Helen Haines MP says she’s been advised of an imminent decision to extend $10,000 bushfire recovery grant eligibility to small business in Indigo, Mansfield and Wangaratta local government areas after almost five months of sustained lobbying.

The Independent Federal Member for Indi, in Mansfield on May 27 and again asking questions of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency in a House of Representatives’ regional Australia select committee inquiry in Canberra today, said small businesses in these communities had waited far too long for the extension.

“Businesses in Towong and Alpine shires, directly affected by the Black Summer bushfire emergency, have been eligible to apply for this vital small business grant since mid-March,” Dr Haines said.

“But the Commonwealth has required the Victorian government’s agreement to co-fund the extension of eligibility beyond the fire fronts to other local government areas where the economic impact of the Upper Murray and Alpine Valleys fires has been so serious,” Dr Haines said.

“I’m told this agreement has now been confirmed.”

When questioned today by Dr Haines at the Select Committee on Regional Australia, NBRA deputy coordinator Andrew Hocking acknowledged the ‘large delay’ in deciding this extension.

“But the waiting has gone on far too long,” Dr Haines said.

“Government has a responsibility to our communities to make sure the money actually gets to where it’s needed. The job isn’t done until money is in people’s pockets.”

Dr Haines said the exclusion by the Commonwealth and Victorian governments of Indigo, Mansfield and Wangaratta business from eligibility – communities experiencing the devastating loss of tourism and hospitality income, in particular – was a decision that was clearly wrong and had to be changed.

“It was always clear to those of us on the ground that the fires’ impacts would stretch well beyond the places directly affected by flames,” she said.

“I heard from business owners in Indigo, Mansfield and Wangaratta that the only way the impact could have been worse is if their businesses had actually burned down.

“The fires caused mass evacuations at the peak of the holiday season, parks and forests closed to tourists, Mansfield businesses left with marginal summer visitor revenue, and smoke taint decimated crops in our premium King Valley, Beechworth and Rutherglen wine-growing regions.

“No financial assistance for these businesses has been available.”

Dr Haines said the $10,000 recovery grant was crucial for Indi’s award-winning wineries, food and accommodation providers and the many hundreds of small businesses that suffered short-term cash flow issues.

The grant can be used for salaries, wages, utilities and rent costs, business development through marketing and communications, and financial advice.

“It won’t replace lost income, but it would alleviate some of the significant losses being worn by businesses impacted by these bushfires,” Dr Haines said.

“I have been in regular contact with local councils across Indi about the impact of the bushfires and lobbying constantly for these grants to be extended.

“I have spoken in Parliament, written to Victoria’s Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville, raised our concerns with the Deputy Prime Minister, delivered a report on small business in Indi to the Treasurer, and hosted roundtables for local businesses to directly lobby the head of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and for the plantation timber industry to speak with the deputy coordinator.

“When I hosted Agency national coordinator Andrew Colvin in April, we had local breweries and tourism businesses directly making the case that excluding them from the grants caused confusion and stress, and that these grants would go a long way to helping them in recovery.

“Economic modelling commissioned by Tourism North East showed losses of $158 million to $208 million in the March quarter, directly after the fires. This is before COVID-19 started.

“This grant must be made available to businesses in Indigo, Mansfield and Wangaratta council areas. Local councils have worked tirelessly with me to secure these funds for their commercial sectors.

“Here we are, five months since the fires, and there has been too much talk and not enough delivery.

“With the communities of Indi, I look forward the governments’ confirmation of the grant extension.”

Dr Haines said she had already called with Rebekha Sharkie MP, Member for Mayo, for the Senate Select Committee into COVID-19 to investigate the extra impact the pandemic is having on people in bushfire-affected communities.

Dr Haines also wants the Federal Government to include Mansfield and Wangaratta in Local Economic Recovery Plans (LERP) which would direct how funds from the $448.5m Regional Bushfire Recovery and Development Program would be spent locally.

“It makes no sense to recognise the economic impact through these small business grants but to exclude them from the LERPs. The Federal Government must be consistent. We can’t leave these communities behind,” Dr Haines said.

[June 2, 2020]

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