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Monday, 4 September 1989
Page: 868


Senator NEWMAN(4.07) —Today we are debating a matter of public importance, which is the damage inflicted on the tourist industry by the pilots dispute and the Government's failure to resolve the situation. Earlier today my colleague Senator MacGibbon, who led this debate, recounted the problems which are faced by his constituents in Queensland. I think perhaps, as a representative of the only island State, it might be helpful to the Senate if I outline some of the problems which are being faced by constituents in Tasmania, because the resolution of the pilots dispute is the financial life or death for many Tasmanians. The industrial dispute has affected the majority of Tasmanians. The tourism industry, the seafood industry, the fresh flower industry, the retail industry, right through to butchers, launderers and fishermen, all are affected.

Let me look first of all at tourism. From speeches I have made in this place on a number of occasions, honourable senators would be aware of the fact that my family is involved in the tourist industry and I have a personal interest as a result, and therefore I also have a very great understanding of the problems being faced in that industry because it is very much an industry based on small businesses such as my family's business, a small hotel and restaurant. The other small businesses in Tasmania are suffering, and suffering in great pain.

Tourism in Tasmania accounts for 9.2 per cent of gross product, which is well above the national figure, which is 6.2 per cent. So, in other words, tourism has a much greater influence on our economy than that of the mainland. Expenditure in Tasmania by interstate and foreign tourists last year was estimated to be $305m. For a State with less than half a million people, that is a great boost to our State's economy. When intra- state tourism is added to this, tourism spending can claim to provide economic activity of $1m a day in Tasmania-and $1m a day has to be very important to our well-being. This Government has been very keen to assure Tasmanians that if they save their wilderness areas, if they lock up their forests, and if they prevent the miners from mining, they will be saved economically by such an influx of foreign tourists. Yet it is this same Government which seems so powerless to act while we are in the middle of a national disaster-the pilots dispute.

When we talk about foreign tourism and about domestic tourism, it is very important to remember that study of the tourist industry has shown that Australian residents travelling internally in Australia still make up the bulk of tourists and they spend on accommodation, meals, drinks, et cetera, about three times the amount that is spent by overseas visitors to Australia. It is important to remember that point because proportionately we get very few of the overseas visitors that come to Australia, and therefore we are particularly dependent upon the health of the interstate tourist industry. Of course, being an island State, we are more affected by a break in domestic tourism than we are by a break in overseas tourism. At least the overseas carriers can fly in to Hobart, as they can fly into Cairns or Sydney. Maybe the tourists cannot get around within the country, but at least the tourist industry in those destinations has some way of continuing during the strike. What is so very important is the fact that we are almost entirely cut off from domestic tourism during a time like this. What should be realised by mainlanders is that the boat, which is our only other alternative, crosses Bass Strait only three times a week in one direction. Therefore, that gives us very little opportunity to make up for the shortfall caused by the airline dispute.

It is estimated that the tourist industry is currently losing approximately $350,000 a day which, of course, will increase as we move into the peak season. Because Tasmania is not getting its usual 500 visitors a day at this time, smaller organisations and travel agencies especially are going broke due to the loss of cash flow. I do not think I have to remind you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that these small businesses are the ones that are in the clutch of the financial institutions to the extent of a 22 to 25 per cent interest rate on their overdraft loans. They do not have much leeway. At the best of times they are struggling to keep their heads above water, thanks to the high interest rate policies of this Government. At a time of crisis like this, that is all that is needed to send them under.

Another point that should be understood in this debate is that while most visitors coming to Tasmania are holiday-makers, last year 28.7 per cent of visitors were business travellers. Of course, they have had to stop travelling. They do not have compassionate grounds for crossing Bass Strait, so the business travel sector has dried up as well. About 17,000 Tasmanians are employed in tourism in various areas in my State. On Friday the Tasmanian Travel Centre told me that it spoke to 30 tourism organisations. There has been a loss of 610 jobs, and by this week almost 1,000 jobs will have been lost. All over Tasmania a very high proportion of staff is being asked to take compulsory leave or face redundancy. Casuals and part time workers are being put off everywhere. Up to 2,000 Tasmanian workers have been put off work as a result of this dispute. The Tasmanian Visitor Corporation-and here is the irony-wanted to send a delegation of industry leaders to see the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in Canberra, but it cannot get an aircraft to bring its delegation to Canberra to talk to him. It is interesting that Mr Hawke is not prepared to send a plane to pick them up, but he is prepared to send a plane to Hobart to pick up a group of disabled children to send them on a skiing holiday, provided that the honourable member for Denison (Mr Kerr) is shown on television as a quid pro quo.


Senator Cook —That is a disgusting allegation.


Senator NEWMAN —It is absolutely factual. If the Minister does not like the way in which the facts of political life are played out by his Prime Minister, he will just have to learn to live with it. The fact remains that no plane is available to bring industry leaders to Canberra to speak to the Prime Minister, and I presume that Mohammed will not go to the mountain.

Let us talk about hotel accommodation. The Sheraton Hotel in Hobart normally has a occupancy rate of 60 per cent at this time of the year. It is down to 35 per cent, and I would say it is quite lucky to have a rate as high as that at the moment. It has 234 rooms, of which two-thirds are idle. Twenty per cent of the staff are taking forced holidays, and more will be asked to do the same in the next couple of weeks. For the month of October it expects an occupancy rate of 15 per cent, in a month in which the normal occupancy rate is 70 to 80 per cent. The Sheraton Hotel alone will lose $500,000 in revenue if there is no change in the dispute in October. Let me tell honourable senators about a new hotel, the Launceston International Hotel, which opened just over a month ago. It has coped in that short time because it has chartered an aircraft. In the next few weeks it says it will be in trouble because it cannot fill seats for a chartered plane. It estimates that Tasmania will lose $1m a day if this situation continues.

Let me tell the Senate about Wrest Point. A travel agents convention next week has been cancelled; Wrest Point has lost $500,000 on what was to have been a national release of a James Bond film, which had to be scaled down to simply a State release; there are 800 staff, of whom 400 are casual and have now almost all been put off and a percentage of the full time staff have now been put on holidays. Wrest Point is down to 20 to 30 per cent occupancy instead of the 70 to 80 per cent which is usual, and only last week 500 room nights were lost. Let us turn to the hire car situation. Hertz Rent a Car estimates that two-thirds of its business has been lost and envisages that Avis and Budget Rent a Car System Pty Ltd are about the same. Hertz is accounting $12,000 to $15,000 a day in lost revenue as a result of the industrial dispute. Mr David Phillips from the Tasmanian Visitor Corporation, which represents 500 tourism operators in the private sector, has indicated that three-quarters of the rental car fleet in Tasmania is now idle as a result of this crippling industrial dispute. It is the long term effects that will be so worrying for most of the rental car agencies. Some have experienced cancellations as far ahead as January next year. People just are not prepared to take the risk with Tasmania.

Tasmania suffers on two accounts because of its geographical isolation: it has no surface travel alternatives except for the Abel Tasman which, as I say, operates only three nights a week in each direction; and its economy is geared towards tourism. Tasmania is in a state of absolute crisis. Many businesses in Tasmania are small and are operating on overdrafts and will simply not be able to keep up the payments to their financiers. In the seafood industry the turnover, on which we rely also very heavily, is down by more than half. Many customers on the mainland have gone elsewhere and the seafood industry doubts whether they will return once the dispute is over. The seafood season has just closed and many of the seafood businesses cannot or will not be able to recoup their losses. Most of them will be lucky simply to break even. One company has lost overseas orders and one ongoing order of $10,000 per order. Those customers have gone elsewhere. There are one and a half tonnes of lobsters sitting in the freezers which cannot be sold because they cannot be got to the mainland. The seafood businesses are not buying from the fishermen because they cannot sell the fish. In turn, the fishermen have problems because either they cannot sell their fish or they are not going out to get more fish, which of course affects not only their livelihood but their ability to pay their commitments on their boats.

The cut flower industry has lost $25,000 in sales on the overseas markets over the next two months. Added to this is the cost associated with selling on mainland markets because the growers have physically to drive flowers from Devonport to Launceston or Hobart daily. There is also an extra cost involved in insulating flower boxes because the flowers cannot arrive as quickly as by plane. This industry is badly affected by the dispute.

The second part of this matter of public importance relates to the Government's failure to resolve the situation. Previous speakers have covered this very thoroughly and I intend to mention it again relatively briefly. The reason we are so particularly concerned about the Government's failure to resolve the dispute is that the Government aggravated the situation in the first place and pushed the parties into their corners. There is no getting away from it: it was the Prime Minister's inflammatory statements which pushed the parties into their corners, which are keeping them apart and which are physically preventing the employers and the employees from talking together. Why will the Government not allow the pilots and their employers to talk? Who is paying for that pig-headedness? It is the little people all over Australia. It is my Tasmanian constituents who are trying to travel-to travel as tourists or as business people, as family members separated by the tyranny of Bass Strait. It is the 91-year-old lady I am trying to help who comes from Tasmania and cannot get back from Brisbane. She is stranded and it is not suitable to put her on a bus at her age. These are the people who are paying for the Prime Minister's pig-headedness. These are the people who will not get any compensation even if it is handed out to the airlines. In fact, if compensation is paid to the airlines it will only prolong the agony for these little people and these little businesses. The Government is in a position to take action. It even had warnings earlier this year from the Industries Assistance Commission as to what should be being done, and I draw attention to the IAC draft report on travel and tourism. I will quote quickly, in the brief time left to me, from that report:

What is needed in the aviation industry, in the interests of tourism and the economy generally, is effective competition. The regulations governing the Australian aviation industry serve to limit competition and this imposes an unnecessary cost on travellers and other tourism related industries. Maximum efficiency requires . . . fully-integrated domestic and international networks.

Going on to talk about domestic aviation, the report said:

The two airlines agreement expires in 1990 . . . but for real reform there must be scope for effective competition. The arrangements act as a significant deterrent to new entrants. Airlines acknowledged that it would be very difficult for a new entrant to get established.

We need competition in the airline industry; we need the Government to free it up. We in Tasmania certainly require the immediate resumption of normal air services through negotiations, settlement or the provision of at least 1,000 air seats a day each way across Bass Strait. We also need Commonwealth assistance to help the tourist industry recover from this serious and debilitating crisis. Tasmanians are imploring the Prime Minister, the airlines and the pilots to negotiate a resolution to this dispute because the entire Tasmanian economy rests upon it.