By Ellen Hill Photographs by David Hill
More than a dozen ``Mum and Dad’’ family-owned and independent bus company owners drove their call for a Federal Government industry rescue package to Canberra yesterday [Monday, October 26].
Business owners met with Shadow Tourism Minister Senator Don Farrell and Labor MPs Susan Templeman (Macquarie) and Mike Freelander (Macarthur) to outline their needs.
They also spoke with Shadow Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Minister Senator Catherine King in a phone conference.
Opposition Leader in the Senate Penny Wong and Deputy Leader Kristina Keneally agreed to meet in the future.
The convoy of 15 buses circled the lawn in front of the Parliament building in a display of solidarity.
The visit to the national capital follows a rally around NSW Parliament in Sydney on September 16.
Owner of Paramount Tours in Bankstown NSW, Laura Di Leva, said: ``Every kilometre travelled costs a business owner about $3.50, so coming to Canberra was a huge sacrifice that cost each operator hundreds of dollars (thousands in some cases).’’
She thanked politicians for meeting with five Australian Family Owned Bus Companies group representatives.
Owner of Near of Far Bus & Coach in the Blue Mountains, Rod Williams, especially thanked Ms Templeman, who arranged the meetings with her Parliamentary colleagues and raised the issue in a Private Member Statement in Parliament on Monday.
The nationwide family-owned and independent bus industry faced extinction without a Federal Government rescue package because of COVID-19 impact, Mrs Di Leva said.
``Our members are `Mum and Dad’ operators who, before COVID, invested heavily in their businesses so they could continue to provide their communities with the quality service they expect and deserve.
``But, through no fault of their own, they now desperately need help to survive.
``It is no exaggeration to say that our industry is on the brink of extinction.’’
Small bus company owners needed an immediate cash injection followed by ongoing assistance such as a further stay in loan repayments, on-road cost subsidies and a share in government transport work.
Company owners felt hopeless and helpless with no end to the pandemic in sight, Mrs Di Leva said.
``They have no work and don’t see anything changing.''
The ongoing closure of international borders had wiped out bus tours to tourist sites around the nation, slashing operator income to zero.
Many who relied on the inbound tourism market had heavily invested in vehicles to serve the previous demand.
Now the hiatus to vehicle repayments had expired and banks and other lenders demanded payment.
Many could not pay and must consider refinancing their homes or using the equity in them to meet repayments. Some risked losing everything.
``One operator told me he has to fork out over $5000 per month in repayments starting October,’’ she said.
``He doesn’t have that money unless he sells his house. He’s 75 and was looking into retiring before the pandemic broke out.
``He can’t even sell his vehicles as no one has the money to buy them, and if he sells at auction he will get only half of their value.’’
Domestic border closures had also heavily impacted the long distance charter market, she said.
With no indication on when they would reopen, ``we cannot even plan tours for the future’’.
Many operators had been forced to deregistered vehicles they could not afford to register, which also axed their potential to work if circumstances changed.
All small bus company owners faced financial hardship, with some facing bankruptcy.
Ms Di Leva has had zero income for 12 months.
She sold one of her coaches at a heavily reduced rate and is looking at selling another.
While she had secured a repayment deferral extension until February 2021, the consequence was an extra $1500 a month, bringing the monthly total to $7500 for just one vehicle, and an additional eight months to the contract term.
``I don’t see how I can make this repayment if I don’t have a substantial amount of work,’’ she said.
``I will have to draw down on my home loan to cover just the vehicle repayment costs.’’
Also a licensed travel agent, two interstate and two overseas tours were cancelled and Ms Di Leva had to refund all her clients.
In total, she had lost approximately $100,000 in income and forfeited 2 years of work due to the pandemic.
``I will not see that level of income for at least another three years,’’ she said.
``Our industry is not like restaurants or coffee shops that can convert their output to takeaways. We are one of the first industries impacted and the last ones to recover.’’
Director of Craig’s Mini Buses in Castle Hill NSW, Marie Hartley, said that until restrictions on shipping and airport terminals, sporting events, concerts and large private gatherings were lifted, the devastating consequences to small bus companies would not change.
``What do we do to maintain our businesses in the interim?’’
With no representative body and no government help, small bus company owners had nowhere to turn.
``We have to have bus premises to house our vehicles,’’ Ms Hartley said. ``We have a lot of on-road, running and compliance costs which are very expensive.
``We have also had to lay off staff, which will mean a lot of experience and skills have been lost.’’
Operators could not even sell their buses because there was no market for them. Even if they did manage to offload them, their value would be reduced.
Director of Near or Far Bus & Coach in the Blue Mountains NSW, Rod Williams, said while smaller bus companies were grateful for government help such as JobKeeper, many aspects of the industry had been overlooked.
Small bus companies needed help with crippling costs like depot rental payments, vehicle registration, insurances, fuel costs and toll fees to remain viable and provide job security for employees.
They called on state governments to share transport work with all accredited operators rather than just large companies.
Ms Hartley said an extension of JobKeeper past March 2021 was also needed, along with negotiations with creditors and industry specific mental health support.
Mr Williams also worried about the thousands of bus drivers, mechanics, cleaning and other ancillary staff employed by the bus industry.
``We’re not using our vehicles so we don’t need windscreens, tyres or technicians, which means we’re not bringing business to these people,’’ he said.
``It’s life and death now,’’ Mr Williams said. ``I’ve got guys ringing me in tears and threatening suicide, and that impacts my own mental health.’’
As the end of loan repayment holiday periods loom, bus owners who invested in their business before the pandemic, now face foreclosure on their vehicles because they are unable to meet the payments.
Original Tours Queensland, Brisbane, owner Steve Hosie is one.
The small coach and charter company had operated since 1996 offering cruise ship transfers, international study group transport, local and interstate school excursions and general group tours and charters.
Since COVID arrived in Australia, 99 per cent of that work had been cancelled.
After granting him an initial three-month loan deferral with a three months extension, lenders had begun to demand payments with no further offers of assistance despite a Federal Government recommendation of a further six month stay.
With several vehicles loans and a home loan he struggled to pay with almost no income, ``I stand to lose everything I have worked for over the last 24 years through no fault of my own’’, Mr Hosie said.
Meanwhile, communities would also be stripped of affordable transport options when normal travel resumed if a lifeline was not thrown to the small private bus industry now, he said.
Pre-COVID, family-owned and independent operators had filled their buses with everyday Australians and transported them to school camps, swimming carnivals and sporting activities, school holiday outings, weddings, seniors daytrips and other social group events.
Now they were on the brink of collapse.
``You will be left without many of the services you have always relied upon,’’ Mr Hosie said.
He urged people to contact their local politicians to demand support for an industry in dire need, particularly in the lead-up to Christmas.
``Many operators like myself will not be around much longer without some instant cash injections and then some form of ongoing assistance such as low interest government loans with a non-payment term, then a long-term payment plan.’’