Senior ministers are defending the federal government’s $1.2 billion airline bailout plan amid a barrage of criticism from all corners.
Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said a “team Australia” approach to the package, which offers half-price flights between a host of destinations, would help boost the ailing domestic travel industry.
“If we had … really, a team Australia approach, everyone being positive, I can tell you people will be going across Australia like we have never seen before – and that is wonderful for our tourism sector,” he said on the Gold Coast on Friday.
The $1.2 billion tourism and aviation rescue package will provide an estimated 800,000 subsidised airfares on government-nominated routes. But the subsidised airfares are available on only about 15 select routes, leaving many hard-hit regions reeling.
Ben Shields, the mayor of Dubbo in western NSW, said it was unfair that four Queensland destinations had made the list while Victoria and NSW had just one each.
“There is still time to go back to the drawing board, get your crayons out and work out a better plan for tourism and the aviation industry for Australia,” he said.
Cr Shields said tourists who might have come to Dubbo would head to Victoria or Queensland instead.
“[Queensland] is the very state that pretty much behaved appallingly during the pandemic, same with Victoria – they just locked their whole states down when there was a small outbreak,” he said.
“We did it right and now NSW is effectively being punished for how we handled the coronavirus, which was the best way all along.”
Victoria’s Tourism Minister Martin Pakula said Victoria and NSW were being short-changed, while the scheme encouraged people from those states to travel elsewhere for their holidays.
“This is about the Commonwealth really treating Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide as nothing but cash cows for other parts of the country and that’s just not reasonable,” he said.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed back at the criticism, saying there had been a 75 per cent jump in searches for Australian holidays since the scheme was announced on Thursday.
“Tourism is a very significant part of the local economy, but international tourism is a very significant part of their tourism economy, and that is how we have selected the places,” he said on Friday.
“It is not selected on the basis of which premiers and states have been naughty and nice, that is not what this is about. This is about trying to get targeted support to those Australians on the ground.”
Mr Morrison said the greatest benefit from the scheme would come if state borders remained open.
Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack echoed the comments. Asked at a media briefing if Melbourne if Victoria deserved more from the handout, he said the state had locked its borders “at the drop of a hat” when there were “a couple of community outbreaks”.
“It has come at a big cost – come at a big cost to business, come at a big cost to livelihoods,” he said.
Mr MrCormack said the hardline approach to the pandemic by states such as Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia – all with Labor governments – had been hard on local tourism operators.
“The federal government’s coming to their assistance. Once again we are the white knight on the shining white horse and we are coming to the support and the help of those tourist operators on behalf of those
cafes and hotels and accommodation places and, of course, the airlines and, of course, the airports.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton took aim at local mayors and others “playing politics” with the program.
“The fact is mums and dads love this policy because they want a cheap airfare and they want to go for a holiday, they want to be able to spend money in regional areas,” he told the Nine Network.
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said the package was a massive let down. He described it as merely “half-price tickets to marginal seats”.
“What they have got here is a lemon,” he told Nine.
Adelaide and Darwin were added to the list of destinations late on Thursday, with more places expected to follow.
In Queensland, they already include the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Cairns, and the Whitsundays and Mackay region, including Proserpine and Hamilton Island.
Uluru and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, the Tasmanian towns of Launceston, Devonport and Burnie, Broome in Western Australia, Avalon near Melbourne, Merimbula in NSW and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island are also included.
The destination list covers eight marginal electorates, including four that are Labor-held, three with Coalition MPs and one independent seat.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said it was a predictable approach from the government.
“They always look at one thing and it’s not who needs support the most,” he said.
“It’s not regional economic development and priorities and how we go forward. It is the electoral map.”
Mr Albanese noted Launceston, Devonport and Burnie were included but southern Tasmania missed out.
“I wonder what the distinction is between the two? The two marginal seats are in northern Tasmania,” he said.
Mr Morrison has rejected suggestions the choices were political.
“I’d say it’s absurd, it’s ridiculous,” he said.