Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, February 2007.
By Amy McQuire
WHILE most of the nation enjoys the lowest fuel prices in more than a year, some islands in the Torres Strait continue to struggle under prices that have changed little in the past five months.
While some of the inner islands like Thursday and Hammond Island have seen a price reduction by up to 12 cents since NIT first reported on petrol costs last year, other islands such as Boigu and Saibai island continue to pay up to $2.50 a litre.
Since last year, the price of petrol in Australia’s capital cities has experienced price drops of between 6 cents per litre in Brisbane and up to 16 cents per litre in Hobart.
But communities like Mabuiag Island, which currently sells 20 litre drums of petrol for $40 to $45, continue to struggle not just against high fuel prices, but the resultant increased costs of living.
Mabuiag council worker, Rittia Matysek says that although the council is selling the fuel at a lower cost, locals are still finding it hard to get by, especially since they have to make regular shopping trips to other islands in their dinghies.
“We’re sort of running at a loss selling the petrol… they’re running it for the fishermen… it’s cheaper,” Ms Matysek says.
“But it’s harder to live… definitely where we live. We don’t have a shop so a lot of us depend on the fuel to go to other islands to get supplies.
“They travel in any weather and most of them all go in dinghies.
“It’s at least a $100 to get over to another island just to buy basic things and when the sea is rough it costs more.
“If you run out of essential things like toilet paper you’ve got to pay $100 at least to buy [it].”
Ms Matysek says that if you place the price of fuel on top of the already escalating food prices it adds to a huge sum.
“When you look at the prices up here it’s a lot dearer than the normal Woolworths.”
But it’s not all bad news.
Hammond Island has enjoyed a drop of about 12 cents a litre since last year, but only thanks to the long-awaited installation of fuel bowsers.
Even so, the prices are still fluctuating.
“ We’re the first island to get the bowser but the price is still going up and down,” said Dorothy Cowley, the fuel administration officer on the island.
Similarly, Thursday Island has three petrol stations with bowsers, which are able to sell fuel at the comparatively cheap price of between $1.64 and $1.70 a litre for unleaded.
But compared to mainland Australia, the prices are still very high.
The constant high prices have sparked federal Labor candidate for Leichhardt Jim Turnour to call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to conduct an investigation into fuel pricing in Far North Queensland.
“The ACCC has come out and said that oil companies aren’t passing on reductions in international world prices,” Mr Turnour says.
“That’s flowing through to places like the Torres Strait where there are no clear reduction in petrol prices.”
Mr Turnour’s recent submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Price of Petrol in Australia recommended that there needs to be a removal or cap of GST on petrol, a reinstatement of a 15 cent fuel subsidy in the Torres Strait and a strengthened ACCC which maintains competition in the fuel sector.
“It is completely unfair for communities in the Torres Strait to be paying 7 cents per litre in GST more than those in places like Brisbane, and up to 15 cents more GST per litre in the outer islands,” Mr Turnour wrote in the submission.
The National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) also supported the need for the ACCC to be strengthened.
“… the marked price differentials that exist between regional and metropolitan areas (and which have increased substantially in some locations) are sufficient justification for greater scrutiny by the ACCC of petrol pricing in rural and regional areas,” NRMA said.
But according to Mr Turnour, it will be a while before the Torres Straits can rejoice over a significant price drop.
“I see world oil prices going up again. They’re quick to go up, and then when they do they don’t come back down as fast,” Mr Turnour says.
“And they particularly don’t come back down in Cairns and Far North Qld.
“Islanders and Islander communities don’t have the power against these big oil companies. But the reality is we need to make sure that reductions in oil prices that are happening internationally are passed on.”