It’s good for the spirit, to be reminded as an individual or a community that there will always be something bigger, older, richer and more complex than ourselves to consider.
Northern Australia is home to vast and divergent landscapes, from the rainforests of the Daintree to the rocky outcrops of Kakadu and the brilliant white beaches of Broome. But we are also home to the oldest living culture in the world, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have passed down their stories and practices through each generation. We are indeed privileged to be part of that culture. Northern Australia has so much to offer, both to its residents and to people from other parts of Australia, such as myself from Sydney, but also to international visitors. It is a very special place.
The federal government has a responsibility to work with state and local governments, as well as businesses and communities, to unlock the tourism potential of northern Australia. We know that tourism is a super growth sector. It employs one million Australians and generates more than $97 billion in economic activity a year. The Great Barrier Reef alone supports nearly 60,000 jobs in Australia. In the year ending March 2018, Australia received 8.3 million international visitors, up eight per cent, with a visitor spend of $42.3 billion. But this increase is, of course, not evenly shared around the nation. We need to ensure that cities, towns and smaller communities across northern Australia benefit from any policy actions the federal government takes as a consequence of this report. The fact is that, at the moment, the approach of the government is one that sometimes just undermines tourism opportunities in northern Australia.
Just this week, I was contacted by the Cairns based tourism operator Coral Expeditions. It’s a cruise company whose vessels are crewed by Australians. They currently employ 150 seafarers, contribute to the development of skills and employment in the Australian maritime industry in northern Australia and deliver economic and community benefits. For 34 years this proud Australian business has managed to remain viable and is now planning to invest some $100 million over the next three years to acquire two additional vessels. To operate those vessels, they intend to recruit an additional 70 Australian seafarers—more local jobs. Their most popular cruises are to the waters around the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the Cape York regions. They also offer expeditions along the length of the Great Barrier Reef. However, if the bill that is now being discussed before this House were to become law, it would jeopardise not only Coral Expedition’s expansion plans and the jobs that it would create but, more significantly, the very existence of Australian based companies like themselves. In the words of the company’s group general manager, Mark Fifield, and its commercial director, Jeff Gillies, this piece of legislation will have the unintended consequence of killing off the growing and globally respected Australian flagged expedition cruise ship industry. This will have a significant negative impact on sustainable tourism and the environment in remote and sensitive coastal areas in Australia and on the revival of Australian seafaring. The letter concludes with this simple request: ‘We urge that the current restrictions on coastal trading for foreign flagged passenger ships be maintained in order to facilitate the steady and sustainable development of coastal tourism and the Australian seafaring industry.’
Of course, that echoes the calls from True North Adventure Cruises, based in north-west Western Australia. Bill Melby came and gave evidence in 2015 during the debate that occurred about the government’s coastal trading legislation—the last time it was defeated. He warned the government that those changes would put him out of business. The government advised Mr Melby to sack his crew, reflag overseas and hire a foreign crew! This is the approach towards jobs in northern Australia of those opposite, particularly in the tourism sector. And this is high-value tourism. This is an industry that we should be cherishing, and yet it’s dismissed by the government.
I’m also concerned about the recommendations in this report to remove cabotage when it comes to the aviation sector: recommendations 9 and 30. This would allow foreign airlines to fly domestic routes in northern Australia, having, of course, foreign crews being paid foreign wages, just like the government’s approach towards the shipping sector. Such a policy would have in the very short-term a devastating impact on the tourism sector and on access, particularly in the smaller regional towns around northern Australia. What we have at the moment are the airlines, such as Qantas and Virgin, and other smaller airlines, like Airnorth, saying very clearly that what we would have is cherrypicking from overseas airlines in order to remove some of the cross-subsidisation that occurs on some of the smaller routes that fly around northern Australia. We certainly wouldn’t have any commercial flights into places in Far North Queensland like Weipa and Normanton, or Mount Isa and Cloncurry for that matter. They would simply disappear, let alone Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory or Kununurra in Western Australia. All of these destinations would be under pressure.
This is ideology before reality. We know that Australia already has the most liberal aviation regime in the world. The fact is that as part of our aviation white paper foreign airlines can gain greater access to the capital cities, to the primary international airports—Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth—if they’re prepared to fly through those secondary international airports, be they Darwin, Cairns, Broome or Townsville. Then those opportunities are available.
I think the fact is that we also need to support Indigenous tourism. I sat down in Western Australia recently for a round table, and WAITOC, the Western Australia Indigenous Tourism Operators Council, is a great example of Indigenous communities coming together and promoting experiences, particularly in remote areas, where people’s lives could be enriched, literally, by having that experience. At the same time that is creating jobs for people in those regional communities, particularly Indigenous Australians.
Similarly, the opportunities that are there in the Northern Territory and in Far North Queensland are indeed substantial. We do need to look at the particular needs, as the previous speaker, the member for Solomon, said about Kakadu. I know that the member for Lingiari is a passionate supporter of Kakadu National Park and the opportunities that need to be taken at the time when we have withdrawal of mining around Jabiru. That is an opportunity; it’s a challenge, but done right it can create economic opportunity for those communities. Indeed, that iconic site of Kakadu National Park is so important—that people are able to experience that wonderful part of Australia.
There is much more that we can do, but I say to the parliament that Labor is prepared to work with the government and, importantly, with communities to maximise employment outcomes.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.