A coalition of 13 Aboriginal organisations of the Northern Territory* want the national cabinet to immediately guarantee the supply of affordable food and other basics in locked-down remote communities.
Two weeks ago, the commonwealth and NT governments met with major supermarkets, suppliers and three major remote retailers, yet remote community owned stores are still waiting to hear about any government interventions that might flow from that meeting that will take the pressure off.

“We are getting daily reports of remote stores struggling to supply basic goods,” said John Paterson, the CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT.

“Some stores are running out of fresh food three days after their weekly delivery. Under COVID-19 travel restrictions small, community owned stores must suddenly meet 100% of people’s needs across a much greater range of products. Some stores have had to triple their usual orders.

“In recent weeks, the big supermarkets have responded to panic buying down south by sweeping up the bulk of goods from manufacturers and producers. Independent suppliers are struggling to get what they need for remote stores,” said John Paterson.

“We want an agreed proportion of these essential goods set aside for the independent suppliers. This can’t be solved through donated goods. It needs a systemic response from government.

“Prices in remote community owned stores are also a big issue. This is borne out in every market basket survey. High freight costs and limited purchasing power mean prices can average 60% higher than at major supermarkets.

The coalition of health services, land councils and other Aboriginal organisations is calling for a 20 per cent point-of-sale subsidy of essential food, cleaning and hygiene products, as well as winter bedding and clothing in remote community stores.

“A direct consumer subsidy of selected items is the best way to guarantee that residents who are no longer able to shop around can afford the basics,” said Mr Paterson.

Community stores say invoicing the federal government for 20 per cent of their sales once a fortnight would place the least administrative burden on them.

“Already, remote community residents are taking backroads into regional centres to access essential and affordable supplies they can’t get at home. Towns are where they are most likely to contract coronavirus.”

“We understand fresh fruit, vegetables and meat are not in short supply in the southern states and distributers are actively planning to address current shortages in remote stores in central Australia. It is critically important that we understand how this will work, the CEO of the Central Land Council, Joe Martin-Jard, said.

“However, we believe subsidies on essential goods at point of sale coupled with a supply guarantee will make a huge difference.”
“We urge the national cabinet to take action, before it is too late, because time is all remote Aboriginal communities have on their side in their fight against the virus. We are all affected by this crisis, some more than others when it comes to accessing affordable food,” Central Australian Aboriginal Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee said.

“We want preventative action. This is all about making sure remote Aboriginal people can depend 100% on their one community store as they are not in a position to shop around. We have no more time to waste.”

The Central Land Council warns that unless governments ensure food supply in remote communities, residents will defy orders and continue to travel to regional towns.

“Governments have assured our constituents that they will have everything they need in their communities to stay safe and well during this difficult time. We are holding them to this promise,” CLC chief executive Joe Martin-Jard said.

“They must monitor the price of key food items in remote community stores and come down hard on any price gouging.”

“We need immediate freight subsidies and supply guarantees for these stores so they can reduce their prices and don’t run out of essential supplies,” he said.

Even before the pandemic hit, remote community residents paid, on average, 60% more in their stores for a healthy food basket and many travelled to regional towns to buy cheaper groceries.

With that option now gone they are forced to rely on community stores where food and other essentials are becoming increasingly unaffordable and scarce.

The CLC is concerned that remote community residents will travel in and out of biosecurity areas to shop in Alice Springs.

“In one community story a lettuce costs $10. People pay $5.50 for tinned steak when they could buy it at a major supermarket for $1.70. Some tins of food at that store go for $10,” said Mr Martin-Jard.

He has called on governments to boost emergency food relief programs and work with Coles and Woolworths to set up a separate online ordering system for remote aged care, nutrition and other services affected by the supermarkets’ limitations on bulk purchases of food and hygiene products.

“This is only fair, especially since Aboriginal people out bush are arguably the only Territorians who are struggling to access groceries at town prices,” he said.

On 20 March, the NT land councils and Aboriginal medical services asked the NT government unsuccessfully to declare the entire Territory and the remote border region with Western Australia and South Australia a COVID-19 special control area.

Under this proposed “we’re-all-in this-together” approach, movement into and out of this area would have become subject to a 14 day quarantine period.

“Last week, we consented to the government declaring all local government areas outside Alice Springs and Darwin biosecurity areas,” Mr Martin-Jard said.

“We were surprised and dismayed about the decision to exempt pastoral leases from the biosecurity areas at the 11th hour. However, we fully support the health intent of the declaration and are working with governments to make things work.”

The CLC is working with the NT government to administer permits for essential workers and contractors visiting these areas.

It is being inundated by phone calls from people wanting to access Aboriginal communities and land but not all of them deliver essential services.

“If you are a worker or contractor who does not provide an essential service please stop calling,” Mr Martin-Jard said.

“If you are please apply for a permit at remote.travel@nt.gov.au. The government will vet your application and issue photo identifications to applicants we approve.”

“Anyone seeking permits on compassionate grounds should contact our permits section.”

MEDIA CONTACT: Sasha Pavey | 0488 984 885| media@clc.org.au

CLC delegate Rayleen Silverton spoke up during council’s alcohol policy discussion at Ross River.

The Central Land Council supports the reintroduction of the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR) and calls for additional support for families affected by the Northern Territory’s extreme rate of alcohol consumption.

Meeting at Ross River, east of Alice Springs, the CLC delegates called for the racially discriminatory Temporary Beat Locations (TBL) policy to be removed but accepted that it needs to be phased out.

In their discussion with the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition CLC delegates voiced their expectation that the police resources freed up by the abolition of the TBL will be redirected to tackling the illicit grog trade.

The delegates passed the following resolution:

“The Central Land Council acknowledges the devastating effects of alcohol on Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families and communities.

Alcoholism is a disease, not a criminal offence.

Alcohol policy should treat all people the same and not discriminate.

The CLC calls for

the TBL to be phased out, and for police to deal only with alcohol issues, not other offences or warrants on the temporary beat;

the BDR to be reintroduced in a way that targets problem drinkers and those with alcohol-related offences;

more support and rehabilitation services for individuals and families living in town and remote communities who are struggling with alcohol issues;

more education for young women and their families about the impact of alcohol and the risk of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder; and

greater transparency about and access to the process of seeking a permit or exemption for a dry area.”