Last year the New South Wales and Victorian border was closed for 137 excruciatingly long days for small business. On the Victorian side, Wodonga locked down for 167 days; on the New South Wales side, Albury locked down for 73 days. You don’t need a calculator to see that the impact on the Victorian side was disproportionate. Wodonga was locked down twice as much as Albury. That’s the simple truth. The latest modelling shows the border lost over half a billion dollars in economic activity last year. Most of that downturn was on the Victorian side of the border. Tourism businesses were particularly hard hit, with spending in the Victorian High Country dropping a whopping 50 per cent, and the member for Warringah has just pointed out the impact on alpine areas such as mine as well. There were also many weeks this year when Albury was locked down but Wodonga was not. As one community, we rely on each other to keep our economy going. When Albury locks down, businesses on the Victorian side suffer too. Imagine being able to shop and dine on one side of Collins Street in Melbourne, but not the other. That’s what we’ve been dealing with.
The New South Wales government understands these unique impacts on borders. Last week, the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Paul Toole, announced a $10 million COVID recovery package to help border towns get back on their feet, including grants of up to $25,000 for local stimulus-geared infrastructure projects. That’s exactly what border communities have been calling for. As the Deputy Premier put it himself, ‘Border communities have faced some of the biggest challenges in the state’s history over the last few years—from droughts, to fires, to floods, and the additional burden of border closures.’ How refreshing to hear that!
A few months ago I called our federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and asked him to pick up the phone to the Victorian Treasurer, Tim Pallas, and sort out a dedicated economic package for businesses on the border in Victoria. He rejected my argument for support for these Victorian border businesses, and yet the federal Treasurer managed to do it with the Queensland government in September. Together, the Queensland and Commonwealth governments funded four payments to small tourism operators on the border: (1) a $5,000 statewide small-business payment; (2) a $10,00 South-East Queensland lockdown payment; (3) a $5,000 extended border closure payment, and (4) a $15,000 tourism sector payment—that’s $35,000 in one-off grants that particularly targeted border communities.
What if you were an identical small tourism operator in Wodonga? You had to choose between either a $2,800 per week payment which was statewide, or a one-off $20,000 small-business COVID hardship payment which was also statewide. If a small tourism operator in Wodonga took up the latter, they were straightaway $15,000 worse off than an identical business in Coolangatta even though they were locked down more than double the amount of time. I’m not begrudging the financial support offered in Queensland. They did it tough, too, but on the border in Victoria we have done it incredibly tough and all we want is to be treated equally.
I’ve been speaking to businesses on the border every day for months now, and many tell me they’re barely hanging on. Just last week I met with Zak Rogers, who owns CrossFit TMA in Wodonga. He told me how painful it was for him to hear from his regular clients in Albury that they could not travel across the border to the gym. I admire Zak; he’s got incredible integrity as a small-business owner. He called his clients in Albury and offered to suspend their gym memberships, because they couldn’t cross the border.
Zak knew this would damage his bottom line at a time when his business was just holding on, but he couldn’t stomach taking money from clients who couldn’t use his services. In his heart he wanted to see people working out and keeping their mental health strong during a difficult time, and his clients showed their love for him in return: they declined his offer to suspend memberships because they knew he was doing it tough with border closures. What a powerful example of our border community coming together to support each other to keep small business alive when the government chose to look the other way.
I call on the government right now who are talking up grand plans for economic recovery: if you can’t show up for border businesses in their darkest hours, how can we trust you to show up in recovery? I call on the Treasurer to work with the Premier of Victoria to deliver immediately $15,000 grants to small businesses on the border in Wodonga and show you are serious about treating all border businesses in exactly the same way.