Motion - Covid-19, Economic Recovery

Wednesday February 17, 2021

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:12): I will not take too long, but I rise to support the motion and acknowledge the businesses in my electorate that have been doing it pretty tough over the last 12 months—not only the hospitality sector, which has come to see me regularly, but those businesses that are doing business across the border. The border closure and the limitation on travel have severely impacted a number of businesses, particularly in the forest industry. We have harvesters who were not able to go over to Victoria to harvest the plantation that was due on their rotation to be harvested.

A number of harvest operators are facing significant financial challenges, particularly in the hardwood sector where they have the added issue of China closing its imports, not taking hardwood. This has led to millions of dollars worth of machinery sitting idle, and, for those who are indebted to the bank or have mortgages over machinery that sits idle, it is not a business model that has a bright future.

We also have the crayfish industry, again impacted by China. Normally, the beach price is about $120 a kilo for crayfish. Last week, I was talking to a couple processors and they said that the beach price is about $38. Even they acknowledge that sometimes there is little sympathy for crayfishermen. However, there are different circumstances within that industry: some are leasing pots at $55 a kilo and have to pay that regardless. Quite literally they are remortgaging their houses, or selling anything they can, because they have to pay that shortfall as well.

We have the wine industry, again, suffering due to international conditions in part brought on by COVID. There are gymnasiums. There are a lot of people and businesses in our region who have been doing it tough, and it is testimony to their determination and grit to get through. I could talk all day about certain businesses, including some young entrepreneurs who have a tree house play cafe and indoor bowling area. They are just a young partnership, getting up, having a go, and being hit by COVID at the worst possible time.

I also want to talk today about Leah Mullen, who is a co-owner of Tailor Made Travel in Mount Gambier. Before the pandemic, this business was thriving and successful, so much so that my mother-in-law, who lives in Coromandel Valley, would use Tailor Made in Mount Gambier every time she would travel because of the exceptional service and care for their clients. They had experienced 75 per cent growth since opening in 2013, and then COVID hit. International travel made up about 80 per cent of their business.

For the first few months of the pandemic, the five staff were solely focused on processing refunds and credits from the closing of domestic and international borders. From people ringing and cancelling, there were major flow-on effects to hotels and tour operators. Some have now gone into insolvency. Travel agents work on commission. By refunding, they are literally paying their own income, so there is no ability to make money. The agency had five staff at the start of last year: four full-time and a part-time. They had to let three of these staff go.

Leah said that it was very difficult for herself and Carla, the other co-owner of the business, but they were forced to scale back as much as they could. From being open five days a week during business hours, the shopfront is now only open three days a week from 10am until 3pm. Just when there was a recovery in sight, there was a second wave, when South Australia's six-day circuit-breaker was announced and domestic borders were again closed. Both Leah and Carla are on JobKeeper, and the business was one of more than 20,000 across South Australia to receive the state government's $10,000 cash grant. Leah said JobKeeper is hard to live on, and it is simply not viable for the long term.

Along with advocating for the extension of JobKeeper, Leah would like to see the federal government's tourism support package adjusted so payments are fair and equal for all businesses. For example, some payments are based on total income and some on total turnover. These are some hard statistics around the travel industry: 97 per cent of Australian travel agencies are relying on JobKeeper, 88 per cent of these businesses will have to close if JobKeeper ends and 90 per cent of travel agents have mental health issues following the pandemic. Leah said it has been the most incredibly tough year, but she considers herself lucky that there is a tight-knit community of agents in the Limestone Coast area.

Nearly a year after the pandemic was announced, travel agents are still managing refunds and credits from the first wave of lockdowns and border closures. They have successfully repatriated $6 billion in refunds and credits from overseas airlines, hotels and tour operators for Australian customers, but there is still an estimated $4 billion outstanding. Leah asked what will happen to the billions of dollars of refunds, credits and bookings tied up in companies both in Australia and, predominantly, internationally if travel agents go under.

A good day for Leah now is finalising a refund that she may have been working on for up to a year because it means she can finally cross it off her spreadsheet. Their clients have been hugely supportive, but Leah says there is a lot of lost confidence in the domestic market as snap border closures continue. She is asking South Australia's Minister for Tourism, Premier Steven Marshall, to advocate for businesses like hers at a national level for JobKeeper to continue and for the focus on funding and support to be tailored for specific industries, rather than an all-encompassing bracket of tourism. A travel agency has vastly different needs from those of a tour operator or a hotelier, and there needs to be greater consumer and industry protection.

Leah has given an example: South Australia's Great State Voucher scheme was a great idea but it could have included a commission for booking agencies or for people to go through a booking agency. These days, there is just one or two staff at the Ferrers Street business and there are no incoming bookings and no income. If JobKeeper ends in March, Leah said they will be forced to close their doors entirely.