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Friday, 18 June 2004
Page: 24263

Senator O'BRIEN (1:32 PM) —The Tourism Australia Bill 2004 and the Tourism Australia (Repeal and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2004 implement the structural reforms of Commonwealth funded tourism bodies outlined in the tourism white paper. These bills bring together the Australian Tourist Commission, the Bureau of Tourism Research and the Tourism Forecasting Council into one new tourism marketing body entitled Tourism Australia. See Australia, the domestic marketing organisation, will, I understand, be brought into Tourism Australia by mechanisms outside these bills. These bills also create a new body within Tourism Australia to be known as Tourism Events Australia.

Since being appointed as shadow minister for tourism I have had many opportunities for consultation, and have taken them, with the tourism industry. I take this opportunity to thank the many I have met for their time and input. During those consultations I have heard many grave concerns that, rather than enhance our ability to attract world-class international events to our shores—events such as the Formula One Grand Prix which inject billions into our national economy—this new body may in fact hinder Australia's success in this field. Without better details before us, both Labor and the tourism industry can only hope that Tourism Events Australia will enhance Australia's ability to attract still more international events. We shall continue to watch the evolution of Tourism Events Australia with interest.

This is critical legislation for a very important and often underrated industry. Tourism is one of Australia's most significant export industries. The industry directly employs more than half a million Australians, many in regional areas, and it generates around $17 billion each year in sustainable export earnings. Further, Australian tourism indirectly supports in the order of another 380,000 Australian jobs. The importance of an industry which keeps nearly one in 10 Australians employed across Australia cannot be underrated. Given its regional focus, tourism provides one of the few glimmers of hope to regional Australians still burdened by the ongoing drought and this government's unfortunate choice of agriculture minister. For this reason too, tourism is an industry which should not be underrated—but underrated it has been, most notably by the Howard government.

At this time this may seem an odd comment to those in the tourism industry who are currently euphoric about the tourism white paper, but I would say to them: you have waited too long for this policy because the Howard government has never taken you seriously. Who can forget the Howard government's first tourism policy delivered in March 1996? What was it? It was the abolition of the Commonwealth Department of Tourism, a decision announced even before the current Prime Minister was sworn in. Let us not forget too that, in his first two years as Prime Minister, Mr John Howard slashed in the order of $5.5 million from the Australian Tourist Commission budget when compared to its 1995-96 levels.

Since March 1996 the Howard government has continued to land blow after blow upon this industry. I refer, of course, to the fact that this government has slugged the tourism industry with the goods and services tax, overseen the Ansett collapse and slugged the industry with the Ansett ticket tax. With regard to the GST, tourism is the only export industry that has been so taxed. Beyond that, this government has dragged its heels in assisting this vital industry to respond to international shocks such as the September 2001 atrocities, SARS, the Bali bombing and the invasion of Iraq.

The Prime Minister has also left the tourism industry in the hands of substandard ministers. The former minister Jackie Kelly was so out of touch with the industry that she dismissed the Ansett collapse as a mere blip. The current minister, Mr Hockey, who is excluded from cabinet, will always be remembered as Mr HIH for his mishandling of the HIH insurance debacle. The collapse of HIH insurance was an event partly responsible for increasing public liability insurance costs, which have in turn crippled many tourism businesses and community activities. So to those who are pinning all their hopes on the delivery of the tourism white paper, a still largely futuristic document, I say this: don't look at what the Howard government says it will do; look at what it has done in the past.

By contrast, tourism is an industry that attracts and has long attracted the commitment of Labor. For example, it was the much-loved and very effective Paul Hogan campaign, delivered in the mid-1980s by the Hawke Labor government, that truly put Australia on the tourism map, particularly with the major market of the United States. The tourism white paper foreshadows an extra $45.5 million for the domestic marketing arm, See Australia. But, as with Tourism Events Australia, my extensive consultations with tourism industry bodies, analysts and state marketing organisations reveal serious concerns about the effectiveness of See Australia.

Labor's analysis of the Bureau of Tourism Research's quarterly visitor survey reports for the last two years reveals that, for the year ended 31 December 2003, expenditure by overnight Australian visitors plummeted by $300 million, Australian residents took 1.7 million fewer overnight trips in Australia, Australians spent 4.5 million fewer nights away from home and Australians took three million fewer daytrips during 2003. These figures are extraordinary, especially when you consider that, if ever there was a time Australians would holiday in Australia rather than overseas, it would be now at a troubled time marked by the invasion of Iraq, SARS, the Bali bombing and the international security situation in general.

These figures give us two primary indications. The first indication is that the tourism industry has never done it harder than under this government. The numbers alone cannot convey the stress and hardship experienced by individual tourism operators, tourism-reliant employees and regional communities. The second indication that we can draw from these sinking domestic tourism numbers is that, whatever See Australia has been doing, it is not encouraging Australians to see Australia. Given the imminent election, the demonstrated poor performance of See Australia and the Howard government's inclination for pork-barrelling in preference to genuine industry assistance, Labor has deep concerns about the government's funding plans for See Australia. We will watch closely to ensure taxpayers and the tourism industry get value for money.

As part of our usual diligent consideration of legislation, Labor initiated an inquiry by the Senate Economics Legislation Committee into the provisions of the Tourism Australia Bill. It is interesting to note that, although they propose amendments here today, no Australian Democrat senator saw fit to attend that hearing and properly assess the bill. The outcome of the hearing was that Labor undertook to move a number of amendments if needed and determined to move another.

At the time of the hearing, there was great concern amongst the staff of the Bureau of Tourism Research and the Tourism Forecasting Council that they would be severely disadvantaged by the move from the public sector to the new statutory authority, Tourism Australia. Labor undertook that, if required, it would move an amendment to protect those staff. I am, however, happy to report that, under pressure from Labor and the CPSU, the government has now provided transfer and working conditions suitable for affected staff. I congratulate the CPSU for the job it has done in looking after the interests of its members and advise that, as a result, we will now not be moving the proposed amendment.

Also as part of Labor's diligent consideration of these bills, it took on board considerations and concerns from the South Australian government regarding the reappointment of board members and the regard Tourism Australia must have for state and territory marketing plans and activities. After discussions with Minister Lomax-Smith and the office of the federal minister for tourism, I have been satisfied that these amendments are no longer required, and therefore I shall not move them. Labor will move an amendment in relation to the need to ensure that Australian Indigenous cultural or tourism skills are represented on the board of Tourism Australia; however, I will address that issue in the committee stage.

There is one positive that has come from the neglect this industry has been shown by the Howard government over the last eight years. That positive is the high degree of professionalism in advocacy the industry now possesses. Indeed yesterday, TTF Australia arranged a breakfast meeting for a large group of Labor MPs who recognise the importance of tourism. I want to thank both TTF Australia for arranging the function and those who came to impart their knowledge of the tourism industry to us. I particularly thank the Hon. John Pandazopoulos MP, Victoria's Minister for Tourism and Major Events, who joined us yesterday to tell us just how the Bracks Labor government has helped make tourism such a success in that state.

The professionalism attained by the tourism industry is evidenced in part by the tourism white paper these bills are to enact. In the wake of the collapse of the Tourism Council of Australia, the industry has regrouped and found new voices in organisations such as the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, ably chaired by the former Labor senator and minister Mr John Button. There are many great peak bodies that bring the needs of this industry to the attention of the nation through their interaction with those of us privileged to serve in this place. Such bodies include: the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, the Tourism Industry Council of New South Wales, Restaurant and Catering Australia, the Australian Tourism Export Council, TTF Australia Ltd and the National Tourism Alliance, who played such a large role in coordinating the industry's response to the tourism green paper.

Minister Hockey and the Prime Minister like to claim the tourism white paper as their own. Whilst they can certainly claim the delay in its delivery, the truth is that the functional and workable parts of the white paper are the result of the industry's efforts. In the white paper, the tourism industry has identified high-value niche markets as the future for the growth and prosperity of this industry. In short, the best path to profitability is to steer away from an industry based purely on volume and to target and encourage tourists who will come to Australia for longer periods and spend more whilst they are here.

Besides the issue of profitability there is the matter of the environmental sustainability of the industry. We must ensure that we do not overexpose our unique and fragile land to tourism or, indeed, any other industry. Clearly this is a key objective for the tourism industry, and I think it is reflected in this bill. Labor notes, too, and congratulates the Australian tourism industry on its ongoing efforts to be more environmentally sustainable.

On this subject, I pay tribute to the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, or AMPTO, who set an excellent example as an industry acting as a good environmental steward. AMPTO works closely with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to continually monitor and improve management of the Great Barrier Reef. It works with its members to ensure that marine tourism remains a minimal impact industry. Through AMPTO, the industry is committed to sustainable practices to ensure the future of the reef and contributes around $1.2 million each year to fund the Cooperative Research Centre for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. What a great pity it is that the government has not demonstrated the same commitment to the unique environment of the Great Barrier Reef and has seen fit to slash the funding of the cooperative research centre.

Targeting niche markets, in conjunction with the type of environmental stewardship demonstrated by AMPTO and others, is the way forward for our tourism industry. The niches to be targeted are many and varied. For instance, according to research conducted by Community Marketing Inc., the North American gay and lesbian market is worth more than $US54 billion. North American gay and lesbian tourists travel extensively, with 97 per cent taking holidays in the past 12 months, well above the US national average of 64 per cent. They generally stay longer and spend more than other travellers. That is why I was greatly honoured earlier this year to be asked to launch a series of Australian travel guides aimed straight at the lucrative American gay and lesbian market.

Other niche markets include backpackers. This is a segment with an average yield of more than $5,000 per head and one which provides an itinerant work force that is particularly helpful to regional areas where seasonal work such as fruit picking is vital to the local economy. There are still other key high-yield niches, the targeting of which will deliver a more sustainable tourism industry both economically and environmentally. The focus of the industry in the white paper on targeting high-yield niches is a further reflection of how it is continuing to work even more environmentally sustainably.

Labor take this industry seriously. That is why we have been considering these bills for some time. That is why we have been consulting closely with the industry and with the state tourism bodies, that is why we referred the Tourism Australia Bill to a Senate committee and that is why we have worked in cooperation with the government to expedite the passage of these bills. We will support the bills. We will be moving an amendment, which I will deal with at the committee stage. I look forward to a chance to address that matter then.