Small businesses need our help to get through coronavirus

This opinion piece has been published in the Canberra Times here:


This is what John and Lyn Anderson, the owners of Federation Square in Gold Creek Village, told me when I met with them on Monday. These aren’t hollow words for this tight-knit community of small businesses – as The Canberra Times reported this morning, “in an extraordinary act of generosity, the Andersons have told each of their 30 or so tenants that they won’t need to pay rent for the month of April”.

Local small businesses are the lifeblood of Canberra. From small cafés and retailers at neighbourhood shops, to producers, service providers and clubs, we depend on these businesses for our way of life. We are so fortunate to have people who take risks, create jobs, and deliver the products and services that we need and love. But now, more than ever before, we must support them.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” a café owner said to me. Almost overnight, most of his customers have disappeared. Many of them are public servants who are now working from home and no longer buying coffee or lunch. Up the road, another cafe was down 60 per cent on their regular trade, and are considering how many of their 30 staff will need to be let go. On Monday I visited a Chinese restaurant that was previously packed each lunchtime with yum cha customers but today sits virtually empty. Bus companies that are usually flat out with school excursions and kids visiting Canberra are sitting idle. Hotels are at near 0 per cent occupancy.

These stories are repeated over and over across our city, especially in the hospitality and tourism sectors that were already hurting after a difficult summer of bushfires, smoke and storms. In recent days, these challenges have dramatically escalated and now the livelihoods of thousands of Canberra families are under threat.

Much of this situation is completely out of the hands of Canberra’s employers. However, there are real and practical actions the ACT government can and must take to cushion the impact of coronavirus. Tax relief is critical. Commercial rates waivers, payroll tax cuts and reduced government fees and charges should be implemented urgently and I have written to the Chief Minister urging him to do so. Any cuts to commercial rates must be passed on to tenants through cheaper rents. But there are also more innovative measures that will contribute to keeping business doors open and Canberrans employed.

Strict outdoor seating regulations, for example, pose a problem for cafes and restaurants that must respect social distancing requirements. By relaxing these government-imposed requirements, these businesses can accommodate people at appropriate distances. Hospitality fees (such as liquor licences) should be paused to further support the ACT’s significant hospitality workforce.

The building sector would benefit from a temporary pause on lease variation charges for new projects in strategic locations that can begin soon. The ridiculously slow processing times for development applications should also be addressed. Of course, we should not sacrifice quality for speed, but when the time taken for the ACT government to approve development applications has tripled in 10 years it is certainly possible for these timeframes to be reduced.

There is so much that can be done to improve our environment and community and the ACT Government can make this happen and create new job opportunities by launching an immediate and continuing program of small public amenity projects. This could include upgrading footpaths, improving parks, playgrounds and public areas, planting and maintaining trees and refurbishing public toilets and change rooms. The ACT government’s focus must be on a large number of projects that small businesses can bid for and win, so that as many local businesses as possible can benefit. This approach will maximise employment opportunities for Canberrans and have a positive effect on other local businesses, including building suppliers, cafes and takeaway stores.

The ACT government should use its buying power to provide certainty wherever possible. Government schools could be encouraged to book and pay for future excursions and carnivals and associated services such as bus charters in advance. Government directorates could bring forward the tendering process for future government services, and make deposits in advance. Businesses that supply to the ACT government should not need to wait 30 days to be paid – a 48-hour payment guarantee would provide much needed cash flow for many contractors and small businesses.

This is not an extensive list, and we are consulting daily with local businesses to best understand what things – big and small – can help them at this time. And of course, none of these measures should come at the expense of either public health or safety, and the timing of their implementation must be carefully considered.

This is already a very difficult time for employers and employees and it’s going to get harder. In the coming days and weeks, the Canberra Liberals will continue to advocate for Canberra’s small businesses because the jobs and livelihoods of so many families depend on them.

Alistair Coe is the Leader of the Opposition