It is make or break time for regional Queensland communities.
- More than 30,000 across regional Queensland applied for JobKeeper support in its final round
- The end of the wage subsidy has coincided with a Brisbane lockdown, sending shockwaves through tourism-reliant areas
- Other regions say they are battling to find staff, and hope the end of JobKeeper can help them recruit
They took the medicine needed to save lives; social distancing, border closures, and an end to international travel — but it came at a cost.
Restaurants and bars suddenly became takeaway only and struggled to stay afloat as bills mounted and incomes dried up.
Weddings, festivals and tours stopped overnight, and at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, only essential businesses could open their doors to the public.
The federal government JobKeeper wage subsidy was the life support many businesses needed to survive.
Eligible employers, sole traders and other entities applied to receive $1,500 per eligible employee per fortnight.
But on Sunday, this lifeline was unplugged.
And now, with cases of COVID-19 mounting across South East Queensland, businesses could be staring down the barrel of tight restrictions again, but this time without any government assistance.
So what happens now?
Queensland COVID-19 snapshot:
Townsville’s City Oasis Inn owner Brendan Carter said the ending of JobKeeper in the same week as the Brisbane lockdown reflected his worst fears.
He said his business might have survived the end of JobKeeper alone, but further restrictions on trade during a period of recovery would create additional financial pressure.
[PIC – Townsville aerial]
“My greatest fear was that if we are void of any assistance, and then any of the governments put us in a situation where trade is restricted, we’ve got some real issues in front of us,” he said.
“And that’s exactly what’s happened with the government’s announcement that they’re shutting down Brisbane and putting uncertainty in the community regarding what’s going to happen in the future.
Mr Carter said while he was grateful for JobKeeper helping many Townsville businesses survive over the last year, he felt some form of state or federal government assistance should have remained until the nation’s COVID-19 situation was less prevalent.
“But looking at it now … we need something to replace it, and maybe it’s the state government’s time to step up,” he said.
“They’re the ones calling the shots in disrupting the economy, which I understand in the circumstances, but at the same time, acknowledge that it’s their rules and requirements that are stifling business.
“They’ve got to come up with some more solid help.”
Mr Carter said if trade continued to be delivered blows, he would consider laying off staff permanently, but said it would be a “last resort”.
“That’s the last thing we want to do, but it’s very worrying,” he said.
Far North Queensland
In Cairns, which has more than 150,000 people, more than a third of the workforce is reliant on the JobKeeper scheme.
He said he received a letter from his employer advising redundancies would be handed out, followed by a redundancy letter days later.
“It’s been an emotional sort of time. I’m very afraid actually because you don’t know what the future is going to hold for you,” Mr McCormack said.
For Zona and Bruce Belcher, who run river cruises along the Daintree River, their 34-year-old business is hanging by a thread, entirely dependent on the upcoming season and how many domestic travellers visit the region.
“We’re off to a pretty bad start with Brisbane in lockdown,” Ms Belcher said.
“We’re hoping we will just slowly move into our tourist season and have a lot of support from our Aussies.
“If we don’t, it will be very detrimental to our business — that domestic market has to be strong.”
Ms Belcher said their business was reliant on tourism from overseas visitors.
“Until they [international tourists] arrive back, we will always be about 50 to 60 per cent down.”
Chantelle Smith is the general manager of the Longreach RSL.
When COVID-19 first restrictions hit, she said there was a feeling of fear among staff.
“Then JobKeeper came in and saved the three of us that were full-time.
“We only had JobKeeper for a couple of months because we got up on our feet pretty fast and didn’t need the second part.”
Ms Smith said despite JobKeeper’s assistance, some team members still lost their jobs.
“We lost four or five girls,” she said.
“So we have a smaller staff base now and focus on those girls and setting them up.”
Ms Smith said the fear in town had lessened, and most people had plans in place to move forward without JobKeeper.
“Everyone has eased, and everyone feels a lot better about things now,” she said.
Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce chief executive Todd Rohl said the industries most affected by JobKeeper ending were typical across the country — hospitality, events and weddings.
He said it was too early to know the exact impacts of the payment ceasing. However, the chamber had not had “any alarming phone calls about the direct impacts or leaving them [businesses] in the lurch”.
“We’ll see that play out in the next eight to 12 weeks,” Mr Rohl said.
The Toowoomba postcode of 4350 still has 823 businesses on the JobKeeper payment in the extension of the second quarter.
This makes it one of the highest in the state, with a peak of 3,262 applications for the payment in June 2020.
Dan Farquhar has owned and operated The Finch cafe in Toowoomba for the past five years, and he also used JobKeeper for the first quarter until midway through last year.
Read our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic
“It was great. It was there when we needed it,” he said. “Then trade bounced back when we were allowed to have people dining in again — we were lucky in that respect. “Anecdotally, 85 per cent of the business owners I know aren’t on JobKeeper anymore and came off it after the first round. “But those people in wedding and events, tourism, the travel agents would be feeling it very acutely now.” Mr Farquhar said, for those in his industry, that situations like Brisbane’s sudden three-day lockdown were a bigger threat to business than JobKeeper ending.
“It was great. It was there when we needed it,” he said.
“Then trade bounced back when we were allowed to have people dining in again — we were lucky in that respect.
“Anecdotally, 85 per cent of the business owners I know aren’t on JobKeeper anymore and came off it after the first round.
“But those people in wedding and events, tourism, the travel agents would be feeling it very acutely now.”
Mr Farquhar said, for those in his industry, that situations like Brisbane’s sudden three-day lockdown were a bigger threat to business than JobKeeper ending.
“We are approaching one of the busier weeks of the year historically,” he said.
“A lot of people come home for Easter, and now there is a big question mark about if that lockdown will extend or will more areas be included.
“It impacts me on how much I order and how large orders are — [I] don’t want to get stuck with perishables because then it’s just throwing money down the drain.”
In Bundaberg, business owner Brodie Hansen said work had picked up in his industry so much that, while he could have applied for the JobSeeker payment, he did not see the need to.
Mr Hansen has operated Hansen Home and Yard Maintenance for six years and put on two more full-time staff members during the pandemic.
“It’s still been very busy now. I think we have knocked back 80 jobs the past week [that] we just can’t fit in,” he said.
“We would go through the job agency and get given resumes, but when we gave them a call — they would say, ‘Not interested’.
“Like nine times out of 10, they would say, ‘No thanks’ because they could earn that much sitting at home. Eventually, I found two full-timers sick of being out of work.”
Pacific Whale foundation Australia director Andrew Ellis said the business received JobKeeper until the end of the June quarter but did not qualify after that.
“It was incredibly important at that time,” he said.
“We had no customers … nothing really was happening. And we wanted to keep our salaried staff.”
Mr Ellis said in an ordinary year, 42 per cent of customers were international tourists, which were completely lost last year.
“And out of the domestic tourists … probably half from Queensland and the other half from New South Wales and Victoria,” he said.
Mr Ellis said the inability to lease their vessel out had also hit hard.
“We normally send it away to Victoria, and we were not able to do that because of COVID. So we’ve taken a big hit financially because of that.”
Mr Ellis said it was difficult in the current climate to plan ahead with spontaneous events like the Brisbane lockdown.
“It’s tough. It’s very hard to ride the highs and the lows,” he said.
“Just when you think things are getting a little better, and you anticipate better times ahead … and you start to make plans for those.”
Mr Ellis said if JobKeeper had been extended, he still would not qualify unless the quarter loss it was based on was from January.
“It’s all very nice to say that we need government assistance … but you also have to be able to stand on your own,” he said.
“You can’t rely on handouts or grants from governments or other organisations.
The Gold Coast Central Chamber of Commerce is pushing for a localised voucher system, which would see residents given cash incentives to spend money on events, attractions and in the hospitality market.
President Martin Hall said the system had worked well in the state’s far north and could be a lifeline for the Gold Coast now JobKeeper had come to an end.
“This day was always going to come, and we knew it was coming, and to a certain extent, it has to happen,” Mr Hall said.
“We haven’t known for a long time how deep the water is that we’re treading … in.
“So look it’s going to be a lot of pain for a lot of businesses, but at the same time, lots of businesses have taken these times to innovate and change the way they do business.”
Three Gold Coast postcodes alone account for more than 3,300 or about 10 per cent of all regional Queensland’s JobKeeper applications made during its final extension.
Mr Hall said all levels of government needed to come together to incentivise people booking experiences within the region.
“We really need to lean on the government’s now to … put money in the tills, for that trickle-down,” Mr Hall said.
“We need that real injection of hope and guarantee like vouchers that were sent to people going to Cairns. Wouldn’t it be great to have that down here on the Coast?”
He said 60 per cent of tourism business surveyed were not overly confident about the future.
“We’ve got to get people here putting money in our tills so those businesses can keep people employed and also sponsoring local footy teams,” Mr Hall said.
Sunshine Coast fisher Gary Love wasn’t sure how he’d manage during the beginning of the pandemic, having just purchased a new prawn trawler.
“So we actually started selling a lot of stuff from home. There is advertising on radio and, social media, just to keep our head above water.”
The most recent JobKeeper figures show 3,804 businesses applied for JobKeeper across eight postcode regions on the Sunshine Coast, including the towns of Noosa, Buderim, Coolum, Maroochydore and some hinterland areas, among the highest in the state.
Mr Love said government payments like JobKeeper were initially “handy” in helping retain deckhands for one of the Coast’s biggest industries.
“That sort of helped us keep the crew because you haven’t got the crew employed,” he said.
But business partner David Austin said it wasn’t long before getting people to work proved difficult.
“JobKeeper certainly hit hard with deckhands that we put on,” Mr Austin said.
“So when the government funding was still there, it was very hard to get crew.”
Mr Austin said the crew had now started returning to work as the JobKeeper scheme came to an end, but the industry was still struggling to attract new workers.
“That’s changed a little bit there now the traditional deck handers are all back in the industry again, but it was certainly difficult with labour for a while,” he said.
“That’s going to be our major hurdles in the future — getting skippers and crew.
The coronavirus itself never came to Moranbah — a bustling hub in Queensland’s central-west shire of Isaac and one of Australia’s major economic engine rooms.
But the town and its neighbours that dot the 58,000 square kilometre council boundary felt the pain of COVID through social distancing restrictions that shut down the town’s workers’ club, which doubles as a community hub and culture centre.
It’s also a major source of charitable donations across the region, pouring $650,000 into community groups including football sides, gymnastics, the RSL, Scouts and the Country Women’s Association.
The town’s population sits about 31,000, but more than 10,000 of those work at the mines and stay in purpose-built camps.
The latest JobKeeper statistics show the major towns in the Isaac region had less than 50 people on the wage subsidy when it ended.
Its coastal neighbours Mackay had more than 400, while Rockhampton had closer to 350.
The Mackay Region Chamber of Commerce said it was not expecting a major impact for most businesses.
It’s a similar feeling at the Capricornia Chamber of Commerce in Rockhampton, but the town is now grappling with a staff shortage.
“[We are looking for] different ways we can build up because there’s certainly no light at the end of the tunnel at this point in terms of recruiting staff,” Ms Smith said.
“There’s plenty of work. We just want to see people come in.”
But Isaac, Mackay and Capricornia are shielded by work and money still generated by the mining industry and their enormous regional agricultural sectors.
Moranbah Workers’ Club general manager Ashley Dowd believes 95 per cent of his 65 staff would have been gone if it wasn’t for the JobKeeper payments kicking in last year.
“You’d never be able to get them back,” he said.
“I don’t know how long it would’ve taken us to get back on our feet.”
A year later and with the restrictions gone, the business is recovering from a 65 per cent drop in revenue.
Mayor Anne Baker said being so close to the giant mines helped ensure the town’s survival.
But it also took a lot of work from the town’s council.
“We’ve had to work just as hard as everyone else to maintain and inject some diversity and different thinking,” she said.
“Now we are at the beginning of not so much responding to the pandemic, but the beginning of recovery.
“It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not over.”
— Additional reporting by Amy Sheehan and Jacqui Street.