I rise in support of the motion from the member for Adelaide. Before COVID, Australians travelled across Australia and around the world. The Central Coast, home to my electorate, is known for its beaches, waterways, valleys, mountains and coastal communities. People come to the Central Coast to enjoy our way of life. In 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, the Central Coast welcomed 1.94 million visitors. These visitors added over $692 million to the local economy.
But the pandemic has hit regional coastal communities like mine hard. Those driven by retail, hospitality and tourism have shouldered the burden of the economic impact of COVID-19. People in the travel industry are facing, as many have said, an uphill battle, as tourism was one of the first industries to be hit and will likely be one of the last to recover. This includes people like Lee-Anne Talbot from Travel Managers Australia. Lee-Anne has been in the travel industry for over 30 years and has owned and operated her own travel business for the past 10 years on the coast. In 2018, Lee-Anne rebranded her business, investing $15,000 on repositioning a new website and changing her travel offering to a budget list of luxury holiday markets. Given this investment, Lee-Anne's income dropped in 2018-19, but in the 2019-20 financial year Lee-Anne's hard work and investment was starting to pay off and her sales figures tripled. Then COVID hit. I spoke to Lee-Anne on Friday and she said that everything that she'd worked for had been annihilated.
When the government announced its COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program, Lee-Anne was optimistic. She worked with her accountant to apply and got together the necessary application paperwork, but on Monday last week she was told her claim was declined because she was assessed on the 2018-19 financial year instead of the 2019 calendar year, as stated in the government's own policy. This meant Lee-Anne was assessed on her earnings based on her 2018-19 BAS report and, when the GST was removed, those earnings fell below the threshold to be eligible for a grant. Lee-Anne has asked repeatedly to be assessed on statements prepared by her accountant or on an average of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 BAS returns, which showed the increase in her earnings after rebranding. This was declined. Lee-Anne has been told she can appeal, but she has to wait until she receives the formal letter from Services Australia declining her claim, which, when I spoke to her on Friday, hadn't arrived. This is the part that really hit me: Lee-Anne told me that she received no empathy from the department during any of this process. It's easy to see why she feels this way. Lee-Anne is receiving JobKeeper, but, when the government stops the payment at the end of March, what will this mean to Lee-Anne and to people like her?
Like Lee-Anne, Michelle Thomas of Norah Head contacted me. She's been a successful sole trader travel agent for over 10 years—a business that she built from scratch. With the onset of COVID-19, Michelle had to take a second job to be able to pay her mortgage. Michelle now has to work through credit and client refunds, like many travel agents are doing, for free while dealing with the unpredictable nature of border closures. This is time consuming due to the different rules and regulations that Michelle has to go through, and she does this willingly on behalf of her clients for free, absorbing the costs. She can't leave the business because she still has clients with outstanding credit and is hoping to rebook their holidays.
The tourism industry faces enormous challenges if the government follows through with the cuts to JobKeeper in March. Tourism will not be back on its feet in the next five weeks. As I said, it was one of the first industries hit by this health and economic crisis and it's likely to be one of the last to recover, whether that's for domestic tourism in communities like mine on the Central Coast or international tourism, as others have spoken about. We know that, despite the vaccine rollout starting today, the Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr Brendan Murphy, has suggested that international travel is unlikely to begin this year, even if the majority of Australians have received the vaccination. He said:
I think that we'll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions, even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated.
International tourism, particularly inbound tourism, is the lifeblood of tourism in Australia, and, for travel agents, international tourism fuels their business. Tourism and Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond summed it up when she said:
Make no mistake, while international borders remain closed, we have no hope of recovery.
Travel agents like Lee-Anne and Michelle, who are hardworking people in my community, and those in communities across Australia, particularly regional communities, deserve better support from the government. In my community at the peak of COVID, there were 4,902 businesses supported through JobKeeper, keeping 18,734 employees connected to work in their industry. That is now at risk. Travel agents like Lee-Anne and Michelle deserve better. People in my community deserve better from this government.