Australia is the only developed country in the world where trachoma is still prevalent, with the contagious eye disease found in 120 remote Aboriginal communities where residents pay exorbitant prices for basic cleaning and hygiene products, a Senate committee has been told.
Melbourne University’s Indigenous eye health institute told the committee “the heavy burden of serious infections” such as trachoma was borne disproportionately by Aboriginal children who live in poverty and overcrowded housing.
The average clinic attendance in the first year of life was 21 presentations per child. Almost two-thirds of visits were for infections, including upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, ear disease, lower respiratory tract infection and skin sores.
The institute’s senior engagement officer, Karl Hampton, said it was difficult to eradicate diseases like trachoma while remote families had to pay high prices for cleaning goods and basic hygiene products.
Hampton cited the example of a community in central Australia where towels cost $29.99 each.
“The cheapest soap we’ve come across in a remote store is $3.50,” Hampton told the committee in September.
“And then you look at the same one in Alice Springs – it’s $1.90. When people are on low incomes, they’re on a BasicsCard from Centrelink, the first priority is going to be to obviously try and buy some healthy food for the family and the health and hygiene products, especially when the price is that expensive, they’re not going to be able to afford them.”
The Senate inquiry into food pricing and security in remote communities has been conducting public hearings and seeking submissions, particularly around instances of price-gouging in remote community stores.
Many anonymous submissions have included photographs of items believed to be wildly overpriced. On Mornington Island, a store was apparently selling a small jar of honey for $19.22, for example.
At public hearings this past week, the inquiry chair, Liberal MP Julian Leeser, said they didn’t have a clear definition of price-gouging. But he cited one used by the health minister, Greg Hunt, who said that price-gouging in relation to essential goods like face masks or hand sanitiser during the Covid-19 emergency period was when items were marked up and sold at 120% of their value or more.
Leeser asked Prof Jon Altman, from the Australian National University’s school of regulation and global governance, if this was a reasonable definition of gouging and “might apply to a food scenario”.
“That sort of notion of price-gouging might have been appropriate and might have served us well if evidence of price-gouging was tendered to the ACCC,” Altman said, adding that it was a “reasonable” definition.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission told the inquiry it had examined a number of complaints about excessive pricing, but was yet to uncover any evidence of misleading, deceptive or unconscionable conduct.
“A proper examination of the pricing margins, including more comprehensive data for remote community stores on both wholesale costs and retail prices is required to assess this issue,” the chair, Rod Sims, said.
“The ACCC has found that high retail prices are generally reflective of the high cost of goods to the community store, and are not indicative of community stores increasing profit margins.”
Hampton said some of the price differences were “huge”.
“Some of those products that we’ve been able to put in our submission clearly show there’s a difference between remote stores and town stores,” he said.
“There was one around the cheapest towel in a remote community store ($29.99) and the cheapest towel in Alice Springs. It’s a huge difference, so if that’s the definition [of price-gouging] then I’d certainly think there are some examples you can put up as a clear case.”
Hampton said it was an issue of fairness. “Where you’ve got some of the poorest people in the country on the lowest incomes in the country, having to pay twice or three times the price of a product than what someone in Alice Springs has to, it’s just not fair,” he said.
“That’s where government can play a role in terms of the licensing and monitoring of those types of prices in community … I think they have dropped the ball, to be honest.”
Altman told the inquiry that Covid-19 had been “a surprising boon” for many people in remote communities.
“They have been equitably lifted out of deep poverty with a Covid supplement which has been paid to all Australians, freeing them from the inequitably applied work for the dole requirements and enabling many to return to a way of living that has allowed supplementation of state income support with self-provisioning with bush foods,” Altman said.
“My reading of the many submissions to this inquiry and evidence to date indicates that they have opened up a Pandora’s box of insights into the many deep development challenges that residents of remote Indigenous communities face daily.”
Altman said Indigenous communities in remote Australia still carried “the deep scars of colonial legacy when most were established as government settlements and missions” and contemporary scars from the past decades of unhelpful government interventions.
“My overall impression is that, when people are actively engaged in hunting and gathering activity, not only is their dietary intake far superior to what they can just get from the store where they’re buying expensive foods with limited cash income, but also the activity itself is helpful to keeping people active and healthy when participating in these activities on country,” he said.
The Labor senator, Warren Snowdon, asked if the work for the dole scheme should be modified to allow a community to determine what it sees as work – including bush provisioning.
“Any change in that direction that abolished CDP and empowered communities to define what is productive activity would be enormously positive,” Altman replied.
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