11/04/2022 - 09:01

Post-COVID Cook shows a friendly face

11/04/2022 - 09:01

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From keeping people out of WA as health minister to luring them in under the tourism portfolio, Roger Cook has had a busy couple of years.

Post-COVID Cook shows a friendly face
Roger Cook says the shift from health to tourism was profound. Photo: David Henry

THERE was an elephant in the room on the day Roger Cook sat down with Business News to discuss the post-pandemic future of tourism and trade in Western Australia.

Why wasn’t he still the health minister? In a cabinet reshuffle before Christmas, Mr Cook passed the baton of ministerial COVID management to Amber-Jade Sanderson, just as the state was finally preparing to confront the virus.

“I thought it was time for me to go and that’s the opinion I put to the boss,” Mr Cook said. “If you change the minister, you change the narrative. Don’t forget, I’d been the Labor Party’s voice on health issues for 13 years. That’s not healthy.”

There were good arguments for changing the narrative.

The words ‘health system’ and ‘crisis’ had become conjoined. Whether it was perception or reality no longer mattered.

Even without a single COVID patient in hospital, ambulance ramping times were at record levels, and the Australian Medical Association and Australian Nursing Federation were warning hospitals were not ready for the pandemic.

When seven-year-old Aishwarya Aswath died of sepsis last year, after waiting more than 90 minutes to be assessed at Perth Children’s Hospital, the so-called crisis in health suddenly had a human face.

Mr Cook absorbed the political shocks of the tragedy, endured another nine months of the day-to-day COVID grind, booked a Christmas break and emerged as the deputy premier, minister for state development, jobs, trade, tourism, commerce and science.

“The premier has basically tossed me the keys to the economy and said, ‘Take it for a spin’,” he said, while conceding the role swap had been profound.

“I liken it to being taken off the footy field.

“You know you’re coming off for a reason, but your head’s still in the game. So, there was some withdrawal because you miss the action. You miss the beat.”

From April 5 2020 until March 3 this year, WA lived behind an unyielding closed border regime and Mr Cook had been one of the senior gatekeepers.

Now, he is tasked with overseeing strategies to ensure people come flooding in.

Mr Cook told Business News lifting international visitations to WA, which made up only 2.7 per cent of all arrivals pre-COVID, was paramount to measuring his success.

Within 10 years, he wants the state’s $10 billion a year tourism sector to double in revenue.

When asked if that meant building attractions to get bums on airline seats, he quickly dashed some of the perennial grand plans touted for Perth: the cable car from Kings Park to Elizabeth Quay, for example.

“They [tourists] don’t want a cable car,” Mr Cook said.

“Where they’ve come from, they have a cable car twice as long and twice as steep as what we could muster.

“We don’t need to try to be an imitation of somewhere else. We have iconic environment and wilderness destinations. These are the experiences international visitors want.”

He listed areas of the state’s South West, Great Southern, Pilbara, Kimberley and Goldfields, and said more eco-tourism experiences were needed because studies showed overseas visitors wanted to immerse themselves in clean environments.

“If we are trying to build theme parks in order to attract people, we’ve lost the game,” Mr Cook told Business News.

“Think about the Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth. Look at our golden outback of Kalgoorlie.”

But the minister well knows that any development, anywhere in WA, commonly faces fierce community opposition in a state suffocated by NIMBYism and self-interest.

Mr Cook gave the recent example of City of Nedlands councillors blocking a $25 million rebuild of the dilapidated Tawarri function centre alongside the Swan River despite city officers recommending approval of a boutique health spa development.

Tawarri Hot Springs was the city’s preferred proponent, but without councillors agreeing to a lease deal for the land the plan is all but dead.

“Quite frankly, it’s bizarre,” Mr Cook said. “It’s derelict. What those people were looking to do was create a high-end tourism product on one of Perth’s greatest assets, the Swan River.

“People seem to think when you attract people to your community it detracts from the community. It doesn’t. It creates vibrancy.”

Mr Cook is determined for tourism to play a significant role in diversifying WA’s resources-reliant economy. With $140 billion worth of mining sector projects currently in the pipeline – and all the royalties that will flow – it’s easy to question whether diversification is a serious objective.

Before the pandemic, the McGowan government released its ‘Diversify WA’ blueprint. Green energy, future battery and critical minerals, tourism and events, international education, space and defence industries were listed for investment and development.

That didn’t stop WA billionaire Andrew Forrest deciding to construct his first green hydrogen manufacturing facility in Queensland.

“And obviously that was very disappointing,” Mr Cook said.

“We have been working closely with Fortescue Future Industries to understand their needs and I don’t think we felt that we had a fair go at bidding for that particular work.

“But look, hydrogen and renewable energy is going to be the biggest industry, international industry going forward.”

Mr Cook is currently spruiking in Singapore – WA’s second largest tourism market in 2019 – during the first overseas mission by a state minister since the pandemic began.

He would like to see more than one flight daily from the tiny ASEAN powerhouse.

In July, he will embark on a mission to the subcontinent in pursuit of regular flights to Perth from a major Indian city, with India the largest international student and tourism market outside of China.

“Our government has already committed $185 million on ‘Reconnect WA’ and $85 million of that is to go after new aviation links to get people here,” Mr Cook said.

“We’ll get Perth to London back, Perth to Rome is coming in mid-June and we’re working with the Japanese to get those Tokyo-Perth flights back. But we need an India-Perth route and I’ll be taking a big delegation there.”

When WA ended its hard border in early March, Mr Cook and Mark McGowan held a press conference on the foreshore at South Perth using a Swan River Seaplanes aircraft as the backdrop.

Before it was over, the premier spent several minutes reading notes from a piece of paper pulled from his pocket, which was peppered with facts and figures to prove WA had managed the threat of COVID better than anywhere else.

It was an odd thing to do on the day he was supposed to be welcoming the rest of Australia with open arms.

The WA government’s resentment toward those in the east who criticised the strict border policy was still on display.

Mr Cook did not reject that observation when put to him.

“We’ve had a significantly greater success than the east,” he said.

“There is often a frustration on our part that that’s not acknowledged. There’s a sense of pride.”

Together with India, the COVID[1]stalled Chinese tourism market is high on Mr Cook’s agenda.

His predecessor, Paul Papalia, had secured a deal with China Eastern Airlines to bring direct flights from Shanghai beginning February 2020.

With the potential for 3,500 passengers touching down across three days a week, the lucrative Shanghai connection will be revisited.

Mr Cook is not perturbed by recent tension over China’s tepid response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the ‘security agreement’ between Xi Jinping and the Solomon Islands.

“You can’t ignore China,” Mr Cook said. “We don’t have to agree with everything politically, but we do need to make sure that we’re able to do business with them because we can’t afford not to.

“If we continue to kick China in the shins, at some point investments that they’re making in Brazil and West Africa are going to provide them with alternative markets.”

Mr Cook saved some of his strongest comments during this interview for an issue close to his heart: the unending plight of Aboriginal people in WA.

The subject dominated his inaugural speech to parliament in 2008 as the new member for Kwinana.

 “The wealth of a few is worthless if, for others, the basic human rights they deserve are being undermined by laws, economic systems, or political and social policies, or simple indifference,” he said at the time.

What’s changed and what can a tourism and trade minister do about it?

“Indigenous or Aboriginal tourism has to be the beating heart of our tourism strategy,” Mr Cook said.

“You walk into an Australian airport and it’s like walking through a doctor’s waiting room. The acknowledgement of the First Nations people is in passing, usually a small plaque somewhere in a corner.

“We need to significantly change the way we embrace the First Nations culture as a people and as a tourism product.”

He agreed that tourists travelling to a significant indigenous centre such as Broome are also confronted by chronic alcohol abuse among the Aboriginal population.

“We haven’t properly come to grips with the impact, the negative impact of alcohol in our communities,” Mr Cook said.

“It’s catastrophic.”

He was less forthcoming when asked why his government wouldn’t back police commissioner (and future WA governor) Chris Dawson’s call for blanket bans on the sale of full-strength alcohol in bottle shops across the Kimberley and Pilbara.

“The commissioner is a good man with great insights,” Mr Cook said.

“It is a difficult question, we get that.”

However, Mr Cook was completely forthright on the state of Perth’s central business district, given all the debate over dwindling foot traffic, the number of homeless people and the competition posed by sprawling suburban shopping centres.

“The nature of working in the city has changed permanently,” he said.

“The double whammy is the scale of shopping centres. What capital cities must do is reinvent themselves into being lifestyle districts, not just CBDs.”

He wants to see East Perth and West Perth blend more with the city centre and more residential developments encouraging activity.

“I know the City of Perth is looking at this, but we need to re-examine why people would come to the CBD,” Mr Cook said.

There is no doubt the mask mandates, close contact restrictions, square-metre rules and gathering limits have altered the city’s vitality, perhaps permanently.

As health minister, Mr Cook was integral to the decision-making and gave Business News an insight into the emergency management meetings where the most draconian measures were discussed.

“We’d come in and say, ‘Okay, we’ve made this decision, so we don’t need to go beyond that’,” he recalled.

“And the next day we would go further.

“We were shutting down industries overnight to stop the spread of the disease. Closing pubs, closing cafes, stay-at-home orders restricting movement around the state.

“We always felt we’d gone too far, and the West Australian community was absolutely behind us.”

Mr Cook expected a fierce reaction when the government locked out fans from the West Coast-Fremantle derby in May 2021, just hours before the bounce down. It never came.

On the same day, masks were mandated, and Mr Cook remembered those around the table accepting that it would be difficult to police because the public had been given no time to prepare.

“But the next day everyone had masks,” he said. “It blew us away.”

If stamina is a prerequisite for tourism minister, Mr Cook qualifies. He competes in triathlons for fun.

If he’s to win his latest political race – and turn WA into a tourism mecca – he’ll need to bring an entire state with him.

 

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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