Thursday, 4 February 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by Senators Birmingham and Payne to the questions asked by myself and Senators Sheldon and Green.
I will say from the outset, from the response from Minister Payne to my question relating to funding and support for the tourism sector in regional Australia, we obviously touched some real nerves there. It's so disappointing when I look at my own home state of Tasmania, with 42,000 Tasmanians either directly or indirectly being employed and supported by the tourism sector, and there are no answers from this government in terms of the support and what's going to happen to these businesses when they turn off JobKeeper in March. It's 52 days away and they still cannot provide any answers as to their plan and their support for these many, many businesses that are under threat.
This sector is in crisis and it's not just us who are making this point. I want to turn to Tom Manwaring, Chair of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, who said, 'The tourism sector is in crisis and will be decimated if there is no further support from the federal government.' It's not just those on this side of the chamber that are seeking support and answers from this government.
Under the Regional Tourism Recovery Package Tasmania was supposed to receive $13.5 million to go to that sector. We couldn't get an answer today, four months after the announcement, four months after the photo opportunity. Yet again there's been no follow-up, no response today as to how much of that money has been rolled out. I have been talking on a regular basis to not only the tourism sector but the hospitality sector in my home state. They are in crisis. People's mental health as well as their businesses are facing this crisis, it seems, without real support from this government. In fact, the only time the minister really got excited, when she was trying to answer some of these questions that we've put to her today, was when we hit a nerve about the priority of this government—that is, they will pay for the ex-minister to fly around Europe with his own private doctor, they will spend money on advertising, but they're not prepared to give security to a very important sector in regional areas around this country.
It is not just in my home state, but I do want to talk about the effect on my home state. I'd like to know what we're going to tell the tourism sector in the regional towns of St Helens, Coles Bay, Strahan and Stanley and at our iconic sites like Cradle Mountain and the Freycinet National Park. What about the Port Arthur Historic Site, the Overland and MONA? These regional areas rely on tourism. They're the hook that gets people to travel to those destinations and to spend money to boost the local economy. It is about time that we saw some real leadership from the Prime Minister.
It was so disappointing today from a minister representing someone from that other place. You would think she would have at least some answers in relation to the regional tourism recovery package. Surely they would expect that, after four months, Tasmanian senators would be interested and would want to know. We have been contacted by the tourism sector, and we're reaching out to them to see what support is still needed. Even larger businesses are affected. The Federal Group, who operate in the hospitality and gaming industry and provide convention facilities, have empty convention centres. They are still having to maintain those businesses and their premises, without any plan for what will happen into the future with further lockdowns. Even the Premier of Tasmania today advised that, over the next 12 months, there will be further lockdowns. So where is the support and why isn't the Premier of Tasmania calling on this weak government to do more for Tasmania? (Time expired)
I thank Senator Polley for raising an issue that is so vitally important, particularly to regional areas. Tourism and travel are vital to our regions and vital to our economy. They have been for a long time and they continue to be, particularly during these troubling times of COVID. I want to highlight that I truly do understand the impact COVID has had on this sector. Just on New Year's Eve I saw in my home town that every single caravan park was full to the brim until 5 pm, when the Victorian government, with no prior notice, announced that they would be shutting the borders. Every single caravan park in my home town emptied within four hours. In fact, there were reports of traffic jams and near misses, with cars struggling to make the border by the deadline. That is the impact that kneejerk and sudden reactions and sudden, ill-thought-through and unplanned announcements can have on our industries.
I have written to all state premiers and to the Prime Minister imploring a consistent approach to COVID lockdowns and to state border closures. Define what a hotspot is. Deal with hotspots. Manage and contain the crisis so that the rest of Australia can get on with their business. Tourism is one of those vital businesses. I commend our government for today launching a week-long tourism advertising blitz that is encouraging people to 'holiday here this year'. It makes sense. Australia has some of the best holiday locations in the world, as shown in a normal year by the vast number of international tourists who come here to see what we've got to offer. Well, this year I call on every Australian to pack up their car and go for a holiday in the regions.
Our government is spending $5 million marketing this push, and it is going to inspire Australians to holiday. But we've already done a lot to support the tourism and travel sector in this country as well as supporting our aviation sector. We have recently announced the COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program, with $128 million available in grants to tourist and travel agents. We also have the $50 million Recovery for Regional Tourism program and a further $100 million earmarked for tourism related infrastructure through the Building Better Regions Fund, directly benefitting the tourism industry in the regions. This is what Senator Polley claims we have turned our back on. Well, we have not.
Yes, tourism has been impacted negatively by COVID, but there are green shoots. Already we are seeing improvement in domestic tourism, with Queensland up 10 per cent. Western Australia was up five per cent prior to the latest lockdown. Tasmania, Senator Polley's own state, was recording a 47 per cent increase. This is all good news for domestic tourism. It is my genuine hope that domestic tourism continues to be embraced post COVID and once the international borders open again. As I said before, we have so much to offer people, and our regional areas welcome people with open arms. Our regional areas have actually fared better than some of the capital cities through COVID, and the tourism businesses in those areas have welcomed that. Not only are the regions less reliant on interstate travel but we have benefited from people in those capital city population centres looking to escape and take a break in their home states. It has been great.
Of the $128 million targeted grant program I previously mentioned, we have already got $54 million out the door to travel agents. We stand united with our domestic tourist industry. We are still working with our travel agents to find more ways we can support them so that they can continue to do what they do best: to get people out the door and on holiday and, particularly through this crisis, doing so in our regions, in our glorious country.
On Tuesday the minister spruiked a number of programs that this government is supposedly using to support tourism and regional tourism. My question to the minister today was simply asking how much of that money has been received by affected businesses. We know that this government is known for making announcements and not delivering, for sending out press releases but not being there to support people in times of need.
The only thing this government has done to save jobs that will be lost when JobKeeper ends is send out press releases about things they are going to do in the future. The minister even talked about earmarking future spending. Those words will be hollow to people who are in Cairns right now and are losing their jobs. We know that 3,600 businesses in Cairns are relying on JobKeeper. Those are thousands of jobs that will be lost in 52 days, when JobKeeper ends. Fifty-two days might seem like a long time to this government, but it is not a long time for a business or a worker who is looking at the prospect of losing their job. In fact, we know there are many businesses in Cairns and around the country that are making decisions right now about making workers redundant. They need to make that decision now; they will not be making that decision in 52 days time. Sadly, today a major operator in Cairns announced that 90 jobs will be lost today. They are considering a further 200 jobs being cut when JobKeeper ends. That's almost 300 jobs in a two-month period that will be lost because this government is withdrawing support.
I've said this before in the Senate and I make the case again: Cairns is a unique region and it is uniquely reliant on international tourism. Seventy per cent of the tourism spend is from international tourists in Cairns. When you speak to tourism operators, as I have done on many occasions over the last few months, they insist that the domestic market will not make up this shortfall in any way, shape or form. They are reliant on international tourists. This idea that they can pivot is nonsense. They will not recover until international tourism recovers, so they're asking for some help. They're asking the government for help.
It should be noted that members of the government have alluded to possible support or even extending JobKeeper. The member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, said extending JobKeeper was 'a no-brainer'. That's what he told people in Cairns, but that is not what this government is prepared to do. The member for Dawson, George Christensen, called for an extension and also for additional support for the Whitsundays, another area that is incredibly reliant on international tourism. The member for Wide Bay, Llew O'Brien, has also called for an extension and for further support for tourism. I say this because what we know is that not only is this government not listening to workers and businesses in Cairns and other places in Queensland but they're not even listening to their own local members.
If you are a Queenslander and you come into this place and say that you represent Queenslanders but you don't stand up for these workers and call for more support for extending JobKeeper in a targeted way that supports these businesses, then you are on the wrong side. You are not on the side of these workers. These workers are in an incredibly desperate situation. We know that many of these jobs will be lost in the next couple of weeks. It's a sad time to be in Cairns. We know the minister for tourism is planning to go to Cairns on Monday next week to make a speech and to talk about all the consultation that they've been doing. My message to this government, the senators opposite and the minister for tourism is: do no not come to Cairns empty-handed. These are jobs that rely on international tourism and these workers are relying on you. So do not come with excuses. Do not come empty-handed. (Time expired)
It's great to be back here in 2021 with my first speech on a motion to take note of answers. What a time to be alive. The distinction between this side of the chamber and that side has never been more stark, because this side of the chamber believes in progress. This side of the chamber wants to take Australia forward. What does that side of the chamber want? All they want is to continue on JobKeeper and JobSeeker. There are plenty of ways to keep people in work, like by building infrastructure, which is something that state governments need to be doing. On Tuesday, the RBA came out and issued another $100 billion in bonds. Let's build infrastructure. Stop tearing dams down in Queensland. If you want to get jobs out there in the regions, let's get them into coalmining, farming, logging and fishing.
It's interesting that Senator Sheldon raised the Chairman of Virgin Australia in his first question. I actually remember what she said last week in the Senate inquiry as well. She wanted a coordinated framework between the states to—guess what?—keep the borders open. This is the thing about the state governments; there's been a real contrast. The Liberal government of New South Wales and the Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, have kept the borders open the whole time, with the one exception of Victoria when it did blow up out of control. But the state Labor premiers keep locking down over—wait for it, wait for it—one. One case. Now, what kind of confidence do these people have in their own health systems when they panic over one case? What are their contact tracing and testing systems like and, more to the point, what are their quarantine systems like when they have to panic? The Queensland CMO couldn't understand how the virus could possibly spread in a hotel with ducted air conditioning. Seriously, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work it out. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work it out. Did that do daily testing? Did the state premiers do daily testing—
Senator Rennick, could you resume your seat? I have listened really carefully. The motion to take note was on questions from Senators Polley and Green to Ministers Birmingham and Payne. Whilst they did go to JobKeeper and JobSeeker, they were largely focused on tourism. You've mentioned JobSeeker and JobKeeper once, but you're really getting way off the topic now.
Madam Deputy President, I apologise: I will be more specific. Just last week, when the borders reopened, tourism jumped by 100 per cent in Queensland. The southerners wanted to come back to Queensland, which I must say I was quite surprised about. I talked to a cabbie here on my way down during the week and he was very angry with Queensland. He said that, given what the Premier had done in locking them out previously, he wasn't going to go back to Queensland for holidays. The whole reason why I'm talking about keeping borders open is so that we can get the tourists who would normally go overseas and have a holiday somewhere in the Caribbean to come to our beautiful city of Cairns, North Queensland, outback Queensland, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and, of course, my homeland of the Darling Downs.
We want to see the southerners come up to Queensland because we love tourism. When I grew up, tourism was the fastest-growing industry in Queensland. The late, great Premier Sir Jo Bjelke-Petersen turned Queensland into the tourist capital of the world. We had World Expo 88 and we even had George Harrison of the Beatles buy an island up there; everyone was flocking to the islands. Unfortunately, under Labor, tourism in the regions was destroyed.
They destroyed maternity wards in the regions. That would be another way to create jobs in the regions. You don't always have to go back to the industry you've been in. Maybe you could think about restoring some health services and reopening those 30 maternity wards that Labor have closed for the last 30 years. But can I just point out that the federal government has spent $28 billion in direct economic support for homes and businesses in Queensland—more than three times the $8 billion spent by the Premier of Queensland, Anna Palaszczuk.
You cannot continue to do lockdowns on short notice. As you can tell, I got my hair cut on the weekend. I was talking to my barber, and he lost 1,500 bucks on the weekend that we did that three-day lockdown—$1,500! Industries cannot survive if we don't have a clear and coordinated framework between the states. The states are the ones which perform health—that is in the Constitution. Or, should I say, that's not in the Constitution, and this is the thing that Labor keeps forgetting to mention. They like to say that we have to do quarantine, but, guess what? We don't have to do health, but we give $60 billion every year in block payments to state governments. So, if state governments want to give back the $60 billion, we'll take quarantine and health, because they go hand-in-hand. (Time expired)
Well, what interesting comments on taking note! If we look at the response from Minister Birmingham, representing the Prime Minister, clearly we have the situation in Australia where there is no aviation plan. Not at any stage, nor in question time, has the Deputy Prime Minister or the Prime Minister answered with a plan to make sure that we keep people connected with jobs in the aviation industry. This is a critical industry for our economic future and a critical industry right now.
We have heard comments from many sides of this parliament and this Senate about the necessity of ensuring that we keep the tourism industry well serviced. That includes the universities, and I include business generally, and I include the mining industry. Servicing the bloodlines and the veins of those industries is the aviation industry. We have to make sure that we have a plan to keep people connected with those critical jobs that require experience and capacity.
The government says, 'Well, that's okay. Just trust us. We've done such a good job so far.' But go to the million casual workers who were excluded from JobKeeper and go to the 30,000 university professionals who have been lost—the brains of our future and the capacity to build strength. They train engineers in aviation and skill people in the very important industries that make this country tick. We clearly have a government which makes so much about making an announcement but is so little about substance. It hasn't thought about who is going to staff the planes, who is going to clean the planes, who is going to pack the planes, who is going to maintain the planes, who is going to direct those planes and who is going to book the planes. Quite clearly, from comments made by industry, unions and commentators, this industry is in dire straits, yet this government puts its head in the sand.
James Goodwin of the Australian Airports Association said, at an aviation hearing last week:
… it's clear that the government needs to formulate a plan for Australia's aviation industry over the next six to 12 months and beyond, both domestically and internationally. Our sector has doubled down at every turn and executed everything asked of them, but this is coming at significant and unsustainable costs.
He went on to say:
I would use this opportunity to make is that this is in an important time for the government to reconsider extending its support for the aviation sector. This is a whole-of-government situation. Airports and aviation affect the entire community and the entire economy. There are so many flow-on benefits from having a viable aviation network. …But I would certainly call for JobKeeper to be extended, certainly for another six months, for people within the aviation sector.
That is from industry, the people who know. Common sense tells you that when you have an industry that doesn't keep connected, experienced and knowledgeable workers, there is a consequence. There's a consequence for all Australians, and of course a consequence for those many thousands of workers in the aviation industry. In this aviation industry, the hundreds of hours that have already been lost come at a great cost of experience and knowledge. And that cost has come as a result of direct decisions by this government in its failure to turn around and act.
But let's not say that they haven't acted everywhere. They've certainly picked their favourites. They've turned around and made decisions for companies like Rex. They've certainly given special treatment to that company, who received $54 million—untied grants to a foreign airline. If you were to make the same contributions, untied, to Virgin—or Qantas, but Virgin in this case—it would be over a billion dollars. But did they? No. This industry is critical to the survival of our economy and the prosperity of our country. It's important that we turn around and have the right answers. And I'm sorry to say that for all those aviation workers to become fishermen and farmers is just not sensible.
Question agreed to.