Our state’s home to some of the world’s premier tourist destinations but the empty cafes, half-full pubs, cut-price seafood and For Lease signs along the main drags of Cairns and Townsville tell a troubling story of local economies hit hard by the coronavirus.
Speaking with the tourism, aquaculture, retail and education sectors in those regional hubs, like I have at roundtables in recent weeks, is to appreciate more deeply the impact of the virus in communities right around Queensland.
Discussions like these help you understand the devastation of losing access to the Chinese seafood market during New Year celebrations. Or what happens to your business when there are tens of thousands of hotel room cancellations in Far North Queensland, where around every fourth tourist is from China, and many more are from Japan and Korea. Or the impact of thousands of students missing the start of the first semester at our universities.
There’s a lot of concern and anxiety in our community about the coronavirus outbreak and that’s understandable.
That’s why federal Labor has extended a bipartisan hand when it comes to listening to and acting on the advice of the medical profession, especially the Chief Medical Officers of the Commonwealth and states.
Clearly the outbreak will have a substantial impact on the economy. We don’t yet know how substantial that impact will be, but it’s already damaged global confidence and it’s making stock markets very jumpy. It’s forced the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates once again.
But the businesses I met with in Cairns and Townsville also know that conditions were weak before the fires hit large swathes of Australia and before most of us had even heard of coronavirus.
Before the virus and the fires, economic growth had already deteriorated substantially to be well below what was expected.
The Morrison Government downgraded its own forecasts for growth in December’s mid-year update, and last year the Reserve Bank downgraded their expectations three times and the OECD and IMF wrote us down by more than they have for other advanced economies.
This was all before the fires and before the virus.
A big part of the problem for a long time now has been that wages aren’t keeping up with the costs of childcare, electricity and health care. Record high household debt is making it harder for people to spend in our shops and other businesses as well.
At the same time, business investment has been in decline, and profits, construction and capital investment all fell in the most recent numbers too.
All these longstanding weaknesses in the national economy are also compounding some of the challenges we face in the Budget.
Over the past six years, the LNP Government has delivered six budget deficits and more than doubled net debt, which reached a new record high of $430 billion on Friday.
These are challenging times and they cry out for national leadership and a national plan to complement the good work of local councils and the Palaszczuk state Labor Government.
Monday’s announcement of payroll relief for small and medium Queensland businesses comes hot on the heels of the new tourism campaign announced on Sunday, supported by the Courier Mail.
Councils up and down Queensland are doing their bit too. At the Cairns City Council I heard about their plans for rate relief, their $2 million injection into the regional tourism peak body and their commitment to buying local goods and services to bolster the local economy.
Business is speaking with one voice as well. And we can all do more to support Queensland employers, workers and communities. Our state economy needs us to book a holiday and go out for a meal and support local businesses where we can.
All this will help but still might not be enough. The missing pieces are national economic leadership and a national economic plan.
This opinion piece was original published in the Courier Mail on Thursday, 5 March 2020.