By Colin MacGillivray
FEDERAL Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan met with industry and community leaders in Seymour on Friday in an effort to support businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organised by business advocacy group Go Seymour, Mr Tehan met with representatives from the winemaking, hospitality and accommodation and horse racing industries, as well as local military history groups.
All groups reported challenges associated with the pandemic, and made a case for government support as they attempt to rebound.
Sam Plunkett, owner of winery Wine by Sam, said it was not only staff shortages due to the pandemic, but Australia’s international reputation on climate change action that were harming the wine industry.
“We crushed 1100 tons last year and we’re looking to back that off to 900 tons. That’s partly because we’re having trouble getting staff,” he said.
“There is also the perception that Australia is a laggard on climate change and continuing to promote fossil fuel while being slow to hit carbon-reduction emission targets.
“We’re increasingly seeing consumer buying behaviour that is informed by sustainability credentials, and it doesn’t matter that we’ve got a 100 kilowatt solar system on the roof … there’s a global perception that’s damaging and I think really has potential to knock us.”
Mr Plunkett said trade tariffs imposed by China had also crippled the industry.
“There’s a risk of structural change to the wine industry off the back of China disappearing as a market,” he said.
“China is being a bully, and to some extent you have to stand up to a bully, but the wine industry has been caught in the crossfire, and more than $1 billion worth of trade has been stripped back to pretty much zero.
“It will take time to find new markets. There will be fruit left on the vine and we’ve got a risk of vineyards being abandoned.
“We need the time to find new markets. We need assistance in the medium term while we try to find markets to replace China.”
Fine dining and accommodation provider Trawool Estate’s general manager David Burrows said staff shortages had also plagued the business, making it hard to remain profitable since opening in 2019.
“The biggest thing for me is dealing with the mental challenges of not having enough staff,” he said.
“At the moment I manage the business, I bartend, I work on the floor and then I’m the night manager – I’m security, I take the phone to bed and stay at the hotel.
“That’s not sustainable and I’ve been trying for three months to fill this role.”
Go Seymour’s Bronwyn Dunwoodie described Trawool Estate as ‘world class’ and said it had the potential to attract international clients, who could disembark at Melbourne airport and be ferried to the estate within an hour.
Ms Dunwoodie said COVID had also provided opportunities for the Seymour region despite its many hardships.
“COVID in its funny way has done wonders for regional Victoria. Most people who could not go anywhere else came to regional Victoria,” she said.
“Now we’re finding people who came during the first lockdown and realised there were things they hadn’t seen, so they’re coming back and they’re bringing their families and doing winery tours or going cycling or going to Trawool.
“There’s been a discovery and increased awareness of what is on people’s doorstep.”
Ms Dunwoodie also emphasised Seymour’s ‘unique military history’.
Seymour historian, RSL member and Vietnam veteran John Phoenix said many people were unaware of the wealth of military history on offer in Seymour, including more than 20 war memorials and historic sites.
“A lot of people don’t realise the military heritage Seymour has to offer the world, not just Australia,” he said.
Mr Phoenix said groups had collaborated with Mitchell Shire Council on a book detailing the history of military sites in Seymour, and could use it to attract tourism from around the world.
“The idea of the book is to create a military trail that will take visitors in a logical pattern from one site to the next,” he said.
“The military trail in this town is one of the biggest tourist attractions this town has got. It is totally untapped and it needs to be looked at in a big way.
“It is critical for this town because we can attract people from all over the world – not just Seymour, not just Australia. There is something like 10 American bases that were around Seymour during World War Two.”
Mr Tehan, in Seymour with Liberal candidate for Nicholls Steve Brooks, said he understood the concerns facing the region.
He said a Federal Government plan to waive visa fees for backpackers and international students would help bring workers to regional areas.
“We are waiving the visa fee for all backpackers and all international students for the next 12 weeks so that we can get what we hope is a huge influx of backpackers and international students into the country to help deal with some of the workforce shortages we’ve got at the moment,” he said.
“For international students, there will be no limitations on the hours they can work. It used to be 40 hours a fortnight, now they can just work as much as they want to work and backpackers can do exactly the same thing.”
Mr Tehan said strained political relations with China had made it an unfortunate necessity for exporters like Mr Plunkett to find new markets.
“When I became Australia’s trade minister a little over a year ago, I wrote to my Chinese counterpart and talked about the ways we could sit down and work through the issues that we’ve got,” he said.
“The UK [free trade agreement] is so important.
“We’ve seen a 30 per cent increase in wine sales to the UK and we haven’t even brought the FTA into force yet. There’s huge potential there, as well as in the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea.
“We have to work with the Australian wine industry to make sure we help support them because the next two years is going to be very difficult.”
Mr Tehan said he would also explore grant opportunities to support local military history initiatives, as well as funding initiatives for the racing and healthcare industries.