SUBJECTS: Labor’s Pandemic Recovery Jobs Industry Taskforce, Australia’s skills shortage, Northern Territory’s workforce shortages, international students, Australians stranded overseas, quarantine facilities, crocodile management

LUKE GOSLING, CHAIR, INDO-PACIFIC TRADE TASKFORCE: Thanks everyone for coming down to Croc Cove. I really want to thank Penny and the team here for hosting us this morning for a Jobs Taskforce roundtable that we’ve had with industry. When it comes to hospitality and tourism industry here in the Top End and around the Northern Territory, about 1 in every 8 jobs for Territorians are connected to this industry, and now is our time. This is going to be the biggest Dry Season in a long time. We’ve got lots of people coming in from around Australia to experience the Territory. We want to make sure that industry are supported by the Federal Government and from Federal Labor’s perspective, we’ve been listening to industry here this morning about what is needed. I’ll hand over to Milton Dick, who’s heading up the Taskforce in a second to give some feedback, but it’s great to be here also with the Labor NT Senator Malandirri McCarthy, and I’ll throw to her in a minute. Some observations, and obviously we can answer some other questions on other issues afterwards, this is a really important Taskforce, because we’re looking at hospitality and tourism, agriculture and primary resources, and then later on the community sector. What we need to get the economy going again, but also how people are going and also what we need to, as a Federal Labor team, set ourselves up to be the Federal Government, and respond to what society needs here in the Territory. So, a range of roundtables today to discuss those issues, and I’ll now hand to Malarndirri.
MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, SENATOR FOR THE NORTHERN TERRITORY: Thanks, Luke. Good morning, everyone, and I’d like to acknowledge the Larrakia people, one whose land we’ve come together, and say thank you to Milton for being able to join us here in the Northern Territory. Well, look at our weather here, almost Dry Season – tomorrow morning. And we’ve seen Mindil Beach Markets open, we’ve seen hundreds of people flock to the streets of Mitchell Street and backpackers coming in, and there’s a great vibe here in Darwin. We are and have been a safe place. We want to continue to stay that way, and it’s really important that with the pandemic recovery, we must see the vaccination roll out across the Northern Territory, but also to those who are visiting the Northern Territory so that we remain a safe place. It was critical to listen to businesses this morning and there’ll more who are speaking to Labor today, that in the pandemic recovery, one of our greatest assets has been our safety, and I urge all visitors to the Northern Territory to keep that in mind that we want to continue to stay a safe place.

MILTON DICK, CHAIR, PANDEMIC RECOVERY JOBS & INDUSTRY TASKFORCE: Thanks very much, Malarndirri and Luke. I’m Milton Dick, a Member of Parliament from Queensland, but also Chair of Labor’s Pandemic Recovery Jobs Industry Taskforce. Today is the 30th roundtable the Taskforce has heard, and I’m really pleased to be in Darwin, meeting with industry leaders today here at a great destination, and thank you to Penny and the team, and baby Fluffy, or young Fluffy, for being part of today’s announcement. Industry is very clear – they need more support here in the Territory. They’ve done it really tough over the past 12 months. The tourism sector in the NT is a multi-billion dollar industry, and as Luke said, is a major driver for employment and opportunities for Territorians. If we get this right, the Territory can be the choice destination for tourism here in Australia. We’ve got to make sure a couple of issues are addressed, and industry was very clear this morning – a skills shortage is happening here in the Northern Territory, and as Malarndirri pointed out, unless we get the vaccination right for this region and for this part of Northern Australia, the tourism sector could be dangerously at risk. We’ve got to have confidence when it comes to the vaccine rollout, all Australians. We are well behind on where we should be. Couple of other issues were raised today, about the issue of housing and affordable housing for the workforce participation here in the Northern Territory, making sure students at high school now have clear pathways through vocational education and training. But also dedicated tourism packages, to make sure that these wonderful destinations are highlighted to all Australians, so that those issues of accessibility, of transport, the air flights. All of those issues that we heard from the feedback today from industry today will be feeding into our processes to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to support all of our tourism and industry here in the Northern Territory. I’m happy to take any questions
REPORTER: You mentioned there’s a skills shortage. How does Labor believe it can get more people from southern states to come and work here in the Dry Season?
DICK: I think making it a destination of choice for workforce participation. We heard about shortages due to the backpacker issues here in the Northern Territory. But also clear vocational education, training packages. TAFE has been decimated under the Coalition Government in Canberra. We’ve got to make sure that those training packages are put into place. We’ve seen skills drop here in the Northern Territory and right across Australia. Tens of thousands of places have been dropped. We need to be making sure that we have a Federal Government that is focussed on young people getting into the tourism and hospitality sector, making sure that it’s not just a 2 or 3 year prospect, but a lifetime in this industry. This is the lifeblood of the community here in the Northern Territory, and Federal Labor wants to make sure it stays that way.
REPORTER: Would Labor be willing to look at workers’ restrictions in terms of visas and the like? Some workers of the tourism and hospitality sectors have told us before that the maximum of 20 hours that a backpacker can work, if they could increase that, it would actually help fill some of those gaps.
DICK: Well, we had plenty of feedback from today – that is having a major impact from backpackers. Hostels, we heard from accommodation, right up to the high-end accommodation that that is a key issue, and we’ll be feeding that into part of our Taskforce. But also the issue of some retirees, and we’ll be making sure that older Australians who want to get into the workforce are able to do that. That was feedback from today. But all those issues should be on the table so that we’re encouraging as many, first of all Australians, to be working, but also some of the cultural aspects and getting First Nations people into the Territory tourism sector, as well. I might ask Malarndirri to touch on that, because that was a key element of the feedback today.
MCCARTHY: Thanks, Milton. Just to keep going with the employment and probably to your question as well, Thomas, is that we need to see more First Nations people involved in the job industry, especially around tourism. And one of the areas that came up in this discussion was CDP. Just what is happening in that space. How can we see in the remote regions, but also here in Darwin, Alice Springs, Tennant and Kathrine and Nhulunbuy, more employment of First Nations people? The high visitor experience comes with tourists wanting to experience Aboriginal culture. It’s a well-known, documented fact that many people who visit the Northern Territory want to have that experience. So these were the issues that were coming forward to us today, and it’s something that Federal Labor will work with key stakeholders, but in particular First Nations organisations and families, as to how we can work with them to see this improve.
REPORTER: What other support packages do you see for tourism businesses that need to come out. We obviously heard from the Prime Minister yesterday, he said there’s 50,000 people who’ve booked these half price air fares. The Northern Territory Government last week announced the hospitality package of up to $1,500 per person for those that are coming in. What more can we do, because there’s only so much money?
MCCARTHY: What an important question. We’ve seen, obviously with the voucher scheme in the Northern Territory, how incredibly helpful that has been for local businesses by the Northern Territory Government. What we don’t want to see at the Federal level is re-announcements and re-announcements. We’ve seen with Kakadu and $216 million, that was lauded for that area. We still haven’t seen the outcome there. And we know that there are deeper issues of the constant maintenance of places like Kakadu, Uluru, and some of these impressive parks that are our crowns for the Northern Territory. So, we have to make sure, even with the flights, that we are getting people in. The fact that there are flights, no longer flights to Uluru from Darwin and Alice Springs has had a significant impact, in particular to the Alice Springs market. So, we have to be mindful that the Federal Government hasn’t got it right yet. And we’ll be pushing, as Federal Labor, to ensure that, in particular with flights, we see more of that availability for people coming to the Northern Territory.
REPORTER: There’s a huge amount of money that’s been put aside by the Federal Government for Kakadu. Very little of it, as I understand, has been spent. Have operators talked to you about their frustration with the Federal Government regarding that package?
MCCARTHY: Thomas, I was in Jabiru just last week, and speaking to many operators, many organisations there. There is still a major concern around the future of Jabiru. Residents there want to see it continue and grow from strength to strength with the closure of the mine coming. And the tourism capacity in Kakadu is crippled in that changeover. So, it is very slow in terms of any money hitting the ground by the Federal Government. It makes a lot of promises, but people are just not seeing it where it’s needed.
REPORTER: What’s Federal Labor doing to ensure that parts of Kakadu that were closed recently due to those issues with Traditional Owners are going to reopen any time soon?
MCCARTHY: Obviously, we’re having briefings with those organisations, tour operators. I’m still going to seek a briefing with Parks Australia. There are particular issues of concern in terms of management around Kakadu. But on a cultural level, we have had significant deaths. Last week, we saw the passing of Mr Kristofferson. We’ve certainly seen 2 other significant deaths in terms of Elders there. So there’s a cultural component in terms of sorry business, and we have to respect the mourning process that’s going on.
REPORTER: A Chinese official, his name escapes me now, he mentioned yesterday that after the pandemic, due to the current tensions between China and Australia, the number of Chinese visitors and international students may not reach pre-pandemic levels. Does that threaten the NT’s tourism recovery post-pandemic?
MCCARTHY: Well, any talk of less visitors to the Northern Territory naturally does threaten what our future can be. But I am absolutely hopeful, I’ve worked with the tourism industry here over many years, and I know that we have an incredible optimism and we rise above all of these challenges. We’ve been able to do it with COVID and the pandemic. We’ve taken in thousands of Australians from overseas and other visitors throughout this pandemic. So, the Northern Territory’s punched well above its weight. I am absolutely confident that we are going to do better and keep doing better in terms of getting visitors here to the Northern Territory.
REPORTER: Given the worker shortage here and how many visitors you’re expecting in the dry season, are you concerned that those visitors are going to come to the NT for the first time and be really disappointed because they’re unable to do the things they want to do?
MCCARTHY: Look, again, an important question. I mean, I’ve been driving across the Northern Territory. Clear concerns about road houses, our fishing camps, the lack of availability of staff, the backpacker market has been quite important in those remote and regional areas of the Northern Territory. So naturally we want to see that come back, and we have to keep working on it. We have massive challenges here, but I think all those Australians and people who are visiting realise that it’s not as it used to be, and naturally there’s going to be some challenges.
DICK: I might jump in for a second. Can I just add to that that, if we get the skills shortages and the crisis here in the Northern Territory right, tourism will be a lot stronger. And the feedback from industry today has been, there’s not enough cooks, there’s not enough housekeepers, there’s stories about not enough bar staff, as well. So we’ve got a skills shortage here in the Northern Territory. You only need to walk around the street to see that numbers are on the up. The industry here has done a fantastic job over such a difficult time, and I want to pay tribute to all of the tourism operators that have had to adapt really quickly to deal with border closures, to deal with international shortages, all of those things. There’s been a 62% drop in that market, but the numbers are starting to increase. We want it to be a very successful Dry Season, and I know the feedback we’ve got today, we’ll be putting as much pressure on the Federal Government as possible, to make sure when the Federal Budget comes down in a matter of weeks, there are strong, sustainable packages for all of the sectors up here.
REPORTER: Just back to what Malarndirri’s said in terms of roadhouses, fishing huts and the like, how much is on the Northern Territory Government, though, in terms of making it an enticing place for people to come up here and boost that population, to make sure that those worker shortages and filled, rather than just on the Federal Government?
DICK: Well obviously, it’s a partnership. We’ll be supporting the Northern Territory Government, and they’re in announcements and their initiatives. But ultimately, the skills crisis and the skills shortage, it’s not just the Northern Territory. It’s right across Australia. I’ve heard feedback from the far New South Wales Coast to the Blue Mountains to Cairns and the Gold Coast – everyone is telling the same story. They need a Federal Government that is going to invest in skills, to make sure that Aussie kids and Aussie people who are looking for jobs have those job opportunities. We’ve got a rising issue of underemployment, people needing more hours. We get these skills packages right, businesses will continue to grow and thrive in the Northern Territory, and more importantly, we’ll continue to see that jobs growth that we so desperately need in Australia.
GOSLING: I just wanted to pick up on the question before – Chinese international students are absolutely welcome here in the Territory. And we’ve also got exciting news with South American international students being keen to come to Darwin, to not only study, but to work in the hospitality industry here for however many hours they can, and it’s going to be a big bonus. Where we’ve got a bottleneck and where the Federal Government needs to step up is in terms of getting stranded Australians home. The Federal Government has totally dropped the ball on that, because they were told to set up more quarantine facilities like Howard Springs. But what we’ve been saying for 6 months is that we’ve got a facility, Brayton Village, where we’re able to take a thousand people or more, so we can do both, we can get stranded Australians home and we can get workforce for industry, if the Federal Government steps up and does what it’s supposed to be doing in getting stranded Australians back home, and helping industry get through what has been a tough period in terms of workforce. We want to make sure that Australia, and the Northern Territory in particular, remains safe. We need to quarantine people when they come back in. Here in Darwin, we’ve got the ability to quarantine more people using the Brayton Point facility, so we want to see the Prime Minister assist the private sector and the NT Government to set up that secondary facility. Having more international students here in Darwin’s a great thing, but we need more capacity because there are more stranded Australians that are still overseas that deserve to come home. So, the Federal Government needs to lift its act there. We’ve heard from industry today that we’re ready to go, we’re going to have a big Dry Season, but these workforce shortages are really problematic. So, we need the Federal Government to assist the NT Government wherever it can in terms of funding skills shortages. TAFE has been badly neglected, that will see us have the workforce of the future, both Australian kids and backpackers, to enable the best possible tourism experience here in the Top End. And it’s great that we touched on Kakadu. Kakadu National Park, the Prime Minister made big announcements about funding – it’s a jewel in the crown up here in the Territory, but it’s been badly neglected and that announcement hasn’t translated to actual work on the ground in Kakadu to renew those facilities. So, we need less of announcements that go nowhere from the Prime Minister and from the Federal Government.
REPORTER: The NT Government has taken control of the Howard Springs facility. This morning, they acknowledged that they’ve only found 160 of the 400 staff they need to fully take over that facility. Are you concerned about the Government taking that facility on, especially in light of the fact that, as you said, the Federal Government should be doing more to help the NT Government?
GOSLING: The Federal Government should be doing more to help the NT Government to set up Howard Springs to run at its maximum capacity, but also, as Jane Halton said in her report, set up a secondary facility. He was told that over 6 months ago, and he has failed to set up more quarantine capacity to bring back stranded Australians and to start getting international students back into the country. Both these industries, both the hospitality and tourism industry and the international education industry, are massive. And if we are going to reap the benefit of having the safest place in the world to be, then we’re going to have to facilitate more people coming into the country safely. So, we want the Prime Minister not to fly in, have a beer and the Cav and talk about future Defence spending that was already 2 years old since it was first announced. We need the Prime Minister to be helping the NT Government incentivise workforce so that we can get at least these 2 quarantine facilities operating at maximum levels, so we can get more people quarantined, more stranded Australians back home, more international students in, wherever they might come from. That’s the way the Territory is going to rebound in its economy, and that’s a really important part we’re playing in in the Australian comeback from COVID.
REPORTER: Just back on business, what does the Federal Government need to do to address that skills shortage immediately in the short-term?
DICK: I think really investing in the National Government investing in TAFE, ensuring that we’ve got the opportunities. All of that training and the opportunities that have been decimated over the last 8 years. I know that there’s been thousands and thousands of skills places lost. We haven’t just stayed where we are and met the demand, we’ve fallen behind. And that’s the reason that businesses in the Northern Territory are crying out with their shortages. If we don’t have the staffing requirements met here, when we know that the Northern Territory is one of the jewels in the crown of tourism in this country. Tourism has changed in this country – we are now domestically focussed. We’re seeing new people arriving into Darwin and the surrounding tourism destinations for the very first time. And the feedback from industry today was clear – they want every person, whether they’re arriving by plane, rail or sea, to have the best possible destination choice when they arrive here. We want this to be the destination of choice. We want every Australian, whether it be the backpacker experience, through to family experience, coming to this fantastic facility, or high end tourism, whether it be through eco-tourism or cultural tourism, to have the best possible experience. They’re simply not going to get that chance if the skills and the labour shortages continue. Today was a plea to the Federal Government – make sure you’re investing. The Budget, coming down in May is the perfect opportunity to see a revamped skills and training package delivered by the Commonwealth, to make sure the Northern Territory gets its fair share, but also that the tourism operators continue to grow and thrive.
REPORTER: Aside from TAFE investment, is there anything else that needs to be done immediately?
DICK: I think ensuring that businesses have very clear pathways to, we heard stories today who want to employ people, but are not quite sure of the pathways. Opening up the VET packages, ensuring that universities are part of that, as well, making sure that they’re properly funded. But making sure that businesses have very clear pathways in terms of employing people. And as Malarndirri said, in terms of First Nations people being part of that package, as well. So, it’s a multi-faceted approach, but the Federal Government has abdicated its responsibilities, and that was the clear evidence today. They just want a national Government that’s going to coordinate this, and be helpful for businesses to employ people.
REPORTER: There was an attack a few days ago. Do you think that management there in terms of croc management needs to change?
MCCARTHY: Look, firstly can I just say, our hearts go out to people who are in a situation where this recent incident of a croc attack and a croc scare. We know we live in crocodile country, and we know that wherever you’re travelling, fishing, crossing rivers, to be mindful that this is crocodile country. So, I think it’s always incumbent on, not only croc management per se, but on every community and every Territorian to keep reminding one another and our visitors to travel safe.
REPORTER: Is there enough safety messaging being done?
MCCARTHY: Look, NT Parks certainly puts that out. We’ve seen the ads of crocodile awareness, that you are in croc country. Naturally, I think they have been quite significant. They’ve certainly resonated with children in particular. In some of our communities, kids swim in places that they shouldn’t, so those ads have come out about croc awareness have helped significantly to raise awareness.
REPORTER: What about restrictions on boat sizes. Do you think that should be looked at?
MCCARTHY: In terms of - ?
REPORTER: So, should you be limiting boat sizes in that area. Small boats, they’re more likely to have an encounter.
MCCARTHY: That’s an interesting question. I know when I go fishing, I like to make sure I’m in a pretty big boat, but nothing’s ever guaranteed. There’s always an awareness that you’re around crocodiles wherever you are, and I just think this was a really unfortunate situation. I’m sure that the amateur fishermen and commercial fishers would have something to say on the issue, given the work that they do. But I would say personally, as someone who is a keen fisherwoman in the Northern Territory, just be sensible and be careful.
REPORTER: And we have tourism businesses that feed crocs and encourage them to jump out of the water. We know that crocs learn those behaviours and move to other areas. Should that sort of business continue to operate?
MCCARTHY: Look, those businesses have been around for quite some time. I guess it’s a personal choice of people whether they want to go out there. I personally, even here, holding a croc, it’s not something I want to do. It’s an individual choice. We have to be aware as a society that if you’re going to go to these locations, be aware that it is possibly extra dangerous.
DICK: We might just invite our host, Penny, to say a few works about the roundtable, given we’re at her fantastic facility here today.
REPORTER: So, what did you see were the benefits of the roundtable today?
PENNY ECKEL, CROCOSAURUS COVE GENERAL MANAGER: Today was a great opportunity to have some of my industry colleagues join me in getting some really key messages across to the Federal Government and have their ear. So that we could share our challenges, share our suggestions and share what we need, as well. As it’s been pointed to, we’ve been looking for skills shortages, we are hopeful of a very successful Dry Season, and it’s really important that we in the industry work together to get this clear message across about what we need and how we can achieve our goals here in the Territory of being and incredible tourist destination.
REPORTER: And how important we get that momentum in terms of the start of the Dry Season and continue that on and perhaps capturing some of those tourists to come and fill some of those empty gaps?
ECKEL: It’s absolutely imperative that we are able to offer the best experience we can while we have a very busy Dry Season. We really have an opportunity to put Darwin on the map of being somewhere to come and visit. We know that we’re a great destination and we know that we’ve got some fantastic and unique experiences that we can share with people from other destinations in Australia. We’ve got a unique offering, and it is really important that we get it right. And I believe that we’ve got the passion, we’ve got the drive to do this.