Last week, in an open letter to Senator ZED SESELJA, “CityNews” called for more empathic support for local business. In his reply, the senator says he’s doing his bit, but it’s the Chief Minister who’s being parsimonious.
LAST year the entire country was in the same boat. When COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the entire nation was dramatically shut down in response to a virus we knew very little about, other than its ability to spread quickly and cause severe illness.
A nationwide shutdown required nationwide support measures, and the Commonwealth did not hesitate to provide this support across the country, while at the same time working with the states and territories to keep as much of the economy open as possible.
This year we have gone into lockdown again, but as we have become more accustomed to the virus, the lockdowns are state based, where required, rather than broad stroke national measures.
The consequences being rules and restrictions on which businesses can and can’t operate, how they can operate, and what is deemed as essential are set by our First Ministers and vary across the country depending on the status of the outbreak in their region.
The ACT is well into one of the harshest lockdowns Australia has seen. As the lockdown has been extended time and again, I have been calling for increased flexibility in the rules, to allow businesses who can operate safely to do so.
My argument has always been that what is essential over a period of seven days is very different to what is essential to operate or access when that time frame becomes much longer.
For seven days businesses can struggle through complete closure, and parents can go without buying new clothes for a baby. When that timeframe is extended, what becomes essential for the survival of a business, or to meet the needs of Canberra families, is very different. Issues of isolation and loneliness can be managed for seven days but become increasingly problematic after six, seven or eight weeks.
I have successfully argued for small businesses to be able to offer contactless click and collect or delivery, and for the safe restarting of construction. Allowing businesses to get back to business safely will always have a greater impact than government support.
Under growing pressure to provide certainty for businesses, the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, attacked me for daring to stand up for the Canberra business community, in particular our construction industry, saying “sometimes senators can get in the way.”
Ensuring businesses had access to adequate support in response to the lockdown is where the Chief Minister should have gone into bat for Canberra businesses, but failed to show up.
My first phone call once the Canberra lockdown was announced was to the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, advocating for a substantial package to support Canberra’s business community though the next seven days. Any plan would require the ACT government to come to the table and fund 50 per cent of the package, just as every other jurisdiction has done this year.
A return to JobKeeper is simply not possible – it would be the equivalent of the Commonwealth signing a blank cheque to the states and territories, encouraging never-ending lockdowns to continue across the country.
The first plan the Chief Minister brought to the Treasurer was nowhere near enough, but it was something, and the lockdown was only scheduled to last for seven days.
I immediately urged the Chief Minister to come to the table with a more generous proposal to support Canberra businesses, which the Commonwealth would co-fund. I’d already heard from hundreds of business owners desperate for more support, knowing the initial package would not be enough if lockdown was extended. The Commonwealth was ready and willing to do more, but the ACT government was stubbornly refusing.
The announcement last week (September 15) of an expanded business support package was a win for Canberra businesses, setting a floor of $5000 a week in support for employing businesses, and up to $20,000 a week for those with larger turnovers.
In addition to that, we delivered a separate package for tourism, hospitality and the arts, something I had championed before the ACT lockdown due to the impact of lockdowns elsewhere on this sector here in Canberra.
This tiered package of support was a recognition that for many medium-sized businesses $5000 a week is well short of what is being lost. The ACT government claimed it couldn’t be done, but I raised it with Treasurer Frydenberg, who insisted it be part of the package going forward.
Ultimately, allowing businesses to get back to business will have a greater impact on small businesses in Canberra, and the Canberrans who work for them, than government support ever could.
Importantly, the Commonwealth has also wholly funded $188 million to date in income support for those Canberrans who have lost work due to this lockdown.
As vaccination rates soar in the ACT a much better balance must be found between stopping the spread of covid and protecting people’s livelihoods and freedoms.
Canberrans, including small and medium businesses, urgently need a plan to re-open. I will simultaneously argue for more freedom while working hard to deliver financial lifelines to those who are affected by the ACT government’s lockdown.
Zed Seselja is the Liberal senator for the ACT.
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