House of Representatives

Payment Times Reporting Bill 2020

The Payment Times Reporting Bill 2020 does two really sensible things to support Australian small business: first, it provides greater transparency of payment terms in a bid to improve them for small businesses in the future; second, it helps businesses anticipate cash flow when engaging with larger businesses and government.

The bill acknowledges a simple reality that every small-business owner in Australia already knows—small businesses often operate with thin margins and a tight cash flow and therefore are extremely vulnerable when expected revenues fail to arrive. I commend this bill to the House and I will vote in favour. However, I feel compelled to point out a deep inconsistency in the government putting forward this bill after such long delays in providing financial support to people and small businesses after the ‘black summer’ bushfires we just went through.

Those of us on the ground in bushfire zones knew by the last week of December that we were in the middle of a nightmare bushfire season. By the first week of January, the national parks had all shut, the tourist trade was well and truly dead and huge swathes of my electorate of Indi were on fire, like many places across the country. On 20 January, the Prime Minister announced $50,000 grants to businesses that had been directly hit by fire and $500,000 loans for businesses that had suffered asset or revenue loss. This was very welcome. But there was nothing here for businesses that had lost all their revenue but hadn’t been directly touched by flames.

Many businesses in Indi, in places like Bright, Mansfield and the alpine resorts, take a huge portion of their annual income in January, some up to 60 or 70 per cent. This was wiped out. But, after the greatest natural disaster in the country’s history, there was nothing for them. It wasn’t until March 11 that the government came to the table with support for these businesses, announcing a new $10,000 small business support grant for businesses that had suffered a significant loss of income. The date of March 11 was already some 10 weeks after many of these businesses had lost all of their income. This was welcome; I welcomed it. But it was only made available to businesses in the Towong and Alpine shires in my electorate.

The shires of Indigo, Wangaratta and Mansfield, which were jammed right between the burnt areas and devastated by the loss of tourist trade from the fires, were excluded. Some properties in the King Valley, in the rural city of Wangaratta, had even been directly impacted by fire. But still, because of their postcode, they missed out.

This omission was compounded by a refusal to explain why the decision was made. What were the rules? To this day, the government has not explained on what evidence it made the decision to exclude Indigo, Wangaratta and Mansfield. Anyone who’d visited the region would know that excluding these towns was madness. That day, 11 March, I started lobbying the Commonwealth and state governments to fix this oversight.

In April, I conducted a survey of small businesses in Indi to understand the impact of our double crises of bushfires and COVID. The results were stark. They showed bushfire affected regions were particularly struggling. On average, businesses had lost 70 per cent of their revenue. A third of businesses had lost all of their revenue. I sent these results to the Treasurer. In fact, I took them there personally, once again imploring him to provide the promise to support small businesses in bushfire recovery.

But it was not until last week, 2 June, that the government finally came to the table and extended the $10,000 grants to all bushfire affected areas in Indi. Again, this was really welcome news. But for many, it was six months too late. The mayor of Indigo shire told me last week that, in the days before this grant was extended, several businesses in Beechworth had shut up shop forever. Two days before the announcement, I visited businesses on the Mansfield high street to hear how the fires had impacted them. Businesses like the Mansfield Hotel had lost their entire summer trade, and this was before they were shut down with COVID.

So this bill appearing before us today puzzles me a little bit. The government clearly understands that small businesses are vulnerable even to small delays in cash flow. And yet the government itself forced businesses to wait for over six months before they could even apply to access support after the bushfires.

I see my role as an Independent to be neither an uncritical cheerleader nor an unrepentant critic of the government. I see my job as being able to celebrate good work where it’s done, and there has been plenty of good work done. But I see my job as being able to call out where more work is needed for my constituents. And I fear that the concern for supporting small businesses that is so evident in this bill has not so far been demonstrated adequately in the bushfire recovery.

But the campaign that we began on 11 March, when most of Indi’s small businesses were excluded from bushfire support, is now won. These businesses can now apply for this much-needed funding. So now we must turn to the next step in supporting small businesses through the challenging months ahead.

[June 11, 2020]

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