Putting proper store in grassroots solutions
Update 10am: Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s office has provided The Punch with this statement: The Government has not cut funding for Mai Wiru stores. In fact, the Government has offered Mai Wiru continued funding while it considers a range of options to best support stores in the APY Lands. We are working closely with the community and Mai Wiru to do this work. Outback Stores run a number of successful community stores across remote Australia. They only operate in places where they have the support of the community.
The Federal Government is in the process of a hostile takeover of community stores in South Australia’s remote APY lands. Aboriginal communities are fighting hard to preserve their grassroots model with its explicit focus on healthy eating.
It is hard to believe, but even services with exemplary outcomes face the chop in the year of the Federal balanced budget. Community-led Commonwealth-funded Mai Wiru will have its funding terminated this week and its twelve stores closed, liquidated and replaced by Canberra’s preferred provider; Outback Stores. The South Australian Government has advised they do not to have the funds available to support Mai Wiru and have sent the organisation back to the architect of the takeover, Federal Minister Jenny Macklin.
Outback Stores have a chequered history since they received $48.1 million in 2005, to enter communities by invitation and upgrade community store infrastructure, capacity and viability. To date, up to $80 million of funds have been provided, despite only 21 of a possible 110 stores in the Northern Territory signing up to the model.
Outback Stores have responded with a harder sell, with capital upgrades used as potential inducements to gain a community foothold. With millions in cash, such a monopoly arrangement has left many communities over a barrel. If you want an upgraded store, improved infrastructure and all the bells and whistles, local store control must be repatriated to this Darwin-based federally funded arrangement.
So why are Aboriginal people from South Australia’s APY Lands fighting for Mai Wiru? Local Aboriginal elders cite a range of reasons. They cherish the grassroots organisation and the centrality of ‘their store in their community.’ Stores in remote communities are in every sense an essential service, as well as being the community focal point. That is what sets remote stores apart from their urban equivalents.
Outback Stores on the other hand is a wholly Government-owned business. In contrast to Mai Wiru which genuinely operates as not-for-profit, locals worry that Outback Stores’ profits may be repatriated to head office or to other regional stores.
Finally Mai Wiru approaches the stores as a vehicle to impact community health, rather than the Outback Stores model which sees stores as independent businesses with some health aspects.
Australia should be celebrating that its most traditional and remote citizens have developed an effective regional food security model that is achieving health outcomes in a way that a national model hasn’t. During an APY Lands general meeting in the town of Amata last week, it was discussed that Mai Wiru was the first organisation to grapple with food security issues in Central Australia and that they had received a National Heart Foundation Award in 2007.
We should be inspired that Mai Wiru’s twelve directors are all indigenous and drawn from each of their twelve stores, plus representation from the APY Lands and one each from Nganampa Health, NPY Women’s Council and APY. In comparison, Outback Stores have a three-member national board, with no positions filled by Indigenous Australians.
According to leading APY Lands figure, Mr Kawaki (Punch) Thompson: “They talk about Closing the Gap, but really they are taking resources away from Aboriginal people. It is happening before our eyes… We are doing this, not just for ourselves, but also for the future of our children.”
In a final bid to survive, Mai Wiru submitted its costings to the Government to prove the efficiency and effectiveness of its stores’ model. It appears that a comparison with Outback Stores has simply never occurred.
The general meeting of the APY Lands community challenged Minister Macklin’s intentions, asking, “You can find tens of millions of dollars of funding for a non-Aboriginal Organisation to help remote Aboriginal Stores, but you won’t fund a successful Aboriginal organisation that is already doing the job, to help remote Aboriginal Stores. Minister Macklin, what is different about us?”
It is time Jenny Macklin and Warren Snowdon declared publicly their intentions for stores in the APY Lands. Mai Wiru deserves an even chance to demonstrate their effectiveness. In fact, they are entitled to a fair cut of the resources selectively poured into the Northern Territory but shouldn’t have to dump their own solutions in order access them.
Outback Stores was never intended to be inflicted on unwilling communities. By doing so, the federal government risks wiping out an inspiring and successful local organisation, and replacing them with an unwelcome entity whose track record is no better.
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