Interview with Stewart Brash, ABC Radio Alice Springs
28 August 2023
STEWART BRASH: Well, it's fair to say that the whole nation is in a cost of living crisis right now, but maybe it's something that you feel more acutely here in Alice Springs in the Barkly or even in the outback. And I wonder where it's hit hardest for you lately. Is it being the petrol pump? Has it been the community store? Now it's fair to say that if you've lived here a long time, you're used to paying through the nose for everything from food to fuel to construction. But last week, Centralians got the chance to describe to a room of senators just how hard it's become. The Senate Committee on the Cost of Living was established in September of last year and was holding hearings in Alice Springs on Wednesday. Senator Jane Hume is the committee chair and I spoke with her a little bit earlier.
JANE HUME: We've been right around the country over the last 12 months. And the reason why is because Australians have been telling us that the cost of living is the number one issue for them right now. And it doesn't matter whether it's their electricity bills or the prices they're paying at groceries, when they're buying groceries at the supermarket, when they're paying mortgages or rent when they're paying insurance, the cost of doing business is so much higher. The cost of fuel, everything is like a perfect storm, putting so much pressure on families, on communities, on charities and on businesses. And that's why we've travelled right around the country to speak to people about what they're experience has been because it is different in different locations and in different demographics. And that's why we were in Alice Springs and Port Augusta and Adelaide this week.
STEWART BRASH: And I suppose on that, as you said, the cost of living crisis, we know it's affecting the entire country, but in the Territory, are you seeing it on another level that you compared to what you might be seeing in the other places you've travelled?
JANE HUME: Well, certainly we heard from the mayor of Alice Springs, Mr. Matt Paterson, and he said that “the cost of a dollar doesn't go as far in regional Australia as it does everywhere else”. And that seems to be a common theme in regional areas, particularly with things like freight costs and fuel costs. And then of course the secondary, the knock on effect of those which is higher grocery prices as well, and that can sometimes make things even harder. There's also housing shortages in regional communities And in a place like Alice Springs. We also heard that now that there are fewer flights coming in and out of Alice Springs, the cost of airfares has increased dramatically and it makes it so much harder to attract and retain talent and skills from other parts of Australia to come to Alice Springs.
STEWART BRASH: Now I suppose it's good to have a select committee come visit remote areas and I suppose learn about these issues firsthand. But many would be arguing what can this committee actually do? What does it have the power to do? What are you going to be able to sort of take back to Federal parliament and say things need to change and what can you change?
JANE HUME: So this select committee has already done an interim report which sort of sets the scene for what have been the great drivers of the cost of living crisis. And certainly we've seen things like the Russia Ukraine war had an impact initially on inflation. It had an impact initially on energy prices But now those problems have really largely flown through. We want to see now what it is that the government can do to help alleviate the cost of living crisis at the source rather than just dealing with the symptoms. Often when you deal with the symptoms, say you just throw a bit of government money at the problem. You can actually make the problem worse by putting pressure on inflation and making inflation stay higher for longer. So what is it that the government can do? And there are some really interesting solutions that have come up from some of the evidence that we've heard. Some of them are big ideas, some of them are little are ideas, but they're all valid. Things like increasing competition whether it be in airlines. But there's other things, too. There was one fabulous fellow that we met in Alice Springs that reminded us that there is a system out there where farmers can put away their income in a tax effective way to smooth their income over years, he said. Why can't individuals do that too? Or why can't businesses do that too? And I thought, Oh, that's an interesting policy idea. So there's so much we can get.
STEWART BRASH: But I suppose in the immediate term, people are saying, well, if the cost of living pressures are affecting people right now, why can't there be some form of, you know, government subsidy, say, for example, in flights? Because it's all good to encourage competition. But given the process could take years and people really want to sort of get home right now and have cheaper airfares right now, wouldn't that offer real relief right now to people?
JANE HUME: Well, I think that that's the great challenge, isn't it, that we want to make sure that we can find some solutions that help people on the ground right now because say, for instance, we're seeing incredible pressure on the charities sector. You know, we heard from places like Foodbank, for instance, that their energy prices, their energy bills are going up, which means that they're having trouble refrigerating their food, their grocery prices going up. They're having trouble getting food at a cheaper way. And of course, transporting the freight costs have skyrocketed as well. So one of the recommendations might be for the government to ditch the heavy vehicle road user charge, which is essentially a tax on truckies that just simply gets passed on straight away to grocery prices. So that's something that you can do straight away.
STEWART BRASH: I was going to say on the transport front, I know there's been a lot of conversation around maybe doing something with the diesel price subsidies for truckies in terms of the cost of fuel. Couldn't that also have an intended effect rather than sort of taking away a truckies charge, couldn't you make it cheaper for truckies to get goods to market by subsidising the cost of their fuel?
JANE HUME: Yes. In fact, initially when the cost of fuel went up dramatically at the beginning of 2022, there was a fuel excise that was temporarily removed. When that fuel excise was reapplied. Obviously, that did push inflation up slightly. But it is a very costly thing to do And of course, those fuel excises pay to improve roads. And the fact that our roads are in a poor state also adds to the cost of doing business because those freight companies actually jack up their prices when they have to travel distances on poor roads. Can I just say, before we go while we did have a hearing in town and now that's done and dusted, there is still an opportunity for your listeners to contribute to the committee. There is a website where it's your cost of living. There's no com or gov your cost of living. And there's a short survey online that people can take to tell us their stories so they can directly speak to government about how the cost of living crisis is affecting them.
STEWART BRASH: Senator Jane Hume the chair of the Senate Select Committee on the Cost of Living. He was in Alice Springs on Wednesday of last week, hearing from locals, many of whom have got a chance to talk to them about what the cost of living has meant to them. Now we also know there's been a discussion around crime in Alice Springs as well. Thank you to this texter who's saying, well, when it comes to the cost of living, the cost of criminal damage is killing us in Alice Springs. Appreciate your text. And yes, that certainly was a discussion that happened at the Senate Select Committee with local Darren Clark making mention of that fact, saying, yes, cost of living is a big issue, but crime is just making it all worse. Did you go along? Did you share your thoughts with the Senate Select Committee? 048791057.