Jeremy Rockliff

Premier of Tasmania

18 August 2020

Peter Gutwein, Premier

Ministerial Statement

COVID-19 Response Measures

***Check against delivery***

Madam Speaker,

Today I will be providing Members an update on the Tasmanian Government’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic, our border control plan, an update on our recovery efforts, and the plan to rebuild Tasmania.

Our number one priority through coronavirus has been the health, safety and wellbeing of Tasmanians. On one hand we have to deal with a pandemic and the risk of a health crisis, whilst on the other, we face economic and social challenges, unlike anything we have ever faced.

As a Government, since the beginning of this year we have needed to be agile, proactive and responsive. I would like to thank the senior leadership team in the State Control Centre, our dedicated health professionals, our first responders, my Cabinet colleagues, along with the members of my broader team and the other members of this house for their ongoing support and commitment to Tasmanians’ health, safety and wellbeing.

We took advantage of our island State to protect us from the virus, leading the nation on cruise ship bans, border controls and other measures to protect Tasmanians.

This meant difficult and challenging decisions needed to be made and implemented, with very serious restrictions imposed upon Tasmanians and Tasmanian businesses.

As I said then, if we went hard and went early, we stood a better chance of getting on top of the situation and returning to a better way of life, sooner.

To help Tasmanians during these times, we have also provided significant support.  In fact, the largest support and stimulus package in the country, proportionate to the size of our economy. This is well over $1 billion, equivalent to more than 3 per cent of our GSP and, I am proud that this Government and this Parliament stood by Tasmanians when they needed it the most. It was the right thing to do.

Specific measures have included freezing, waiving or capping Government fees and charges for businesses, including water and electricity bills; payroll tax waivers to those in the hospitality and tourism sectors so they pay no payroll tax for 2019-20; business support grants totalling $80 million; and targeted loans ranging from $15,000 to $250,000.

We also led the nation’s States and Territories by introducing support for temporary visa holders, with up to $3 million available in support, as well as $4.3 million for housing and homelessness, $5 million for community organisations to support vulnerable Tasmanians and $2.7 million for child safety and wellbeing, and family violence. We also provided $4 million for mental health support services and we have allocated $150 million for our Health preparedness and response.

Local Government has been supported as well and we have provided the sector with significant support of up to $200 million in interest free loans helping them to assist their local communities to rebuild and recover.

We continue to implement our Rebuilding Tasmania plan, with a focus on supporting and underpinning $3.1 billion in construction activity to stimulate our economy, help our small businesses and create 15,000 jobs over the next two years, by building our way out of coronavirus.

Tasmania, as a result of these measures, is in a better place.  And while this journey still has some way to go, there is no doubt a quiet and cautious optimism is being felt across our State.

It is important, however, that we continue to look at all results through a COVID-lens, as these are fluid times and we need to remain vigilant as things can change rapidly.

Last Friday, I provided our second Economic and Fiscal Update and Preliminary Outcomes Report for 2019-20.

I am pleased to report that by providing the most generous economic stimulus and social support in the nation, Tasmanians can take some comfort in the fact the economic impact to date has not been as severe as initially estimated.

Whilst we must be cautious due to the impact of JobKeeper and changes to JobSeeker, we have seen jobs growth return and the unemployment rate is much lower than the anticipated more than 12 per cent forecast by June. It is now at 6 per cent – the lowest rate of any State.

The ABS Labour Force data released last week, showed Tasmania has had the highest monthly employment growth in Australia in July, with 7,000 more Tasmanians returning to work, in seasonally adjusted terms. This means there are now 13,400 Tasmanians now back in work since May, following the height of the pandemic’s impact, which saw around 20,000 jobs lost.

Importantly, 7500 of these returning jobs are female and Payroll Jobs data shows that for those aged under 20 years, nearly all jobs have returned. The number of hours worked has also lifted over the last two months.

We are not through this yet and as New Zealand has demonstrated this is a highly infectious disease, but we can take some comfort from where we stand today.

The most recent CommSec report said we had the strongest economy in the country and the Sensis Report released today highlights Tasmanian businesses continue to be the most confident in the nation, and this Government’s policies the most popular, for the 11th quarter in a row.

The Economic and Fiscal update I released last Friday pleasingly also showed better outcomes than had previously had been predicted.

We’ve had a significant improvement in the budget bottom line for the 2019-20 financial year, with a preliminary outcome of a $273 million deficit, instead of the previously forecast deficit of $716 million.

At this stage, we remain Net Debt free, and while Net Debt is forecast to increase this financial year, our position will continue to be the lowest in the country.

However, as pointed out by Treasury in last week’s update, should we find ourselves in the situation Victoria is in now with a second wave, the economic impact would be a loss of at least an additional half a billion dollars in economic activity, due to business closures and job losses.

This demonstrates our strategy to manage coronavirus, in a gradual and careful way to recover and to rebuild Tasmania is working.

Above all, we must remain highly responsive, because while it is easy to feel relatively safe in our island state, a global pandemic continues with serious impacts being experienced by some of our closest neighbours across Bass Strait.

Victoria is still in the grip of the pandemic and the citizens there, including unfortunately many of our friends and family, are in the fight of their lives.

We have been implementing the Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council’s 64 recommendations. Already we have implemented six of the recommendations, we are currently progressing a further 28 recommendations, and the remaining 30 recommendations are being advanced by Government agencies in the context of the upcoming budget.

We know, that among these recommendations was the need to provide Tasmanians more clarity on our border strategy so that they can plan with confidence.

The Government understands we must provide as much certainty as we can in these very uncertain times.

That’s why I am today announcing we will take an approach that protects the health of Tasmanians, our health system, our economy and delivers that certainty.

Based on advice from Public Health, the Department of Health and the State Control Centre, and to allow sufficient time for the COVID-19 situation in Victoria and the threat posed to other states to be clearly controlled, our borders will stay closed, with restrictions remaining in place until at least the 1st of December 2020.

This will enable our community and our businesses to understand and prepare for border relaxations, and to ensure appropriate planning and risk mitigation processes are in place.

It will also give us time to build the community’s trust in our border measures to protect Tasmania from areas in the rest of the country that pose a high risk, while allowing travel to and from areas that pose a very low risk.

We are ready and well prepared to respond to any cases and prevent further spread in the community. At the moment the risk posed to Tasmania by the situation in Victoria is considerable. There are many Tasmanian businesses, which have had to close their doors, who are only just returning to reasonable levels of trade, and many others who are still doing it very tough.

But we must avoid a situation like Victoria or NSW, as we would have to impose serious restrictions once again. We would see shrinking business confidence and the jobs regained, lost once more.

It is important to remember that while the threat remains, we will get further cases in Tasmania and continuing our restrictions will help stop the spread and keep us safe. We also need all Tasmanians to play their part by continuing covid-safe behaviours:

  • Stay at least 1.5 metres away from others;
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Use alcohol-based hand sanitiser when out and about;
  • Stay at home if you are unwell and always cover coughs and sneezes;
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have any cold or flu-like symptoms; and
  • Be aware of, and follow, current gathering, business and travel restrictions.

Managing our borders has taken a significant effort and will need further effort into the future, and I’d like to acknowledge all those involved in what has been, and continues to be, a sensitive and difficult job.

As I’ve said on numerous occasions, there are stringent rules that apply in regard to essential travellers. Businesses must provide confirmation those services or skills for the required work, cannot be sourced in Tasmania and are time critical.

Businesses should only source essential services not available in Tasmania from other states, ahead of Victoria or designated hot spots in other jurisdictions, unless it is for life-saving or industry-critical needs.

Each application is assessed individually, based on the information provided: firstly, by the Biosecurity Tasmania team; then by the State Control team, with the final decision made by the State Controller.

All decisions regarding essential traveller exemptions are made by the State Controller, independent of Government, and we have full confidence in those decisions and the processes in place.  They have helped keep Tasmanians safe.

These procedures were further strengthened when the risk from Victoria increased, and as a result of my announcement today that the border restrictions will remain in place for another three months, it is appropriate that once again we strengthen these arrangements.

The Department of State Growth will now also be involved in the assessment process, along with DPIPWE and the State Control team to provide another layer of review in the assessment process before the State Controller makes the final decision.

To ensure that the public is kept informed we will also make publicly available statistical and regional information regarding essential traveller exemptions granted to enter Tasmania, on a weekly basis, taking into account people’s individual privacy.

In regards to extending our border restrictions for a longer period, we also recognise there is a need to do more to help our tourism and hospitality industry, which, without a doubt, has and will remain the hardest impacted.

Today, I am also announcing a series of support and incentive measures we will implement to help drive intrastate visitation, and to support and encourage Tasmanians to get out and experience their home State – the most unique and special place in the world.

Tasmanians we know, have been very supportive of local businesses, with hotel and accommodation occupancy rates being relatively strong during the recent school holidays and on the weekends especially.

However, midweek overnight occupancy remains weak, and many of our tourism experiences and attractions have significant capacity to share their product with Tasmanians.

We want Tasmanians to experience this wonderful state and support these businesses, so today I am announcing we will be making available from the 1st of September the ‘Make Yourself at Home travel voucher’.

For the months of September, October and November there will be $7.5 million in total at $2.5 million each month made available to support Tasmanians who travel outside of their municipality, to stay midweek in accommodation to enjoy a tourism experience, or visit an attraction on any day of the week.

The support will provide up to $100 towards the cost of a room in commercial accommodation, or up to $50 per booking to participate in a tourism experience whether that be a cruise, a walk or entry to an attraction such as the Port Arthur Historic Site or the Tahune Airwalk.

We also want our local businesses to conduct their meetings or team building workshops away from their base in other parts of the state and they will be able to access this support as well to hold mini conferences and meetings.

This initiative will support at a high level up to 25,000 bed nights or alternatively up to 50,000 tourism experiences each month and boost the already successful Make Yourself at Home campaign.

We will work closely with the industry in coming days to finalise the package and to ensure that the program is targeted appropriately.

I expect that after this consultation occurs that the guidelines and details of the booking system will be outlined before the end of this month for activation in September.

We all understand that our students have had a difficult year with school closures and other restrictions on their lives, however it continues to be how we respond that is important - how we make the best of a difficult situation.

And right now in Tasmania there has never been a better time for our students to enrich their educational experiences.

So that 2020 is memorable for more than just COVID-19, I am today announcing that we will provide an additional $1.5 million of funding for schools to conduct educational enriching experiences to Tasmania’s tourism, parks or heritage sites as part of a day excursion program.

We know that students have had limited opportunities to participate in excursions this year due to coronavirus and this initiative will provide our young learners with the opportunity to access hands on, authentic learning experiences outside the classroom.

Excursions connected to the Australian curriculum play an important part in student learning. The Tasmanian environment is rich and diverse with many exciting cultural, historical and natural attributes waiting to be explored.

The Minister for Education, Jeremy Rockliff, will have more to say on this later this week, and to be clear, this program will not come at a cost to students, parents or carers.

As I have mentioned already in regards to jobs, the seasonally adjusted data tells us that around 20,000 Tasmanians lost employment from March to May. It also informs us that as at July, we have recovered 13,400 of those jobs.

Of course, we approach these numbers with caution, as the impacts of coronavirus are fluid, importantly however, we continue to see jobs returning for Tasmanians, and we know there are some particular areas where we need to have an immediate focus to support industry with upcoming work.

We have conducted a comprehensive assessment of the seasonal agricultural and fruit picking jobs available in coming months, and expect that there will be around 5,000 jobs available for harvest workers in Tasmania for the 2020‑21 season.

This represents around 60 per cent of the peak labour demand required, of an estimated 9 000 workers needed during peak harvest period, which runs from December to March.

With our border restrictions in place, and many Tasmanians still looking for work or for more hours, there is a significant opportunity for Tasmanians to undertake this harvest work this year.

Our fruit must be picked, our vegetables harvested and our wine grapes crushed, if it isn’t it will devastate many businesses, and before we consider essential traveller exemptions for temporary visa holders over the growing period, we need to offer this opportunity to Tasmanians first.

We will therefore commence a campaign for Tasmanians to register their interest in being part of the labour pool for the coming season.

The Government will work in partnership with agricultural employers and industry to give opportunity to local workers who will help to meet immediate labour needs for the coming harvest season.  We will also assist agricultural businesses to adapt and respond to the impacts of COVID-19 for subsequent planting, production and harvest seasons.

At the same time, work is underway to formulate what will need to be very strict rules should we need to import labour due to a shortfall in Tasmanian workers able to do this work.

I encourage anyone who is ready and willing to work, or who wants more hours, or who may be interested in an agricultural change, to register.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Guy Barnett, will provide further detail in coming days regarding this commitment to support our high quality agriculture sector.

Importantly, for Tasmanians it means thousands of jobs will become available and locals will have the best opportunity to learn the skills they need to be part of one of our State’s greatest industries.

Now is the time to produce local, harvest local and buy local.

These strategies, to ensure that Tasmanians are experiencing more, whilst supporting local businesses in Tasmania, and also having more opportunities to participate in Tasmania’s workforce are fundamental to our recovery.

This is why the Government’s Buy Local Policy was strengthened last month, and why we continue to make decisions that give Tasmanian businesses the greatest opportunity to participate and benefit from recovery plans, creating jobs and economic stimulus in every corner of our state.

2020 is the year we never dreamed we would have.

It’s tested our state, and our nation, in ways none of us had previously imagined.

We’ve had to behave differently, we’ve had to stay apart from loved ones at a time when we’ve longed to be close, we’ve all experienced anxiety, and we’ve all had to demonstrate incredible resilience in a time of great uncertainty.

As an island, we’ve often had to fight harder, be a little more courageous and innovative to become the internationally recognised place we are.

To me that has shone through in our response to COVID.

It is our resilience and our ingenuity that has seen many businesses adopt a different way of doing things.

It’s been our pride in what is our own that’s led to strong local support, and our kindness and care for one another, and our State, which has seen people follow some very difficult rules and impositions on our way of life to keep each other safe.

I could not be prouder that in the main Tasmanians have acted with kindness and compassion during these difficult and challenging times.

It is why I know that Tasmania will get through this, and be stronger than ever before.

As difficult as it is, I know that Tasmanians will continue to follow the rules to ensure we protect our people, our health system, our economy and the jobs it supports.

In the same way I have finished so many of my public statements I once again want to remind Tasmanians to remember their physical distancing and good hygiene practices.

Wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, if you’re unwell stay at home and don’t go to work, and if you display even the mildest symptoms, please, get a test.

Let’s all continue to keep looking after one another.

Thank you.