The Price is Not Right!

As a provider of education, advocacy, and financial counselling services to people across North and Far North Queensland, ICAN recently provided a submission to the Inquiry into Supermarket Pricing in Queensland.

Our submission focused on the significant price differences people experience when shopping depending on whether they are based in metropolitan Queensland or remote and regional Queensland. We wanted to particularly draw attention to the high costs that remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have experienced for far too long. 

The people ICAN works with are strong, resilient, and knowledgeable about their lives and their communities. However, structural barriers and an uncompetitive marketplace in remote and regional communities create conditions in which exploitation occurs. The cost of living is unacceptably high, with basic food and necessities costing significantly more than in cities and large regional centres.

People can’t afford to put food on the table

The high costs of food and groceries currently being experienced by people across Australia has been the reality for people living in remote Far North Queensland communities for decades. These are communities that generally have the lowest household incomes yet pay the highest prices for food and groceries in the country.

The impact of high food and grocery prices, particularly on those with limited incomes, is seen by our financial counsellors every day across the region in which we work. People seek our services because they can’t afford to put food on the table as they struggle to keep a roof over their head and their vehicle running. Often, they have resorted to high-cost credit products to pay for essential goods, putting them into a debt spiral from which it is very difficult for them to get out of without the assistance of a financial counsellor.

When we outreach to communities in north Queensland, we are repeatedly told by people in those communities that the most significant consumer issue they face is the inability to access healthy fruit and veggies and the high cost of essential food and grocery items. This has significant impacts on peoples’ health and wellbeing.

ICAN Director and Kubirriwarra Yalanji Traditional Owner, Daphne Naden, said, “Take a moment and try to imagine that food insecurity was your everyday life, or if fresh produce and everyday essentials were outside the realm of your family’s budget, or you simply can’t find them on the shelves.

“Now ponder that remote Indigenous communities have lived in these conditions for decades. The alarming gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should then come as no surprise.

“Even thinking of relying on fishing or hunting to supplement your diet, requires having resources such as petrol, boat, or a car. Welfare payments don’t cut it anywhere, let alone in a regional and remote setting.”

Lack of competition and transparency

There have been many inquiries into these high costs over many years. The problem is well known and the need for community led solutions well recognised. Yet despite these numerous inquiries and the clear evidence that unaffordable and inaccessible food costs are fundamentally harming remote communities very little has changed on the ground for many remote communities. The complete lack of competition in remote communities and a lack of transparency in the supply chain system, exacerbates the challenges people in remote communities face when trying to access affordable and healthy food and groceries.

There is a critical need for an active and sustained Government commitment to appropriately support and resource local, community-led solutions to the problem of unaffordable and inaccessible food and groceries in remote First Nations communities.

Greater transparency is needed

As part of supporting communities to access affordable, healthy food and other essential items there is a need for greater transparency across the entire food and grocery supply system. There is also a need for a responsive complaints process that empowers communities to bring complaints regarding food and grocery prices and food security.

Communities should be able to access transparent and comparable supply chain costs to help determine what options for community led solutions are realistic. This is also an important means of holding those involved in controlling supply of these essential items to account. The National Inquiry into Food Pricing and Food Security in Remote Indigenous Communities raised the need for compulsory, fully transparent, real-time price monitoring by community stores.  We would suggest that this be extended to the key players within the supply chain system, such as transport and freight providers. This data would also provide important insights for policymakers and governments and enhance monitoring and regulation of the entire supply chain.

The National Inquiry also identified the importance of better complaints handling mechanisms after the ACCC gave evidence that it could not meaningfully address high costs and, we understand, that the Queensland Office of Fair Trading is similarly constrained. This means that there is nowhere for community members to go when they have concerns about either in-store prices or freight and other supply costs. We understand that the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) has been tasked with implementing many of the recommendations of the National Inquiry and eagerly await the work of this agency.

It’s time for action

The issue of high prices and food insecurity in remote communities in Queensland has been well known for far too long. Collaborative efforts between government, industry, and communities to tackle this longstanding issue are critical and community led solutions must be at the heart of these efforts. The time for action is well and truly overdue.

The establishment of community-led initiatives, supported by transparent and actionable data on supply chain costs, will empower communities to make informed decisions and create sustainable solutions tailored to their unique needs. In addition, there must be an independent and responsive complaints mechanism established for people and communities to provide their feedback and concerns about the costs and supply of essential food and groceries in their community.