of these community people have with getting their vehicles running or making bongs, so why can’t they use it to make some housing?

  11. @ Patricia Beattie: One has to look into the lack of housing a little more I think. What causes the lack of housing and are we speaking about in town or out bush?
    Given the huge amount of money given to the very small population of Aborigines by the taxpayers, one has to ask why they and their organisations are not taking the responsibility to look after them.
    We have seen in previous posts that their are Aboriginal people who have taken the responsibility and are respected for doing so.
    So as “OK” infers, people are over the poor bugger me attitude.

  12. @ Patricia Beattie: What about the lack of housing, the overcrowding that is the everyday reality in these communities.
    How about those who provide the funds who are now unemployed?
    That is the question, I cannot comprehend the thinking of some in our society. Time for these communities to become self sufficient like everyone else.

  13. I did a bit of hunting and found this. Unsure how accurate it is but if it is correct, it’s alarming!
    On a per person basis, government welfare expenditure was $13,968 per Indigenous Australian, compared with $6,019 per non-Indigenous Australian in 2012–13.
    This equates to expenditure of $2.32 per Indigenous person for every $1.00 spent per non-Indigenous person.
    Would be interesting to see what the current figures are but as with most things, it has probably only gone up.

  14. I agree with a lot of the above.
    When is the Australian Government going to stand up and say WE ARE ALL AUSTRALIAN and we should be all treated the same on the same level.
    No more Aboriginal this, Aboriginal that.
    If people want to live on cattle stations, communities, town or in cities, we should be given all the same legal, social and financial rights, not this for some and this for others.

  15. I agree with the many people who complain about the obscene amounts spent on Aboriginal Australia, but would like to point out that most of this money does not find its way into Aboriginal pockets.
    Just one example:
    According to a January 2013 report by the Australian National Audit Office: “For a customer living in a remote area, the departments estimate that the cost of providing Income Management services is in the order of $6,600 to $7,900 per annum.” And I believe the so called “Cashless” card that is being rolled out by a private contractor costs even more.
    I am sure that none of my friends and neighbours in Yuendumu have a Swiss bank account nor investments in the Cayman Islands.

  16. @ Frank Baarda: What Frank has pointed out is true and at the same time the greatest con ever put on a nation since Alfonzo Ponzi conned the United States during great depression.
    The Indigenous Industry is made up of white and black people who only care about money.
    Indigenous people are the pawns whose apathy about life, their kids, their education and generally dysfunction is converted into conning the Good Kind Australian People into completely supporting a lifestyle choice that is without doubt the lowest form of societal habitat.
    For the future this Coronavirus may save Indigenous kids from a life of misery and abuse.
    Certainly, Indigenous corporations will never save Indigenous kids when they are the next generational dollar.


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