Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP thanks travel agents of Warringah when speaking on a motion on consumer protection

2 June, 2021


I rise to speak on the motion put forward by the member for Menzies. The travel and tourism industry has been impacted profoundly by the pandemic. Holidays and travel plans were cancelled en masse and some consumers have struggled to obtain refunds for their bookings. I have heard from many travel agents in my electorate about how hard they are working to obtain full refunds for their clients. While I acknowledge that a delay in refunds is not ideal, the impact of the pandemic on this sector has been so devastating, and I understand the call for changes to be made.

From the evidence that my office has received, the majority of those who made bookings via a travel agent have received refunds quicker than those who made bookings online or directly with some airlines or providers overseas. A constituent did contact me asking me to support the petition that led to the development of this motion. While I appreciate the struggles of consumers to get their refunds, I believe that the vast majority of travel agents are working very hard to secure refunds for their clients. The government recognises effort and the need to support travel agents to obtain refunds through the establishment of the consumer travel support grant. I welcome the extension of that grant to phase 2. Now that the government has declared that the borders will remain closed until mid-2022, I urge the minister to consider developing a long-term plan for this sector to support travel agents through this difficult time. A one-off grant every three months without certainty of whether there will be another grant in three months time is no way to operate a business. It does not provide the certainty that these businesses need to continue to employ staff and to fight for the refunds for their customers. We will lose so much expertise and work experience if all these businesses close.

In March I hosted a roundtable with the travel agents of Warringah. The Australian Federation of Travel Agents attended. The forum raised several issues faced by Warringah travel agents—and I suspect it was not unique to Warringah. Border closers, domestic and international, and lack of certainty around when they will reopen are major issues for people planning. There is perceived misunderstanding of the role of travel agents and the need for them to support the general public. There are difficulties with the viability of domestic bookings to sustains travel agents due to a lack of availability of domestic accommodation and tour operators and an inability to take commissions on domestic airfares. The minister has repeatedly said that his solution around domestic travel would solve this sector. It does not. These travel agents are not being assisted and are hanging on for dear life. Some agents and providers are not recognised as travel agents for the purpose of the grant program due to tax classification and so they are left in indefinite limbo.

I urge the government to make a commitment for rounds 3, 4 and 5 of the grants. They need to increase the ceiling of the grants. They need to consider providing the grants as fortnightly payment schemes, similar to JobKeeper, so that agents don't take the money and leave the industry. There is currently a risk of that because it's only every three months. We need grant approval for a number of cruise ships to enter Australian waters to service the Kimberley cruise season. We need to develop a roadmap for opening the borders, considering the vaccine rollout schedule. There have been 14 months now where we have had a closed international border, the only OECD and developed country to have that—the most extreme measure. There must be a long-term plan to ensure that 'bubble Australia' is not an indefinite bubble. There are so many sectors that require the safe reopening of our borders. The first step being that we need a vaccine rollout that is accelerated and we need fit for purpose quarantine facilities.

I have to thank the hard-working travel agents of Warringah and acknowledge the impact of this pandemic on their businesses. I welcome the suggestions for improvements to consumer law, but I caution that any change must be applied to the tourism sector as a whole. You can't be picking favourites. Travel agents cannot bear the brunt of further regulation or change at this point in time. So many of the members of this industry are just hanging on. They desperately need there to be more stimulus and more focus on how their sector, and their knowledge and expertise, can be maintained. At my roundtable I heard so much of staff being let off, so much expertise being lost. When bubble Australia bursts and people do come back here we simply will not have the knowledge or travel agents in operation to service them. I support the motion but I have concerns.