Cairns Press Conference

January 21, 2021




SUBJECTS: JobKeeper, Regional Economies; Cairns tourism industry; COVID-19 recovery; JobSeeker; Disaster preparation; unspent $4 billion disaster fund. 

NITA GREEN, QUEENSLAND LABOR SENATOR: Well, I'm really excited to have both Jim Chalmers, the Shadow Treasurer here, and Murray Watt, who is our Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. As you all know, this is a community that I love and that I live in. But I am concerned about the future for Cairns and the Cairns economy, given the very stark news that we've learnt over the past couple of days that we're not anticipating having international tourism or international flights return back to our community for some time.

We know that Cairns is unique. It's a unique place that has done incredibly well over the last 20 years to attract international tourists. And unfortunately, that means during the COVID-19 crisis that Cairns has been impacted by the stop in international flights. We know that this is an impact that is not going to be overcome by domestic tourists alone, it's something that we will have to face over the next 12 months. That's not to talk down the economy here. We know that people - like the SkyRail business that we're sitting at today - are resilient and are ready to fight through this crisis. But what they don't know at the moment is what the future holds in terms of support from this Government. 

I have been concerned to hear comments from Scott Morrison over the past couple of days dismissing this discussion about whether JobKeeper should and could be extended to help businesses right here in Cairns. He said the other day that domestic tourism was the bread and butter of the tourism industry. Well, we know that in Cairns, that's just not simply the case. It is not true. And Scott Morrison doesn't seem to understand, or isn't in touch, with what is happening right here on the ground. He's also been out there talking about the New Zealand tourism bubble, last time we had the opportunity to ask him about that. And we know that that hasn't ended up in having a lot of tourists here on the ground. 

It is disappointing that the Prime Minister doesn't seem to understand that while there are different impacts across the country in different industries, this is a community that is on survival mode. These businesses are on survival mode and they need to know what is going to happen when JobKeeper comes to an end. I am calling on the Government - and I'm really pleased that I've got Jim Chalmers and Murray Watt here today to listen to businesses - but I am calling on the Government to do the same thing. To listen to those businesses, to understand their concerns and to explain to those businesses what is the plan around support - around JobKeeper - whether it's to be extended or not. They need to know if there is to be a plan around tourism support going forward, then there needs to be an explanation about how that support will actually impact businesses that aren't necessarily in the tourism business, but directly and indirectly affected by these international flight changes. 

Again, I say this is a crucial time for Cairns businesses. We are in a 60-day window where we need to make sure that we get through the next six months. It is a crucial time. And that is why I'm very pleased that Jim and Murray have joined me today, because there could not be a more important time for the rest of the country to understand how desperate things are here in Cairns and how desperately we need some support and action from the Federal Government. 
Thank you. I'll pass over to Jim to talk a little bit more about our visit today.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER:Thanks very much everybody, and especially to Senator Nita Green, based here in Cairns, and my other colleague, Senator Murray Watt, the Shadow Minister for Northern Australia. We're back here once again speaking with local businesses and workers and peak organisations about what's happening here in the economy in Far North Queensland. 

What we understand is that if the national economy is to recover strongly, we can't leave places like Cairns behind. There is no national recovery unless and until we can make sure that places like Cairns and the surrounding areas are back on their feet.

The problem right now is that this town is on life support but Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg want to pull the plug. Instead of removing the oxygen mask from Cairns, what Morrison and Frydenberg should be doing is coming forward with a plan for JobKeeper and for other types of economic support, which makes sure that this town survives and that it's not hollowed out. That when the recovery comes, and the international borders reopen, that it can recover strongly and create those good, well-paid jobs that we desperately need in Far North Queensland.

As it stands, Morrison and Frydenberg would rather JobKeeper money go to executive bonuses in Sydney than to small businesses in Cairns. That’s a disgrace. What we've heard from the peak organisations, businesses of all sizes and workers that we've spoken to already today is that when JobKeeper ends, too many local workers will lose their jobs. We need to avoid that. We need Mr Morrison and Frydenberg to understand what's going on in Cairns and in the surrounding areas. We need them to understand that when the international borders are closed and tourism is impacted, that doesn't just impact the tourism sector, it impacts the entire local economy. They need to understand that. That's why JobKeeper and other sorts of economic support are so crucial to this town. When Cairns is on life support Morrison and Frydenberg shouldn't be pulling the plug. 

Now I noticed that the Prime Minister is in Queensland at the moment. He's notorious for making big announcements and getting his photo taken throughout regional Queensland, but he rarely delivers for the people of Queensland. He's always there for the photo, but he's rarely there for the workers and small businesses of places like Cairns.

So we call on the Government to do the right thing by the workers and small businesses and industries of places like Cairns and throughout regional Queensland. Come forward with a plan for JobKeeper and other forms of economic support. This town is too important, and too vulnerable to see Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg just let it hollow out in a way that it won't be able to recover strongly enough when the international borders reopen. 

I'll throw you to Murray Watt and then we'll take some questions.

MURRAY WATT, SHADOW MINISTER FOR NORTHERN AUSTRALIA: Thanks very much, Jim and Nita, and thanks Nita for organising today's visit. Just to reiterate what Jim and Nita are saying, I just don't think it's possible to overstate how serious a situation Cairns and Far North Queensland are in right at the moment.

We are at a tipping point in terms of the future of Cairns and Far North Queensland. And the unanimous view of every tourism representative we have spoken to today is that the Government's plans to cut off JobKeeper in March will be a catastrophe for Cairns and Far North Queensland. And it's not just about the immediate impact of those changes here in Cairns. Of course, they would lead to massive job losses and business closures. But we want to make sure that Cairns and Far North Queensland have a viable tourism industry once people can travel here again. And if we lose businesses and lose workers over the next couple of months because of government failure and government inaction, we will never get that back. 

I just want to make a couple of remarks quickly as well about national disaster management, because, of course, we're right in the middle of cyclone season. It was very heartening to see that we didn't get the worst out of Cyclone Kimi than what we feared. Although, of course, there's still a lot of bad weather around Far North Queensland and there's still warnings that we could be facing more cyclones and floods in the weeks and months ahead. 

Later today, we'll be catching up with SES volunteers who've done a fantastic job keeping homes and communities safe over the last few weeks. And I want to congratulate them and all North Queenslanders for the steps that they've taken to make sure that they're ready and prepared for this cyclone season.

What that means is it's now time for the Federal Government also to step up, be prepared and be ready for the cyclones and floods that we know are still likely to hit north Queensland in the next few weeks. And that's why it's such a shame that we continue to see the Government sit on a fund, a $4 billion fund that they announced over 20 months ago, that could be being used for disaster mitigation right now. That fund was announced 20 months ago, in the 2019 budget. It could have been used over the last couple of years to build cyclone shelters, flood levees, evacuation centres and all sorts of other disaster mitigation measures. And instead, it's just propping up Scott Morrison's bank account. 

Now he wants to put out press releases talking about what he's doing on natural disaster management, amongst other things. But I'm sorry, Scott Morrison. A press release is not going to stop a cyclone. We actually need to see proper investment from the Government using funds it has already put aside. Otherwise, we will see more cost being burdened on north Queenslanders with the cost of repairing roads, spiralling insurance costs and all sorts of other costs as well. It's time to get ready. Just like North Queenslanders have been getting ready themselves.

We're all happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Any extension to JobKeeper, how does the Labor Party see that working? Does it see it coming through on an industry basis, or a postcode basis, what's your proposition?

CHALMERS: For some time now, we've been saying that JobKeeper needs to be tailored and responsive to what's actually happening in real local economies like this one. So if that means an extension of JobKeeper, applying some kind of test which recognises that yes, some businesses elsewhere in Australia are recovering and that's a good thing, but in places like Cairns and elsewhere, some businesses are still struggling. It shouldn't be beyond the Government to devise some kind of test which sees JobKeeper continue where businesses which genuinely need it, receive it. We've heard stories in Cairns today about businesses whose revenue might be 70 per cent down - seven-zero per cent down - the current test is 30 per cent.

So we call on Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg to not leave the workers and small businesses of Cairns behind. To make sure that we don't see the kind of catastrophic consequences between now and the end of March that many people here are predicting. That means considering that JobKeeper extension, it means looking at other kinds of support. Not just making announcements or sending out press releases, pretending that they care about Cairns and other areas impacted by the closure of the international border, but taking genuine action to save jobs. There are too many lives and livelihoods relying on the future, not just of tourism here, but all of the industries allied with that to leave people in the lurch and leave them behind. 

JOURNALIST: Are there any specific sectors you're targeting, given that, you know, up here in Cairns tourism is our bread and butter. For other regional towns, like Mackay would be the same thing, are you looking at hospitality as well?

CHALMERS: Well, we need to focus on the businesses, workers, industries and communities which are doing it the toughest, and in some of those places that you mentioned, obviously local economies are doing it tough. So it shouldn't be beyond the Government, which has talked before about JobKeeper applying reasonable tests to business turnover, it should be possible for the Government to devise a test which captures those businesses - tourism, hospitality and others - in places like Cairns, which are the worst-affected. What we don't want to see is a town like Cairns, which is on life support in many ways, we don't want the Government to pull the plug. That means smart, responsive, tailored targeting of what support looks like beyond March. 

JOURNALIST: The local MP, Warren Entsch, is pretty adamant that it will get, you know, extended in some form and that there's, I think, six parliamentary sittings before the end of that. What's your response to that?

GREEN: First of all, what is really important for everyone to understand - and this is the feedback that we're getting on the ground right now - that although there is a cut off of JobKeeper on the 30th of March, what businesses right now are doing is making decisions about whether they should make employees redundant or whether they can keep people on longer than that 30th of March deadline. They need to make those decisions now. This idea that this is something that can be worked out on the 29th of March, 2021 and everyone can just go on with their lives after that, depending on the outcome, is absolute nonsense. 

That is why I'm calling for more certainty for businesses, because right now they're making decisions about whether to keep people on. And there are workers right here in Cairns who have worked in the tourism industry for 15 years, for 10 years, and they need to have some sort of idea about whether they will have a job after March.

When it comes to Warren Entsch, can I just say this? It's fine to say what you want about JobKeeper up here in (Cairns). What I am very focussed on, very focussed on, is what the Treasurer says and what Scott Morrison says when they stand up in front of cameras and what they promise the people of Cairns. That's what businesses are listening for. Of course they welcome anyone who comes out here and offers them support. But what they want to hear is a message from the Treasurer and a message from Scott Morrison that they understand and they've got a plan in place. And at the moment, that is not what we've got. Even if the local Member has made some comments to local media here, what really matters to people on the ground is what is being said in Canberra by the Treasurer, by Scott Morrison. And at the moment, they are refusing to make the picture any clearer for workers who unfortunately are staring down the barrel of losing their jobs. 

JOURNALIST: Where does Labor stand on JobSeeker, that's also due to wind up -going back to people on Newstart, or whatever it's going to be called, going back to around $40 a day. Do you propose that that should be extended as well?

CHALMERS: Well we've made it clear for some time that we think that the old $40 a day was insufficient for people to support themselves and to look for work and to get back into work. That's been our position for some time now. It would also have catastrophic consequences for local economies and local communities if it was wound back so harshly that we didn't have some of that money circulating in shops and small businesses in places like Cairns.

So what we've said is don't go back to $40 a day, come clean on what the new rate will be and take into account, take into consideration, what that means for local communities and local economies, which have been supported by some of that extra money circulating in the businesses.

JOURNALIST: Following on from that, we've heard from some small business operators and even medium business operators who are struggling to find workers because people are, I suppose you could say, more comfortable receiving JobSeeker payments than they are going to work. What do you say to that?

CHALMERS: Look we take that feedback very seriously. We hear that from time to time and obviously we factor that in. But I think it's equally true that in large parts of Australia, there just aren't the opportunities that people need. We've got new jobs data out today, which shows that more than two million Australians are either unemployed or can't get enough hours at work. We know that for every job vacancy, there's many multiples of applicants. So we need to balance those considerations. The feedback we hear from some in the business community, we need to balance that with the fact that there aren't a lot of opportunities for Australian workers in parts of Australia. We also need to be cognisant, as I said before, of the impact on local economies, that this support isn’twithdrawn too quickly. So there's a balance to be struck there, we want to make sure it doesn't go back to the old rate. We take the feedback from business and others seriously. The onus is on the Government to come forward with a rate, which is fair to people, recognises the pressure on local economies and is sustainable in the long term.