Comment: Govt must pay up or lose tourism trust

Comment: Govt must pay up or lose tourism trust
By admin

When Andrew Robb addressed the Tourism Directions conference in Canberra last week, he described himself as not only the trade and investment minister but also the minister for tourism.

Australia must play to its strengths, and tourism is undoubtedly one of those strengths, he told (by video) the great and good of the industry gathered in Parliament House.

It may be pedantic to point out that Robb is not, in fact, minister for tourism. It just happens to be one of the many industries under his portfolio.

No matter, he spoke in admiring tones about tourism – as you'd fully expect him to given his audience – and of its value and importance to the overall economy.

So why, having waxed lyrical about tourism, do 89 businesses and organisations find themselves in limbo, anxiously awaiting the outcome of a wide ranging review into discretionary grants?

How hollow must his words have felt to those firms who, in good faith, went through the onerous process of successfully applying for a T-QUAL grant earlier this year, only to be told they might not get what was promised.

Combined, the T-QUAL grants totaled $8.5 million, with recipients awarded between $16,500 and $110,000 for a variety of projects, be it improvements to tourist attractions, expansion and refurbishment of accommodation or the compilation of industry data.

The grants were awarded by the Labor administration back in July and, in the grand scheme of things, are not large sums of money. A process was followed by all parties. Business cases were built, applications were lodged, due diligence carried out on the bids and decisions made. And all before Kevin Rudd called the general election.

For the Coalition to initiate a review, delay payments – with the prospect of not paying at all – is not only disrespectful to the successful applicants but potentially damaging to their businesses. 

For a start, they would, in all likelihood, have incurred considerable expense and invested  valuable time and effort in applying for the grant. It would have been no small undertaking for applicants, many of them small enterprises.

As lobby groups said this week, many would have started preparing the groundwork after being awarded the cash. Some will have excitedly informed international partners of their plans – who in turn may have started making their own marketing arrangements – and others would have closed off bookings in preparation for expansion.

It is unfair in the extreme for the Government to suggest, as it has, that the review is to “prevent further Labor waste”.

Try telling that to the 89 businesses who are trying to upgrade their product in the hope of improving the visitor experience.

Even if the grants are eventually honoured, the release of the money may come too late for projects to be completed ahead of the peak season.

A review of the T-QUAL grant system itself is one thing. Indeed, many in the tourism sector believe there could be a better process. But reviewing already-approved grants for businesses who, quite understandably, have started putting plans in motion based on the award, is creating needless uncertainty, anxiety and unrest.

The Coalition has already made the industry nervous over its unexpected decision not to create a tourism minister, no matter how Robb describes himself.

To withdraw grants – already approved through legitimate parliamentary process – would only cement the belief that its attitude to tourism may not be all it seems.

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