Grocer monopoly price-gouging Torres Strait Islanders

Savannah Meacham |

Torres Strait food prices are exacerbated by freight costs with all food coming by ship from Cairns.
Torres Strait food prices are exacerbated by freight costs with all food coming by ship from Cairns.

Torres Strait Islanders are paying 170 per cent more for supermarket products than some regional Queenslanders, an inquiry has heard.

The state parliamentary inquiry into supermarket pricing on Friday heard from the Torres Shire Council on the high prices residents face in Queensland’s far north.

The council’s submission compared prices of products in the Torres Strait to a regional Queensland area such as Chinchilla – 290km west of Brisbane – revealing some cost 170 per cent more.

A pack of Lipton black tea bags costs about $2.90 at Woolworths in Chinchilla compared to $7.04 on the islands.

And a SunRice 10kg bag of medium grain rice is $19 compared to $35 in the Torres Strait.

Torres Shire CEO Dalassa Yorkston said loaves of bread were being sold for $8.50 while fuel was up to $6 a litre on the islands.

“We’ve got a monopoly with seafood, a monopoly with food, it’s Telstra or Telstra, Ergon Energy or Ergon Energy, Qantas or Qantas so a number of monopolies but no regulator,” Ms Yorkston told the inquiry held in Brisbane.

The council said shops other than Islanders Board of Industry & Service (IBIS) supermarkets – the main grocery chain in the region owned by Community Enterprise Queensland (CEQ) – struggle to stay open due to the monopoly of the state-owned business.

“As soon as we saw competition in the region, prices are driven down but then it doesn’t take long, they only survive maybe five or six years in the industry before they either don’t operate here or CEQ acquires them,” Ms Yorkston said.

The council said CEQ was acting like the duopoly posed by Woolworths and Coles on the mainland.

Freight costs to deliver food to the islands are passed on to the consumer also leading to sky-high prices.

All food is imported from Cairns via ship to the islands twice a week.

“Our region here is solely dependent on food from the mainland,” Ms Yorkston said.

The council wants to see an equalisation scheme and consumer price index-calibrated price subsidies implemented to have flow-on effects to cheaper supermarket costs for consumers.

The Queensland government has introduced a $64 million freight-funding package to help lower the price of 67 per cent of goods and deliver a 5.2 per cent discount at the cash register.

The discount is currently not measured on inflationary rises.

“Until we can address what’s happening with the freighting and until we can have a freight equalisation scheme similar to Tasmania, until we can start buying bread for less than $8, we’re not going to survive; no business will survive,” Ms Yorkston said.

Tasmania’s freight equalisation scheme provides government-funded financial assistance to cover the costs of shipping.

The council also called on state and federal transport ministers to sit down with the region’s representatives to discuss best practice going forward.

The inquiry will hand down its report at the end of May.