Independent inquiry called for scheme to prop up businesses

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THE ACT government has been forced to defend a small business scheme that was set up to stimulate Canberra’s economy from the effects of the global pandemic.

Around one in every eight adults – or 47,733 residents – signed up to the discount voucher initiative that encourages Canberrans to spend dollars locally while making savings.

The ChooseCBR was rolled out in December for a trial with a view of expanding the scheme further this year.

A range of bricks-and-mortar businesses that received 2020 JobKeeper payments following the effects of COVID-19, turned over less than $10 million every year and are involved in retail, tourism, accommodation, arts and recreation, personal services and hospitality were eligible for the initiative.

ACT Minister for Business Tara Cheyne spoke about reviewing the future of the program in the Legislative Assembly last week.

But the opposition spokesperson for business, Leanne Castley, has since called the small business scheme a failure.

“Uptake was low, it was confusing, it did not support micro-businesses,” Ms Castley said, “and many customers, who used vouchers, did not spend anything extra.”

Little more than $300,000 of the ChooseCBR digital discount was redeemed during the trial period after the government had set aside $500,000 worth of discounts.

The government had to extend the trial by a further three days leading into Christmas after less than a quarter of taxpayer’s funds on offer were redeemed after the initial 13 days.

Ms Castley said she is “loathe to call for a review”, but has demanded the government set up an independent inquiry.

The noted country singer promoted a “tough” past business acumen to rubbish the scheme from once running three car yards and employing five staff.

“Business Minister Tara Cheyne must immediately set up an independent formal review of ChooseCBR to understand what went wrong and what must change so it works well next time round,” Ms Castley said.

“Let’s be clear – if the program does not help small business then it is a waste of money.”

But the result from every dollar the government invested into the initiative, a further $6.30 was injected back into the Canberra economy, which was above the earlier estimates of businesses benefiting somewhere between $4 and $6 in return.

Ms Cheyne claims the trial has already contributed more than $1.9 million into the territory economy than before.

“Feedback has shown that people want to support local business – and the ChooseCBR program helped them to do that,” Ms Cheyne said.

“We expect the full ChooseCBR program will build on the success of the trial in providing economic stimulus to a range of local businesses, who have done it tough over the past year.”

Canberra Business Chamber say the “majority” of the 30,050 private-sectors businesses operating across the city that has increased by more than five per cent since the end of 2019 are small enterprises that also employ two-thirds of the ACT workforce.

The government has recorded 336 small businesses sign up to the ChooseCBR initiative.

Ms Cheyne said contrary to noise from the Canberra Liberals, much of the response from participants was “positive”.

“Overall, feedback provided to government was positive, with many saying they found the program easy to use and that it did encourage customers to spend more,” Ms Cheyne said.

“Other feedback suggested there could have been better promotion of the program.”

The government is looking to conduct an analysis of the trial, which had been specifically designed to run for a limited time or until “available discounts were used”.

Internal analysis that is based on feedback from businesses and consumers is expected to be completed this week before a decision of a full rollout of the scheme will be announced.

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