JobKeeper and the Travel Industry

March 16, 2021


To hear those opposite, you'd think that life is pretty good: 'We don't really talk about COVID except that we're all about to get vaccines. We don't think about border closures, either at home or internationally. Business is booming; the emergency is over.' It feels like they're living in a completely different world than the world the small businesses and workers in our electorates on this side of the House are functioning in. So I want to take them to the reality of life in my electorate of Macquarie and in the electorates of people all through Australia.

Put yourself in the shoes of a small-business owner in Katoomba or Blackheath. Since November 2019, life has not been kind. In November 2019, smoke kept people indoors and away—not just for a day, not just for a week, but for months and months. There were signs at Circular Quay telling people not to go to the Blue Mountains because of bushfires, and people who'd planned to visit from overseas cancelled. It's not like they could just move their visit a month or two; they just cancelled. Then the smoke cleared, and, after a while, the fire went out—the biggest fire from a single ignition point that the world has ever seen. Finally, people came back. For about a minute, they came back to the Blue Mountains, to the Hawkesbury and to the South Coast. But before international visitors could return, including some of the million who visit just the big attractions each year, COVID closed those international borders. And then there were more signs to Australians saying: 'Stay at home. Don't travel. Don't go anywhere.'

Through all of this, thanks to the wage subsidy that we pushed for, that the unions pushed for, many small businesses hung on and some workers kept their jobs, but not all—not the casuals of less than a year, not the musicians and not the people for whom the job was a second, but still really necessary, job. But many small employers and workers made a pact to get through it, knowing that, sometime, it would end. But it's gone on longer than they thought. The ongoing restrictions mean that, while small cafes and restaurants are booked some nights, it's still very thin profit margins. Turnover is down. It's not steady. It's up and down. There are some good weeks, some good days, but it isn't reliable, and there are plenty of bad days. People unable to go places have actually been their saviours. People have visited the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, and I want to thank everybody who made a trip from Sydney or who managed to get from interstate to Sydney and then came up to our part of the world. You have been very welcome.

But it still needed a safety net. And, in 13 days, the only safety net that's left, the only thing that's helping people stay positive—the wage subsidy—goes. It just disappears. I want you to stand in their shoes. How do you reckon they're feeling? I'll tell you what they're telling me in meetings, in Zooms and in emails. They're saying they're anxious. They're exhausted. They're emotionally wrecked. From Mount Victoria to Leura, across the whole of Macquarie, down the mountains and even beyond our region, they're worried. How are they going to pay the bills? How can they keep their staff on?

They have been hopeful. They hoped this government would listen to their concerns and look at the realities, but that hope has pretty much faded. It completely disappeared with the joke of a tourism package, a package that actively discourages people from visiting anywhere within cooee of Sydney. How do you think people get to the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury? They come to Sydney, and from Sydney they travel beyond. Without any incentive to come to Sydney—in fact, with disincentives—and with incentives to go everywhere but, they just won't come.

The Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains usually have millions of visitors a year. They come for World Heritage. They come for apple pie. They come for historic towns. They come for fresh air. Some of the bigger attractions, like Scenic World, get more than a million visitors just on their own, and 75 per cent of those visitors are typically from overseas. Their visitation is down around 75 per cent. It can't be replaced by local visitors, especially not when a tourism package encourages people to go everywhere but!

The Blue Mountains economy—both the bigger businesses and the smaller businesses—depends on tourism, and every loss of visitation translates to a loss of jobs. Yet this hopeless tourism package contains nothing—oh, except loans! But, as one of my business owners points out, there's no interest-free period on that loan. The bigger ones say they may have to go for that, but it isn't their preference. The smaller ones are already scared of the debt that they carry; they're already fragile. For the bigger attractions, what is missing is the same sort of support that we saw for zoos and aquariums—an attractions and experiences package, which would help them maintain their equipment, maintain the cable cars, keep the rides going, keep the buses on the road and keep them safe. So the end of JobKeeper and the failure to support this vital tourism economy mean that jobs will go, and they'll be really hit in our second-biggest local economic sector.

As JobKeeper ends, jobs will go in the travel industry. There are travel agents like Kim in Richmond who have kept on staff, thanks to JobKeeper. Kim has had to dip into savings to do it, and I don't know how she, Peta and Claudia can keep smiling month after month after month. There is no prospect of international borders opening soon and every prospect of internal borders closing because this government has failed to demonstrate any national leadership on this issue. Remember when the Treasurer assured us all that, by the time JobKeeper was ending, the vaccination program would be well underway. There was a promise of four million vaccinations by the end of March. I think there are 16 days to go. Around 170,000 doses have been delivered, so that means there are 3,830,000 doses still to go. And that means we'd need nearly a quarter of a million vaccinations to take place every single day to achieve that promise. It's not going to happen. They know it's not going to happen, yet they're still saying to people, 'Oh, yes, she'll be right.' I look across at those on the other side, and I see a prime minister who's happy to promise whatever it takes to help bushfire regions recover but is totally incapable of delivering on that promise and any of the other headline promises that they so happily throw around.

I come from small business. I grew up in it. I ran my own small business for 25 years, and I can very easily put myself in the shoes of those depending on JobKeeper: the employers and the employees. The employees are your team. They're not just people you pay a pay cheque to. They make your small business function, and you can't function without them. But we're already seeing those skills being lost because small businesses can't give people the shifts that they need to put food on their tables. And it isn't every business that still needs help. We know that. Some are doing fine. Some are doing great, but many aren't. They're about to be cut adrift by this government, and their staff are about to be cut adrift to join the two million people who are unemployed or who are unable to find enough work. There are two million people right now who cannot get enough work, who cannot survive on JobSeeker and who won't be able to survive once JobSeeker reduces, yet we're going to add to the list of those people.

I have looked at the figures that show who is really underemployed, and I'm going to highlight something that was in those figures before COVID. I don't want anyone to think that everything was fine before COVID, because that would be a lie. Before COVID, underemployment for women in the Sydney area who hadn't studied beyond high school was 18 per cent. That means 18 per cent of women really didn't have enough work, and that was before COVID—not during and not after. It goes on. So this government's pretence that we're going to get back to normal is an outrage. Why can't this government identify the businesses who still need JobKeeper? It can't be that hard. This doesn't just affect the 5,600 workers in my electorate who will still be on JobKeeper for another 13 days. This represents $2.7 million a week that's going to be ripped out of our local economy. It's a policy failure. The government is yet again showing its true colours. It only looks after its own, and the rest can do it alone.