House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021


COVID-19: Travel Industry

7:46 pm

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I wish to talk about travel agents and the tourism industry. COVID-19 has impacted many people, and it's been tremendously tough for so many Australians. But we're not out of the woods yet, and there are a number of parts of our economy for whom COVID and the economic repercussions are simply unfinished business. Travel agents, whilst not the only group, are certainly doing it very tough at the moment. They've told me, in my electorate and more broadly, that they want a return to normality—and don't we all. They know that for them there can be no return to normal until our international borders are opened, until we have the vaccines and until state borders can be opened on a consistent basis.

So the Morrison government has unfinished business for travel agents and related jobs in tourism. There has not been enough support. The travel agency industry and the broader travel industry are not out of the woods, and no amount of soothing words from our Prime Minister can replace the need for action. By May 2020, travel agents had all client itineraries cancelled, and the clients wanted refunds. The commissions that had been made for work already done had to be returned. This is the income of small-business people, of family businesses. It's their mortgage; it's their self-managed super fund; it is their savings. They had regained some hope of domestic travel, but, of course, with borders closing between states, this is a precarious affair.

Travel agents and the broader tourism sector are appreciative of JobKeeper, but tonight there are two things I say to the Morrison government on behalf of travel agents and the broader tourism industry. The first is: 'Please oh please, do not stop JobKeeper on 31 March.' The industry is grateful for JobKeeper, but travel agents and their employees in the broader tourism sector are not out of the woods. The second thing is that the government has announced the $128 million Consumer Travel Support Program. That sounded good, and for some it has been useful. I don't stand here complaining about every aspect of it. But the government may not realise it has created false hopes for travel agents.

I'll just go into some detail at this point, on behalf of travel agents and the tourism sector. There are different ways for a travel agent's turnover to be measured. There are at least four ways in the travel industry that accountants have done it. Unfortunately, the Australian tax office—on, I believe, the advice of Austrade—has picked one interpretation of turnover, which then triggers the pro rata grant. But it hasn't realised that there are other ways. The industry has been applying turnover on the G1 part of their BAS statement, and the problem is that a lot of smaller agencies are missing out. They're getting a far smaller amount, and the $128 million is not getting out to the people who desperately need it, the people who are hanging on by their fingernails.

Specifically, travel agents in my electorate and around Australia are telling me that one of the design flaws is this ambiguity around what accountants advise agents to put in their BAS statements. Many agents have input total transactional value. That's the value of the whole chain of the ticket sales in one trip. The ATO guidelines have said that, to get this grant, the turnover has to be put in. But there is a manifest range of different interpretations of turnover entered by travel agents in the G1 field of their quarterly BAS statements. The net result is that a few agents have perhaps received more than was predicted by the government, but most are getting underpaid, Mr Morrison. Seventy per cent of the agents are small businesses, and they only have a month or two of financial sustainability. Tailor Made Travel in Mount Gambier are in a dire situation. Tracy-Ann in my electorate has told me about the problem of 80 per cent of the sole traders and the home based agents being women; they are in trouble. There's Nutch from the electorate of Hughes in New South Wales. The money that they are able to get isn't even covering the cost of the accountants they use to try to get the support they deserve. There's Rosemary in Niddrie. There's Nathan at Travel Associates. They want security, they want a return to normality, they need JobKeeper beyond 31 March and they need this BAS inconsistency sorted out now.