On 3 December, 2008, Crikey sent a list of questions to Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin asking about the control and management of the Commonwealth statutory authority Indigenous Business Australia and its (then) wholly owned subsidiary, Outback Stores.

The next day Minister Macklin announced that she directed that the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Affairs:

… shall inquire into and report on the operation of local community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with a particular focus on:

  • food supply, quality, cost and competition issues;
  • the effectiveness of the Outback Stores model, and other private, public and community store models; and
  • the impact of these factors on the health and economic outcomes of communities.

Submissions for the Senate inquiry closed last Friday 20 February, 2008.

The committee’s website today shows that the committee received a grand total of seven submissions.

Some of those submissions are supportive of the Outback Stores model, some are, with respect, largely irrelevant, and some miss the terms of reference all together.

On 5 February, 2008, in Canberra, the committee held one of its two scheduled public hearings. One witness turned up — an anthropologist working in the Torres Strait — and gave evidence. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have a lot to say about the operations of stores in the area and spent a lot of his time before the committee chatting about customs and immigration issues in the area with the committee.

The committee will hold further public hearings in the Torres Strait and Queensland in late March and early April. No hearings are planned for the Northern Territory — where service delivery and food security and quality are pressing issues in remote townships.

Also of relevance to the operation of community stores in the NT is the role of Macklin’s NT Intervention and her department FAHCSIA, which, by the operation of an extraordinary licensing and supervision regime, has total control over what local residents can buy and from whom in all remote NT communities.

Another issue of concern is the role of Macklin’s FAHCSIA itself, which, through its acquisition of Indigenous Business Australia, now has control of Outback Stores and has been given exceptionally favourable treatment under the licensing and supervisory regime controlled by FAHCSIA.

FAHCSIA is now responsible not only for the profitability and administration of its new foster child Outback Stores, but also for the licensing of any potential competition — by way of locally-owned stores such as the Yuendumu Social Club store and many others scattered across the Territory.

One of the key issues Crikey has raised with Minister Macklin and FAHCSIA is how FAHCSIA would manage this clear conflict of interest.

The day the Senate inquiry was announced, the Chair of the committee pointed to the centrality and importance of the operations of community stores in remote communities in the committee’s only media release.

“The Chair of the Committee, Richard Marles MP said ‘The quality and cost of supplies in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities is of critical importance to the health and economic outcomes of these communities.'”

That’s it from the Committee — and no statements, speeches, submissions or media releases publicising the important work of the committee by Minister Macklin.

On 4 December, 2008, Crikey sent further questions to Minister Macklin, seeking answers about the application, in August 2008, by the local community-owned store, run by the Yuendumu Social Club, for authorisation for it to be able to become a licensed store within the NT Intervention legislation.

Such authorisation would allow the store to accept Centrelink’s BASICS cards, and access to the 50% of welfare payments to local residents quarantined by the Intervention legislation.

At present, the only store in Yuendumu authorised to accept the BASICS card is the Outback Stores-managed Nguru-Walaja store owned by the Yuendumu Women’s Centre, which is itself controlled by the recently established Central Desert Shire council.

Crikey understands that the money to set up and fit-out the Nguru-Walaja store came from either the pockets of FAHCSIA or Outback Stores — either way it came from the taxpayer’s pocket. That exclusive license gives the Nguru-Walaja an effective monopoly on access to the not-insubstantial amount of quarantined income at Yuendumu.

Crikey sent further questions to Minister Macklin on 7 December and 9 December. Those questions related to whether the exemption from the operation of Part IV of the Trade Practices Act, which grants an extraordinary exemption from the application of the restrictive trade practices regime in the Trade Practices Act to the operators Outback Stores, FAHCSIA and their agents or contractors.

On 10 December, Crikey received a one-line response from the Minister’s media minder advising that Crikey‘s growing list of questions had been “forwarded to department for a response.”

Crikey sent an amalgamated list of questions to Minister Macklin’s office again on 5 January, 3 February and again earlier today.

Apart from the one-line response in December, not a peep from Minister Macklin or FAHCSIA.

There are a few old saws in politics and “don’t answer awkward questions from the media” and “don’t set up an inquiry unless you know the answers” — come readily to mind in this affair. Both Macklin and FAHCSIA appear to have learnt those questions very well indeed.

Meanwhile, seven months after first making an application to FAHCSIA and Centrelink for approval to allow it to accept welfare money quarantined by Macklin’s Intervention, the Yuendumu Social Club store is still waiting for an answer.

Maybe next week, or next month.