Remote communities were vulnerable to more than just COVID-19 during the recent lockdowns but also profit taking by their local food stores, it has been claimed.
Government agencies are being forced to defend programs which saw remote NT communities forced into COVID-19 lockdown for two months leaving them vulnerable to being ripped off by their own stores who have been accused of profit taking.
Populations of these remote NT communities jumped by a third in some cases through return to country programs paid for by governments to put added pressure on supplies.
There were already questions about the quality of the food supplied in the bush and the prices charged even before the lockdown began.
Bread being sold for $10 a loaf, the same price for a small lettuce.
Now a Federal Parliament committee is trying to find out what is going on at those stores after learning today no-one keeps a check on pricing.
The committee has already heard the size of the problem of price checking is Australia-wide.
The National Indigenous Australians Agency has launched its first ever "basket of goods" analysis across hundreds of stores in remote communities across Australia to check whether price gouging claims are correct.
That first sweep of about half of all stores is expected to finished within a month and handed to the Federal Government.
In the NT, to scan for possible rip offs, prices are some times checked against prices for the same goods in Darwin.
The official comparison would be better done against the higher prices in outback towns like Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, officials believe.
Claims of over charging, lack of supply and food quality issues reached a crisis point during the long COVID-19 lockdowns of remote communities.
Those travel restrictions have only just been lifted.
A parliamentary committee was today told populations in some of those remote communities had risen 20-30 per cent almost overnight because of return to country programs before the biosecurity regions were closed.
Some residents in central Australia even complained they could not get out to buy clothing essentials like underwear because of the lockdowns.
Panic buying in metropolitan areas also had an impact in remote communities forcing the intervention of the National Cabinet to ensure remote supplies became a priority.
Whether these remote stores should stock more than just food and essentials but also clothing and blankets was been raised before the Federal Parliament's Indigenous Affairs Committee during today's opening day of hearings.
The committee is probing whether decent food being sold at reasonable prices.
The committee was told a community store might be the only food outlet for hundreds of kilometres and residents were forced to pay what they were asked.
NIAA chief executive officer Ray Griggs said because the food was being sold in remote areas "it was inevitable" prices would be higher.
He said wages, loweer store turnover, and transport needed to be considered.
Mr Griggs said the real question was whether the higher prices "were reasonable".
The committee was told there were already a number of regulations governing the operation of most remote stores but it was mostly to do with quality of food rather than pricing.
One committee member told Mr Griggs he did not believe there was price gouging occurring.
The same member said he was more concerned people had access to quality nutritious food.
The committee was told it may consider where people could lodge a complaint if they believed their store was failing them.
They were told in the NT, the land councils most often received those complaints.
Although the committee's website has not been updated, the committee was told there by a second public hearing next week which would hear from Outback Stores, which operates under the umbrella of the NIAA.
In April there was a clash between Outback Stores and the Aboriginal Investment Group over claims one was stockpiling goods at the expense of the other.
The committee will consult with communities, community stores and supply chain businesses, Government agencies and other stakeholders to determine Indigenous communities have access to reasonably priced healthy food.
In May, Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt asked the committee to inquiry into and report on food prices and food security in remote Indigenous communities.
The committee is inviting submissions until June 30.
The committee is due to present its final report by October 30.
Lingiari MHR Warren Snowdon is deputy chair of the committee.
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