A two-year legal battle between a tiny Aboriginal community in the remote East Kimberley and the operator of its only supermarket has finally come to an end.

Key points:

  • Outback Stores was accused of “unconscionable conduct” when managing the store at Balgo
  • It always denied any claim of wrongdoing and a trial was due to start on September 11
  • Wirrimanu argues community ownership of remote stores is a critical step in meeting local needs

Outback Stores operated the Wirrimanu Community Store in Balgo for 11 years before community leaders evicted the government-owned operator, citing alleged unconscionable conduct and breaches of contract.

Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation representatives claimed they were not given access to financial records and there were concerns around the presenting of financial reports.

Outback Stores denied any wrongdoing throughout the course of its partnership with the corporation, and the dispute was set to go to trial on September 11.

However, both parties have announced they came to an agreement through mediation and the case would not continue.

As part of the agreement, proceedings against Outback Stores have been dropped and both parties were made responsible for their own court costs.

There have been years of tension between the store and local residents.(ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)

Wirrimanu director and store manager Chris Mandigalli said the end of the legal action came as a welcome relief, with the community now free to run the store as it saw fit.

“Two years … it’s been really stressful. We had to fly to Darwin, fly to Perth; it was playing on everyone’s minds,” he said.

In a statement, Outback Stores said it was still “extremely proud” of its achievements while working with the Wirrimanu corporation, including building a new store in 2017 and leading an education program that reduced sales of full sugar soft drinks.

“Outback Stores maintains its position that it did not breach any duties or engage in any unconscionable conduct and has always acted in the best interests of the community,” the statement said.

“Outback Stores remains open to assist WAC into the future, if required, and wishes the community and its current leadership team all the best for the future.”

The company said it still expected WAC repay a $928,000 loan.

The Wirrimanu Corporation represents residents and controls Balgo’s only supermarket.(ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)

Mr Mandigalli said this was unlikely to be a problem, as the store continued to go from strength to strength since returning to the hands of the community.

“We can see the store is doing really good; we’re not worried about the loan, we can pay that off,” he said.

The resolution comes amid an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into remote food pricing, which has shone a light on the operation of remote community stores.

During a recent appearance, Wirrimanu argued community ownership of remote stores was a critical step in meeting local needs.

WAC chief executive Hugh Lovesy said he too was optimistic about the store’s ability to stay afloat.

“Last quarter in April, May, June, we made a net profit with 9 per cent lower prices but still made a net profit of $175,000,” he said.

“That’s with 9 per cent cheaper prices than the last month that Outback Store ran the store.

“It’s a great credit to our whole team, the directors, all the people that help us and the staff in the store.”

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