He’s one of the Gold Coast’s biggest and most influential champions – Federal Tourism, Trade and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo. Steve recently sat down with another passionate champion of the Coast, Simon Gloftis – of Hellenika and Nineteen at The Star fame – for the latest in a series of Ocean Road ‘square table’ talks at Simon’s acclaimed Greek eatery at Nobby Beach.
At 44, the youthful-looking Steve is already a veteran federal MP, having been elected to the Australian Parliament in 2001. The father-of-two has held the blue-ribbon Coalition seat of Moncrieff ever since. In February 2016, he became the Gold Coast’s first federal cabinet minister in more than 35 years when he was appointed to the Trade and Investment portfolio by Malcolm Turnbull. Five months later, he was also given the coveted Tourism ministry as part of a Cabinet reshuffle. The appointment was seen as a major coup for the Gold Coast, whose lifeblood tourism industry is worth more than $5 billion a year. It also gave the Coast a powerful voice inside the Turnbull ministry, able to lobby for federal funding for vital projects such as the long-awaited M1 upgrade. Mareeba-born Steve is no stranger to the tourism industry – his parents, Bruno and Joan, ran a tourism business in North Queensland. Steve attended boarding school in Brisbane before completing a double degree in law and commerce at Bond University. He did his masters in law at QUT and went on to work for major accounting firms Coopers & Lybrand and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He cut his political teeth as an advisor to Queensland senator Brett Mason before being elected the Member for Moncrieff.
Simon: Where do you think the Gold Coast is right now, tourism-wise?
Steve: As Tourism Minister, I see all the data for the whole country. And what’s really good, if you look at the past three or four years, is we have record numbers of tourists coming into the country, staying for a record length of time, and they’re spending a record amount of money.
Simon: That’s really important, the length of time they’re spending, isn’t it?
Steve: Yes, because that’s tied to expenditure. So what we know is that, on average, our expenditure’s been growing by about 12 to 16 per cent every year. That’s been year-on-year for the past three or four years. And that’s how the whole country looks. The Gold Coast, in terms of international tourists, is doing okay. We’re getting better numbers, but they’re staying for less time. So the opportunity for the Gold Coast is how we actually start to convert that increased visitation. And that means investing in new product, which is why, for example, the casino is investing in the new Darling hotel, your property (Nineteen at The Star) upstairs – all of that is just absolutely gold for giving people more reasons to stay longer. Plus, you’ve got the investment in Top Golf (next to Movie World) by Village Roadshow, you’ve got Dreamworld putting in new attractions, you’ve got a whole bunch of new food and dining options. All this encourages people to stay longer, which is good for spend.
Simon: So when you’re overseas on trips, is it mainly tourism or trade you’re talking about?
Steve: It’s both. This week, for example, I’m off to China. It’s an opportunity to spruik what’s happening on the trade side, but also the tourism side. China’s having this massive import expo in November – it’s all part of President Xi Jinping’s vision about opening up China to the world. It’s all about driving inflows in China, and we’re going to take some Australian businesses up there in November to tap into that massive market. Simon, you’re an exporter – you’re a services exporter. You probably don’t think about it like that, but you are. Every time a tourist comes into one of your restaurants and drops some money, that’s an export. A service export.
Simon: Have you found that when you travel, about half your day’s spent talking about where you’re going to eat?
Steve: Unfortunately, it’s all planned beforehand. Virtually every dinner and every lunch is a function. I tend to eat more than the average person’s amount of function food – my fair share, plus about 150 other people’s [laughs].
Simon: Do you think hospitality on the Gold Coast is helping tourism?
Steve: Definitely. I mean, you go back to 15 years ago and the Coast had a very different reputation food and beverage-wise. We’ve really seen a maturing of the city. You’ve got places like here, Hellenika, Nineteen, Etsu [at Mermaid Beach], the whole sprinkling of brand-new places down at Burleigh and Palm Beach – all of this is just driving the renaissance of food and beverage on the Gold Coast, and I think it’s fantastic.
Simon: Yeah, my relatives, when they do come up from Melbourne, they do tend to stay a bit longer because some of their favourite restaurants are here. It’s good. Steve, it must make you proud as a Gold Coaster to see the city going from strength to strength?
Steve: I’ve been here since 1992 and, for me, the Gold Coast has always been a land of milk and honey. As a kid growing up in North Queensland, we used to come here every school holidays. We’d spend four to six weeks here as a family. I think I grew up with this sort of romantic ideal attached to the Gold Coast. When I was going to boarding school in Brissy, I’d be coming down the Coast pretty regularly, and then I went to uni here. The love affair has endured.
Simon: Do you talk much about the Coast in your day-to-day work?
Steve: Yeah, all the time. You go to some [tourism] markets, such as the Middle East – they know more about the Gold Coast than they do about Sydney. It has a profile that really is well above its weight. I can’t walk down the street in Dubai without people stopping and talking about Hellenika – it’s amazing [laughs]. Part of the challenge is I’m also Australia’s Tourism Minister, so I’ve got to market Australia globally and work with Tourism Australia to do that. But I’ve got to say, the support I get from locals is absolutely first-rate. I do my best to be a strong advocate for the city and a strong ambassador for the city. Where it helps me the most is that I’ve been involved with the tourism industry for the best part of 20 years now. I know a lot of the people; they’ll talk to me frankly and tell me how they’re really travelling in business. You get a good barometer of how the industry is doing.
Simon: How important is it to have a Gold Coaster sitting in federal cabinet?
Steve: I think that makes a big difference. I’m the first cabinet minister since Eric Robinson [1970s-era Fraser government finance minister], so it’s been a fair while, obviously. What it means is that I’ve been able to work with [fellow Gold Coast-based Turnbull government MPs] Karen [Andrews], Stuart [Robert] and Bert [van Manen] to really lock in place a whole range of different benefits for the city. Things like $1 billion for the M1, funding for stages one and two of the light rail, two new medical schools, record funding for tourism – all of this feeds through to what we’re able to do in this part of the world. It just means I can make the Gold Coast front and centre in terms of the Government’s cabinet considerations.
Simon: Does your accounting background help in your job as a minister?
Steve: I studied commerce and law at uni. I did a double major in accounting, specialising in competition law. I come from a small-business background, and I’ve got a great passion for small business. I guess I’m a pretty commercially minded person and I feel comfortable looking at a P&L [profit and loss statement]. The great thing about Parliament is that you have people from all walks of life. There are former coppers, funeral directors, teachers, small-business people, obviously a couple of lawyers. That’s actually why the Parliament works quite well, because you have people from different walks of life – even fish and chip shop owners [laughs].
Simon: What’s the vibe federally on how the Commonwealth Games went?
Steve: Most of the feedback I’ve had was that the Comm Games were well-organised and ran very smoothly, and it was a first-class experience for competitors and tourists who came. It’s fair to say, though, that there has been quite a bit of chatter among elements of the business community on the Coast that there just wasn’t the uptick in business that they were expecting. And a number of businesses got hit hard, because not only did they not get an increase in turnover, but they also had higher expenses because they rostered on extra staff and bought extra supplies. So their margins got squeezed. But, having said that, the benefit for the city is going to be multi-year. We had 1.5 billion sets of eyeballs watching the Gold Coast, and that’s terrific – that’s advertising that would have cost you tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars to buy. And we had all of that focus. So I think there’s a really positive sense from it. But like the Sydney Olympics, we need to make sure we capture that and translate it into more people visiting.
Simon: So does Tourism Australia have any specific campaigns to leverage publicity off the back of the Games?
Steve: Tourism Australia’s job is to market all of Australia. They have to translate aspiration to visit Australia into actual visitors. We know that Australia is one of the most desirable places that international tourists want to come to, whether they’re from America or China or Japan. Australia’s usually always in the top five of desirable destinations. Tourism Australia’s responsibility is to convert that aspiration into actual travel. Once they’ve done that, where those visitors travel in the country is then up to the state tourism organisations and regional tourism organisations to fight for a piece of pie. They work with airlines and holiday package operators to offer a week here or a visit there. The biggest new initiative for Tourism Australia has been the Crocodile Dundee trailer. It was off the chart, a tremendous success. For me as Tourism Minister, it’s all about protecting taxpayer dollars, because Tourism Australia’s got a big budget. It’s around $150 million a year, so I don’t want Tourism Australia to just throw taxpayers’ money against the wall. You’ve got to make sure it’s going to work. I apply scrutiny on behalf of taxpayers and that puts pressure on the creatives to come up with something that’s going to work, like the Crocodile Dundee campaign.
Simon: You seem very comfortable in your role as a minister and always very engaged. Is that because you genuinely love your job?
Steve: I do love my job. I’m a Liberal politician because I’m a big believer in free enterprise. I generally think governments are more often part of the problem than the solution. Bizarrely, I would never consider myself a career politician. I will only be in politics for as long as I enjoy it. I have no desire to do it my whole life. I don’t derive a sense of who I am from being an MP. I’m pretty comfortable about who I am and what I’m about. I don’t need to have that sense of self, so to speak.
Simon: The Gold Coast has been humming along nicely, especially in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games. How do you think we maintain the momentum and keep the economy going from strength to strength?
Steve: The Gold Coast is a small-business city, right? What makes the Gold Coast different to Brisbane or a lot of other places is that there’s very little [employment] here in terms of the public sector. The beating heart of this city is small business. That actually is what drives this city. It’s why we have bigger peaks when the economy’s going well and bigger troughs when the economy’s not going well, because everything gets magnified. For me politically, I also believe it’s why the area is quite strong for the Coalition. There aren’t people here who are reliant on government payments; there aren’t people here who run around trying to work out how they can get more money off taxpayers to prop themselves up. The people here generally believe in reward for effort. Being in the trade space, it’s incredible some of the businesses in this city that people have never heard of that are exporting goods and products to the world. There’s a pharmaceutical manufacturer, for example, that makes vitamin supplements. It’s a contract supplier to Swisse and has put on 40 or 50 staff in past three years to cope with demand. Businesses like that are getting access all ’round the world, flying the flag for the city.
Simon: So what do we need to do?
Steve: We need the city to mature. I think the future of the city is really bright, especially in terms of what we can do around medical research and the digital economy. Because if you’re working in those industries, you can be anywhere – you can be in Sydney, San Francisco or Surfers Paradise... You could literally work anywhere. The incredible opportunity for the Gold Coast is that you can have this lifestyle and amenity. Who wouldn’t want to live in this environment and add value on the desktop? That’s going to be the next big evolution in the city’s economy. Tourism will always be huge, small business will always be huge, construction will always be big – but it’s the diversification of the city’s economy that’s going to make a really big difference.