Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Statements by Senators
I want to update the Senate today about the economic impact the pandemic has had on a local business that I've visited and had some dealings with in the last few months—Capital Travel Manuka. Lisa Calabria contacted me quite early on in the pandemic to update me on what was happening to her business. She had just bought the business some months before the pandemic. After working for the same travel agency as an employee for more than 20 years, Lisa became the owner of the travel agency. She knew a lot of the clients and had longstanding relationships.
When the pandemic hit, the borders closed. Obviously the impact on the travel industry has been enormous. She wanted to let her local federal representatives understand exactly what that has meant for her business and also how important JobKeeper has been to allow her not only to keep her business open to deal with the refunds, cancellations and all the toing and froing that needed to happen for her clients but also to keep all of her employees employed. One employee has retired, but Lisa employs five women in her business. She has been able to keep them on with the help of JobKeeper.
It's very clear from visiting with Lisa and her team how much she loves her work as a travel agent. She does it because she enjoys giving happiness and pleasure to other people. There is all the excitement that comes with organising their holidays. It's really a business that she has dedicated her career to. Aside from the emotional impact of this pandemic and the impact it has had on her business and her family, she has been trying to keep her business operational and look after her employees and clients. She and many of her employees are still chasing refunds and making arrangements for people who have had to cancel holidays.
Lisa said to me that there is really no light on the horizon for the next six months at least. International borders are going to remain closed. The amount of work she gets from domestic travel is very low. People often make their own arrangements and don't need a travel agent. Also, people aren't making those arrangements because of the uncertainty around border closures and the pandemic overall. There is absolutely no way the domestic tourism industry is going to go anywhere near replacing the work she would have had if the borders were open. She and AFTA, an organisation she is a member of and which I'm sure many have had dealings with in the last six months, need some certainty about what's going to happen post JobKeeper. It is 40 days or so until JobKeeper ends and there isn't any clear plan from the government about what will happen.
It's not just Lisa and the travel agent industry; it's live events. I had a meeting with the live events industry. There is no possibility of returning to business as usual in the foreseeable future. No-one is booking big events. The border closures make it very unpredictable for events. There's no insurance and no-one can afford to put them on in light of the possibility that they'll be cancelled and people will be seeking refunds. People have lost their homes. They've lost the businesses they've worked in all their lives. For many that are surviving on JobKeeper, just to keep food on the table, perhaps to make mortgage payments and to keep people employed, there is no certainty about what happens in a few weeks time. But we hear the government saying they're looking at targeted assistance, and that may be the answer; I don't know. We're waiting to see the proposal from the government, but it's clear that the aviation industry, the tourism industry, the arts industry, live events, entertainment and hospitality in certain areas are not back at pre-pandemic business as usual, which is not going to happen.
It's going to take the best part of this year to roll out the vaccine, all things being equal and assuming that the vaccine is actually rolled out according to the plan that the government has in place. That will not be done until toward the end of this year, certainly to any substantial degree, and it'll be in the second half of this year that the broader population will get vaccinated. So what is going to happen? Why are thousands and thousands of businesses across this country being left hanging? What is the benefit to the government of not making clear what their plan is for the end of March? We've got people that need to make plans and they have no idea if their lifeline will continue. And JobKeeper has been a lifeline. We know around 1.5 million people, who have met the turnover test that the government put in place to tighten access to JobKeeper, are still relying on JobKeeper payments. We know that, even with that test in place, there are still 500,000 businesses and about 1.5 million Australian workers relying on that payment to get through this.
The government suggests that nothing is going to be needed at the end of March or during April when the payments stop flowing through. There are some sounds of targeted assistance perhaps for the tourism industry, but the need is not limited to the tourism industry. There's a whole range of businesses across this country that have had flow-on effects to their business model because of the pandemic. Lisa is a really clear-cut case. Lisa is a woman who has worked her entire life and, through no fault of her own, bought a travel agency, after working as an employee in that travel agency for more than 20 years, nine months before a global pandemic hit. This was her nest egg, her way to get an adequate retirement. She went from employee to business owner and now she finds herself surviving on the JobKeeper payment, which is nowhere near what she and probably her employees were earning before. She is trying to make ends meet. She has no idea what's going to happen to her and her five staff at the end of March, and no-one in this government is telling her what will happen. No-one is making it clear whether there will be an extension of JobKeeper for her. She applied for one of the tourism grants announced by, I think, Minister Birmingham. She's not eligible for one of those. She doesn't want to hear: 'We've got targeted industry assistance. Here's $500 million. You can apply for this and you can apply for that.' That's not going to work for her. What's going to work for her is an extension of the JobKeeper program in recognition of the fact that her business is still down more than 90 per cent from where it would have been had there not been a pandemic.
There is a false belief that come March people will have enough savings in the banks. Treasury keeps telling us that the balance sheets of businesses and households have shot up and therefore they'll be okay. At the same time Treasury acknowledges that there could be hundreds of thousands of job losses in particular industries but says they'll be offset elsewhere. That's cold comfort to people like Lisa and her team—her job is expendable, perhaps because JB Hi-Fi is employing more people. It's not really the comfort she's after or the comfort she believes she deserves after working hard for so many years, paying her taxes and doing the right thing, and, here, not through any business decision of her own and not at the fault of anybody—I'm not suggesting it's anybody's fault—a global pandemic arrives and the government puts in place rules that basically shut down her business. It effectively shuts it down. It remains shut down.
What she needs and the thousands of other travel agents around this country need—but more broadly than that as well, as I've touched on—is some certainty that this government is going to do the right thing by them after they've done the right thing by everybody else. They've worked every single day during this pandemic to try and get money returned to travellers that have cancelled their bookings. She hasn't had a day off, and she needs to know that this government understands the predicament she's in and is going to respond to it. We need to look after them. We need the travel industry to be in place when this pandemic is over.