Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Bushfires: Small Business

4:27 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, three proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Gallagher:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

Ensuring small businesses affected by this summer's catastrophic bushfires get the assistance they need immediately.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:28 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this really important issue for discussion in the Senate. This summer has been one of shock, sadness and loss around the country. For those living across regional areas that have been impacted by bushfires, the consequences have been absolutely tragic. People have lost their lives. They've lost the lives of local firefighters and residents. They've lost homes. Over a billion animals have been killed or wounded, or have lost their habitats. Large areas of the country have been covered in toxic smoke. We've all endured the extreme heat.

We've also seen farms and small businesses in fire-affected areas put under extreme stress. Many of these communities are now looking at how, after the tragic summer, they can move forward. They're looking at how they can actually start to rebuild. And one of the major roadblocks to the recovery, to the rebuilding, is the challenge faced by many of the businesses that help sustain those communities. These are businesses that provide important jobs and also provide important services in those devastated communities in the bushfire zones. These businesses often rely on the tourism that they get during the summer months, during this time of the year. But, as we all know, the fires have kept that crucial summer business away. I have friends who live in Bright, in the Alpine National Park area of Victoria, and they are experiencing these challenges. The bushfires have kept so many tourists away from that area. My friends run a business and they rely on the summer tourists to keep their bike rental and wine business running. At the moment, they're left wondering exactly how they're going to make up that shortfall in their income.

Of course, there are lots of stories like this across those devastated communities. I think of Michael Li, whose story was featured by SBS. He is a motel owner from Lakes Entrance in Victoria. Normally during the months of January and February his motel is fully booked with guests who have come not just from around Australia but from all over the world. These people have travelled to experience the amazing things that we have on offer in eastern Victoria: the amazing wildlife, the scenery, the food and the wine that we're so well known for. But, when news of the bushfires spread, almost all of Michael's guests cancelled their bookings. Despite this challenge, Mr Li did an incredible thing. He opened his motel up to the volunteer firefighters who were working so hard to put these bushfires out. He offered free accommodation to the emergency services and also to those who had been evacuated from their communities. Businesses like Mr Li's, and others that are struggling to survive, need our help. On top of the bushfires, we have the coronavirus travel ban. That has created a double whammy for those tourist-reliant communities, with the loss of even more business coming into the state. Right now many businesses are wondering where the help is going to come from.

It is incredibly important that the government gets support to these fire affected communities and these businesses fast. These businesses need help now. We absolutely welcome the government's announcement of support and help, in the form of grants and concessional loans, for impacted businesses. The calls from the business community to provide those funds have received support from the government, but the government does need to go further. There needs to be a case management approach for the people who need help, a case manager who can take into account the unique circumstances of a business and help them cut the red tape to access payments faster. There also needs to be continuous and ongoing consultation with business over the response, and support provided now and into the future. We want to see a business task force set up to provide advice to government from those businesses on the ground so government can understand what is actually happening in businesses right now on the ground.

The real test of all the commitments that have been made, and all the assistance that has been announced by the government, is in the implementation. The real test is whether it actually gets out into the communities that need it. From the feedback that we've been getting from businesses in affected areas it does sound like, despite best intentions, the money is just not flowing fast enough into those communities that need it the most right now. Again, this is the critical time for these businesses. Many of them do 50, 60, 70 per cent of their annual turnover in the holiday season during December and January, and they have just lost that amount of their trade, so it's incredibly challenging for them to see how they can continue forward over the rest of the year. A lot of these businesses have reached the end of January and into February and just haven't had enough money to pay their bills. They need to be able to access the funds that have been made available right now, without delay. They cannot wait for months. If they can't access those funds then they face the real risk of going out of business.

Unfortunately, we're hearing story after story of businesses that are being held back from accessing the support that's on offer because of the red tape that appears to be involved in making an application. We're hearing about business owners who are filling out 15 or 20 pages of forms and then being told that the program application has changed and they need to start all over again. We're also concerned about businesses that need a cash injection but are concerned about taking the government loans because it will put them into more debt.

The government also needs to remember that it's not just businesses that were directly in the path of the bushfires that need help, that need assistance, that have been impacted this summer. In my home state of Victoria I've spoken to businesses that were far away from the fires but have also seen a dramatic reduction in the tourism and trade they're doing, because these fires have scared so many people away from large parts of regional Victoria. Right now if your business hasn't been directly impacted by the fire then there isn't a lot of support available to you, so I'm really worried that there are still many small businesses out there, some of which we're yet to hear from, that are falling between the cracks of the support currently on offer. I encourage the government to find a solution to that problem, because many of these businesses really can't wait too long. Business is putting forward lots of innovative ideas to help support them through this crisis, and we all need to listen to those ideas.

Of course, in the long term, these communities, these businesses, need action on the underlying causes of the bushfires this summer, on the underlying causes of the longer, hotter and drier fire seasons that we're experiencing in Australia. They need action on climate change. It's time that we confronted the reality that our climate is warming and it's human activity that is driving it, because the science is in and it has been in for a long time. It's time that the government listened and took unified action to cut carbon pollution and invest in renewables, because if we actually care about the future of these businesses and the communities that they support then we in this place absolutely need to be committed to real and demonstrable action on climate change.

So it is concerning that, over the last two weeks that we've been back in parliament, back in Canberra, the government has been more focused on its internal divisions than on solving the big issues facing the communities that I've been talking about. The National Party spent the day that the parliament had dedicated to paying tribute to our brave firefighters—and to honouring those that we lost in the bushfires—fighting over their leadership, and that was absolutely shameful. It pulls the focus away from the real issue, which is getting real help to those communities. (Time expired)

4:39 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we all know, the devastating events over summer have had a catastrophic impact on regional Australia. If ever there was a time for the entire nation to rise as one and help each other, it is now, and it will be for some time to come. Before the bushfires arrived to take lives, destroy homes and ruin livelihoods, regional Australia was already suffering under the crushing weight of what seemed to be a never-ending drought. For so long, the downpours that we've witnessed in recent days were merely figments of tortured imaginations as farmers and land managers waited, hoped and prayed for year after dusty year. Of course, as we've come to expect in this often harsh land, Mother Nature delivered on those prayers but not without packing a sickening punch. Regional Australians have been suddenly left to deal with flash flooding, the latest insult added to so much injury.

The extent to which Australians have opened their hearts and wallets to help those directly impacted by the bushfires proves beyond any doubt that we are a compassionate nation, quick to sympathise and empathise with those plunged into despair, loss and ongoing hardship. It's that belief in the intrinsic generosity of Australians that emboldened me to launch the Go Country for Christmas campaign last year. First, it was Go Country for Christmas, an appeal to encourage Australians to support regional businesses as they struggled to overcome the horrible economic impacts of the drought. The faith that Australians would rally around each other was reinforced by the way in which Go Country was embraced sincerely as a bipartisan initiative. For all our political differences, we share the need to think outside the compact worlds of metropolitan areas and reassure the 10 million regional Australians that they will never be forgotten. I have been delighted and indeed inspired by the support of 42 colleagues across the political spectrum. A gentleman got in touch recently via Twitter to comment on the increased volume of packages that had gone through Australia Post. One business had an order of 40 jars of mayonnaise in one go.

But one message that I received just before Christmas was particularly humbling—to know that we had literally helped keep the doors of a business open. Louisa Morris runs a small sole trading business located in Wahgunyah in north-east Victoria, manufacturing preserves and cakes. She uses ingredients that are available locally, including those from other Go Country registered businesses, buying direct from the grower or manufacturer. This is what she said:

I grew up on an irrigation property between Berrigan & Tocumwal NSW. I'm a single parent to three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. What the campaign has meant for my business has been great sales, compared to this time last year and the confidence with this cash flow to keep trading into 2020. I'm very grateful for the wonderful support that the Australian public and a few overseas customers as well, have given me and my family.

She continued:

My business was in the process of winding up after 22 years of trading. The sales from this campaign have been amazing for my little business. I have the confidence to keep trading.

It's still not to late support small businesses in rural Australia. These businesses are run by families who are seeing tougher times than most, and choosing to do business with them can make the world of difference to that small business and to that family.

It is beholden upon us all to never forget that, long after the fires have been extinguished and the floodwaters have subsided, the suffering will continue. It's not just primary producers who need our support. The coastal regions, many of which depend on tourism as a central plank of their economies, will also need all the help that we can muster. After we saw thousands of holidaying families flee the New South Wales and Victorian coasts over New Year, it would warm many hearts to see them head back for Easter, next Christmas and beyond. From the surf to the Snowy Mountains and all the valleys and plains in between, businesses will be bleeding, and we can all join together in stemming the flow. This would give local businesses the boost they so desperately need to generate hope and momentum for their recovery.

But there's help that we can provide every day. By buying Australian at the supermarket, whether it's fish, milk or dairy, we can all make a difference. If you're a tradie looking for a new twin cab, why not head to Bathurst, Wagga or Tamworth, where I'm sure the local dealerships will be ready to do you a great deal? The next time you're stocking the cellar, remember that Australian wines are considered to be amongst the finest in the world. Think of Mudgee, Senator O'Farrell's Clare Valley Riesling, the Hunter, the Yarra or Margaret River. Think of the difference you'll be making to so many lives.

Go Country began as a way to help businesses by purchasing Christmas presents from retailers outside the cities, but I'm proud to announce that Go Country is here to stay, 24/7, every day. It's with great pride that I announce we're about to launch a new website, Go Country for Anything. With the same support enjoyed by Go Country for Christmas, we can all go to the next level.

It's time to start having a closer look at all our labels, and to remind ourselves of the debt we all owe to decades of thankless toil by regional Australians who built the vertebrae for the backbone of this nation's economy. We've got to remember that cheaper is not always best and remind ourselves to save in the long term by banking on the enduring quality of Australian products. Regional businesses are our quiet achievers, but their achievements have been monumental in making Australia great. Now, more than ever, is the time to show our deep gratitude and to keep expressing it as regional Australians try to get back on their feet.

As a young mother I worked with my family to manage farms in Moree, and the day-to-day suffering of those stricken by the drought will have a profound and lifelong impact on me. I've seen the pain and I've felt the pain. I've seen the tears and shed my own. My own family was living and breathing it, choking on the same red dust. In recent days, plenty of friends have been breathless in telling me that their youngest children are seeing grass for the first time, and the spectacle of the creek running for the first time in a decade is a sight to rival Sydney Harbour itself for its beauty. Such has been the relief, but any veterans of the land will have that respite instantly tempered by the real and thoroughly justifiable fear of the next challenge. That's why we all have a role to play in helping to provide the peace of mind that has eluded our country cousins for so long.

Apart from the regeneration of the bush that will follow the fires, the entire nation can renew its resolve to help one another. Go Country strikes from the heart of our fabled national spirit, and it gives me great pride to know that everyone in this parliament will promote this campaign whenever and wherever they can.

4:46 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The bushfire crisis has drawn unthinkable devastation onto our communities, our environment, our animals and our country—a crisis that we will, unfortunately, remember for years to come. Lives and livelihoods have been lost, along with homes, businesses and properties. It has been a tragic time, and it is hard to imagine the stress that small businesses in affected communities have also come under.

Summer is normally the busiest time of the year for many small businesses in New South Wales, especially in the regional areas. But many are struggling to stay afloat and to make any income at all in the aftermath of these devastating bushfires. In my home state of New South Wales, where fires have been burning the longest, the crisis has had a devastating impact on local economies, and hence local communities. Small businesses in affected areas are at the brink. Many are unsure whether their businesses will survive into the next year.

I met producers from Cobargo on the New South Wales South Coast recently, where bushfires have created carnage. Cobargo is now best known as the town where locals refused to shake Prime Minister Scott Morrison's hand—and rightly so. It was heartbreaking to hear that the producers had lost almost all of their growing capacity on their farm in the wake of these bushfires. They stand to lose the farm, but they do not qualify for any assistance in the current offering from the government. They're not asking for a blank cheque but for support to get back on their feet. And they should be provided with that support.

This must be a serious wake-up call for this government not only to do everything they can to help people get back on their feet but also to tackle the climate crisis. Communities across Australia, from city to country and from every corner, have pitched in. We have seen the spirit of our community rise and overcome the devastation and tragedy that people in the country have suffered. Perhaps it is impossible to ever know the true cost of the bushfires, but we know that people across the nation have rolled up their sleeves and got to work. And they deserve all the help they can get. Now it is on the decision-makers to step up and do their job. The government must commit to serious action on the climate crisis. Without this, we risk further exposing communities and local economies to future disasters of unprecedented severity.

We have all the evidence. We have been warned by experts over and over for decades. With its inaction on climate, the government is leaving all of us exposed to a dreadful future, where more extreme weather events will become more common.

4:49 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the matter of public importance raised by Senator Gallagher, on ensuring that small businesses affected by this summer's catastrophic bushfires get the assistance they need immediately.

On January 19 the government announced with great fanfare their package to assist the tourism sector, given the severe impact of the bushfires. The following day, 20 January, again with great fanfare, their assistance package for small business was announced. For a while there was an announcement a day released by the government. Unfortunately, that appears to be all there was—announcements. There was lots of spin but very little substance and actual help for struggling small businesses, particularly those regional tourism operators whose businesses face closure unless they get help. By January 23, small businesses on Kangaroo Island, small businesses on the South Coast of New South Wales and small businesses in Gippsland were letting us know that the government's assistance package wasn't all that it claimed to be. Many of these small businesses and regional tourism operators are located in regions that have been struggling to deal with the impacts of the fires since last October and November. Holiday-makers and visitors have been staying away from regional communities, many of which have not been directly affected by the fires. It is not just the fires that have kept people away. The safety warnings, road closures and smoke haze have also kept people away.

Small businesses in fire affected areas need financial assistance now. They don't need a complicated assessment process for concessional loans, loans for which very few businesses qualify, and, even if they do, they are piling debt upon debt, because these businesses have lost a substantial amount of their revenue. Many businesses face immediate closure unless the government acts. Regional communities rely on the cash flow from small businesses to generate and maintain local employment. When no-one comes to town that cash flow dries up. Tourism markets in the regions are closely intertwined. If one business suffers it can quickly have a knock-on effect and impact the entire region. The government doesn't seem to have been aware of this when it was developing its assistance package.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Ha, ha! Bless you, Senator Brown! Bless you.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie has a bit of form here. She obviously hasn't been listening or talking to the people who have been going around Parliament House this week telling everybody—

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was on the fireground at the time.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Well you should know, then! You should know that these packages are not doing anything that you're trying to pretend is happening. The people have been here, going around and talking to parliamentarians, pleading with them, telling them that what is being offered, whether it is with good intentions or not, is not working. Many of these people have lost 100 per cent of their income. Others have lost up to 80 per cent of their income. People have lost jobs because there isn't that income. That's what's happening. They have said that the loans that are on offer will not be able to help them. The reason why that is is quite simple. If you're offering loans to people they are just piling on debt, because there's no revenue to pay off the debt. Labor believes that is not right. It's okay to come in here and say that you've been talking to them, but you obviously haven't been listening.

What Labor has been saying to this government is that it has to listen to the people who are affected, listen to the communities that are affected and make sure that the assistance packages actually work, because they're not at the moment. The money is not getting through. We know that. People and communities are telling us that. It's really not very hard to actually get in there and fix up the way that you've put forward this assistance and add more, because, quite frankly, if there's not an immediate help then— (Time expired)

4:54 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to stand in the Senate this week, after the horrific start to 2020 that so many regional communities experienced as a result of the bushfire season—and we know it's really only the start of the season; this will be going for more months to come—and speak about the resilience of regional Australians. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the recovery effort that our government, alongside state and local governments, has been delivering in the Adelaide Hills; on Kangaroo Island; in Corryong, Tallangatta and Cudgewa, in my home state of Victoria; and down in Gippsland, where I was able to visit with the community in Omeo and meet some bushfire-affected farmers a few weeks ago. There's been an absolute effort in Mallacoota in East Gippsland, a fabulous holiday destination for so many regional Victorians over summer, but also on the South Coast of New South Wales. I also visited, with the member for Cowper, Pat Conaghan, his community—the people of Kempsey and the like—who experienced fires, along with the people of Port Macquarie, prior to Christmas.

This is something that regional communities have been dealing with for a long time. Because we on this side of politics understand these communities, live in these communities, raise our children in regional Australia, to be lectured by the sanctimonious, self-righteous Left—the Labor Party and, I might add, the Greens—on how best to assist small businesses and regional communities in the urgent response phase and the recovery phase, which will go on for many years, really is beyond the pale. Our government have been supporting families, farmers and small-business owners through a $2 billion bushfire recovery fund, which we are rolling out in response to ongoing demands as they arrive. This is a comprehensive program of assistance, not just loans. There are grants available, there are financial counsellors available—I'm going to run through all the assistance our government is providing for small-business owners out in regional communities. We're not responding to people who have turned up to Parliament House this week and are choosing to speak to certain senators about the issues; we're responding on the ground in response to direct advocacy of people in that moment. That's what we were doing in January. That's what our MPs were doing in these bushfire-affected communities prior to Christmas. Our response is very much grounded in the lived experience of small-business owners. Payments have been going out the door straight to those who are in need of financial support right now: our farmers, our fishers, our foresters. There have been very quick disaster recovery payments for them, with urgent assistance required to rebuild, to re-fence, to get that second generator.

We've also got a whole suite of initiatives for small businesses. As at 4 February, we have 3.6 million taxpayers affected by the bushfires. That's around 60,000 businesses who lodge monthly activity statements. We're giving them assistance so that they don't need to do that. When you're struggling with the fact that your community has gone through catastrophic bushfires, sending in your monthly BAS statement is the last thing you need to be worried about. So we've made sure that they can defer lodging those statements until 28 May so they can concentrate on much more pressing issues. All disaster and relief payments made to businesses impacted by bushfires will be free from tax. Eligible businesses—that is, those businesses that have suffered significant asset loss or a significant loss in revenue—are able to access loans of up to half a million dollars. That recognises the small businesses on the South Coast of New South Wales, which haven't had the flood of tourists out of Sydney and Canberra that they usually would enjoy during the summer season, as well as those along the east coast of my home state of Victoria—Mallacoota and the like. Our assistance recognises their loss of revenue.

We're also recognising that some small businesses have been directly affected by the fires themselves. I was able to meet with Kim and Sam, IGA owners who were affected in the small town of Batlow. There is a fabulous cider festival there in a couple of months. I recommend that everyone gets out there and supports that community. But, given that Batlow was cut off for so many days—indeed, for a couple of weeks—because of falling trees and the like, and the risk of ongoing fire, when we were there that IGA was actually unpacking a 10-door freezer worth of stock. They only had one generator to keep the other 10 doors going. They were going through significant loss of stock and significant loss of revenue, and that is a problem.

I know that Australian's significant generosity has been great, but, as always, we in the National and Liberal parties support buying local. I want to correct something that Senator Brown was insinuating about our government's response in terms of giving these loans to small businesses. These loans are interest-free for two years. Next season, the tourists will be back. Australians will be back in small businesses—retailers and tourism operators—out in our regional communities, so they're looking at one year's loss of revenue. These loans are exactly the type of tool that won't increase their loan burden and their repayment burden, but will actually help them with the cash flow problem that they have over the next 12 months. It's an appropriate response. Small businesses can phone 1800413828 right now and receive up-to-date and comprehensive information on a range of support that our government has for them.

Bear in mind that the response to the bushfires from the federal government, as comprehensive as it's been, and ongoing into the recovery-and-rebuild phase, has to be complemented by our partners in this, which are the state governments. So there is also a range of state government initiatives supporting regional tourism areas.

We in the National Party know that family and small businesses are the backbone of our regional communities right across the country. We understand that because they are our butchers, our bakers and our farmers, our fishers and foresters. We are standing by them through this entire phase. I met Sue and Paul from Colac Colac, just out of Corryong. That caravan park is usually full of people right now. Unfortunately, because of the bushfire it's not. Bookings have been cancelled. We know the impact the bushfires are having on our tourism industry, and we've recognised that. That is why we're encouraging people to get out of the city, to come out to our communities and to support our regional tourism operators. The Empty Esky campaign—what a fantastic campaign! I'd encourage so many Australians to take advantage of that.

But we're also standing by small businesses, with real and practical support that will make a difference to them. That's because we on this side of the chamber believe that regional Australia has a very bright future. We know that these small businesses are the backbone of our regions. We know that bushfires are a part of what happens in our communities. We know that that's what happens. Rather than rail that if we shut down every coal-fired power station in this country that somehow there would never be another bushfire, we know that is an absolute crock of rubbish!

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

It's an absolute crock of rubbish! I would like to know what the Greens' and the Labor Party's views are on hazard reduction burning and on how we manage the fuel load in our state and national parks. What are they actually going to do about that? Why, in my home state of Victoria, does the state Premier refuse—refuse!—to ensure the recommendations after the travesty that my state went through on Black Saturday; he doesn't have the guts to stand up against the left-wing green mafia in Melbourne and do the right thing by regional Victorians and manage the loads. He should manage the fuel-reduction burning.

Tony Burke threw the mountain cattlemen out. The mountain cattlemen said that the Labor guys were just pandering to their Greens mates. They're locking everything up and throwing away the key. And look what happens! It burns down—eight years on, absolutely nothing has changed. As we respond as state and federal governments to the catastrophic events of this summer, yes, we're there with real relief, but the rubber will hit the road if we change the way we do business in managing our natural resources.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | | Hansard source

Before you begin, Senator Hanson-Young, I would remind the chamber that interjections are disorderly.

5:05 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to today's discussion in relation to the impact that the terrible fires have had on parts of rural and regional Australia. Only on the weekend, I was in East Gippsland visiting my family's property, which was ravaged by fire over the New Year's Eve period. I was walking through that region, looking at the absolute destruction that these intense fires have caused in areas that had never burnt before—rainforest areas and deep, wet gullies, where the fires ripped through and have destroyed everything in their path. The rivers, the streams and the creeks are now suffering as a result. Of course, while rain is welcome, the heavy rain has done much damage to the areas that were left naked after the fires destroyed everything on top of the soil. Ash is running into the streams and creeks, polluting those creeks and rivers and creating even more damage. It is just a travesty.

I must say that, as my five-year-old niece and I were walking through my parents' backyard and saw the charred forest and hillside, there were some ferns that had started to sprout back, and she said, 'Sarah, isn't it so good to see nature growing back again?' She's absolutely right, and I think that emphasises the desire for rural and regional Australia to get back on its feet. These towns and communities, who have been so devastated, want to rebuild, to have signs of hope and to invest again in what they do. Often, that is showcasing Australia's beautiful environment and land, not just to us as Australians but to our overseas visitors as well.

Of course, in the midst of these fires, where was the Prime Minister? He'd buggered off on holidays to Hawaii. While Australians battled the flames, the destruction and the horror, the Prime Minister was up drinking some cocktails and having his feet up on the beach. Australians felt abandoned by the Prime Minister in that moment. They felt ashamed that our leadership was missing in action and they felt angry that the Prime Minister had turned his back on them.

Of course, what we've seen since is a game of catch-up from this government, with announcements of money but very little real support getting on the ground. I was in the Blue Mountains the weekend before parliament resumed, last fortnight, to talk to locals there. They are furious that the money is just not getting to the areas where it is needed. The local council in that area's been given only $1 million, despite having the horror fires and the destruction since September. Local businesses are crying out for support, and they don't want to go into more debt to battle through this next six-month period. They don't want to have to face paying double BAS come May. They want the support they need to get back up on their feet. While those ferns are sprouting, and the children and the communities can see that there is hope in these areas, what is the Prime Minister doing? All he's doing at the moment is paying lip service, making it harder and offering false hope.

5:09 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to stand up here today and speak in support, I guess, of the large number of Victorian small businesses, especially those in regional Victoria, that have been affected by the devastating bushfires over the last couple of months. Small businesses are often the lifeblood of our rural and regional communities, and many small businesses in my home state are doing it tough right now. North-eastern Victoria has suffered enormously, especially in the months of December and January, and some 1.2 million hectares of my home state have been burnt. Hundreds of homes have been reduced to ashes, and many small businesses have experienced a loss of property, assets and plants. This loss has been very difficult—very difficult indeed—and many small businesses that have been lucky enough to escape the full force of the flames now face the difficulty of reduced customer numbers.

One great example is the Milawa Cheese Company. Even though the Milawa Cheese Company was not directly impacted by the bushfires, that doesn't mean that this business hasn't been impacted by the bushfires as a result of reduced customer numbers through the front doors. For my colleagues who are not familiar with Milawa cheese, it is some of the finest cheese you will ever find in Australia. January and February are usually Milawa's busiest trading time of the year. But as you can imagine, visitors have stayed away. Time and time again we will find many examples, as we have heard from previous senators and no doubt we will hear from senators to come, of businesses that are really struggling. The Milawa Cheese Company has not enjoyed the sales it might have. In fact, locals in that community have reported around a 90 per cent drop in tourism. A 90 per cent drop is something that local businesses cannot recover from. A 90 per cent drop in tourism is absolutely extraordinary and will put some small businesses up against a wall. Not only will they lose direct sales as they experience difficulty over the coming months but it will also have an impact on the supply chain all the way, in the case of Milawa Cheese, to the dairy farm gate. There was one small business representative quoted online as saying:

… we are definitely feeling the indirect costs of the absolute loss of tourism at this, our normally busiest time of year. Whilst so many have lost so much more, this is going to have so many long term implications for the local tourism, accommodation and agriculture businesses, even the milk we are getting is telling the tale.

I'm happy to say that companies like Milawa cheese have made the best of the situation. In fact, Milawa is sending its cheese stocks to markets and offering its cheese free in many hampers.

In another example in south-east Victoria, Bruthen is a town that felt the full force of the bushfires. You will find many fantastic local businesses in Bruthen—in particular, Bullant Brewery. Business at Bullant is down 80 per cent compared with last year. However, the beers are still cold and the food is still hot; everything is ready to go. What's the only thing sadder than a pub with no beer? It is a pub with no customers.

These are just two examples of small businesses trying to make the best of a very bad situation. There are hundreds more stories like these from the bushfire-hit regions of Victoria of small business owners trying to pick up the pieces, get back on track, keep paying their employees and keep putting food on the family's table. While we have seen the very worst during this crisis, we have also seen some of the very best. Australians are rallying to support those businesses affected by the fires with movements like 'Empty Esky' and 'Spend With Them'.

Many small businesses have lost their livelihoods through the indirect consequences of fires, such as the blow to tourism during what is usually the busiest time of the year. They continue to face economic uncertainty while they rebuild. The lack of visitors during what is normally a very busy time of the year has had a worse impact on many small businesses than the global financial crisis. While the community rallies behind those affected, government must also step up to ensure these businesses are being supported without delay. The process for businesses to access relief grants and loans promised by this government must be simple and expedient.

Unfortunately, we have heard many businesses crying out for support, as they face obstacles accessing these relief loans promised by the government as part of their small-business bushfire package. The government announced that eligible small businesses can access loans of up to $500,000 if they have suffered significant asset loss or a significant loss of revenue. Labor is concerned that the government's promised package may not be getting to businesses that need it most. Clarity around who is eligible and around the processes for applying for financial assistance is needed urgently. Many businesses across fire affected areas are facing closure if they don't get help right now. Many rely on the summer season to get through for the rest of the year, but that season is almost complete. While we welcome the assistance and the package that was announced by government, we must reiterate how imperative it is that small businesses receive funds to stem a cash-flow crisis.

While some grants and loans assistance processes have started in the last couple of weeks, it is important to note that these bushfires started back in September last year. Businesses need assistance as soon as possible. On the government's very own website, full details for small-business recovery grants and loans in Victoria are not yet available, and this is really unacceptable. 'Coming soon' does not help these businesses. The website also states that there are only 10 financial counselling staff to assist small-business owners, but almost 200,000 businesses have been affected. These businesses need assistance, they should get it from the federal government and they should get it as soon as possible. They can't afford to wait for next month, nor can they wait until the next budget. It has to happen right now. While Australians spend with them, businesses in these communities need to know that this government stands with them.

5:16 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We're here today to talk about the vexed subject of support to small business, covering not only what we traditionally know as small business but also agricultural business—many farms being small businesses, many being big businesses. I would just make a comment to Senator Ciccone, who at least spoke—and, to his credit, spoke well—about small businesses. We understand the extraordinary impact these fires have had on businesses, on individuals, and we can mourn the deaths that have occurred within these fires: 33 deaths, including a vast range of people.

But one of the factors that I noticed, listening to the senator speak, was that the New South Wales government very quickly came to terms in detail with the proposition put by the federal government in relation to agricultural packages, small-business packages and many others. I don't know for certain, Senator, but I suspect that the state government who is responsible for delivering the package in Victoria has not yet agreed to the terms. Certainly South Australia and New South Wales agreed to them last week, and the money is flowing out. I think that's a very important thing. The problem, if it's not being delivered in Victoria—I can say this as a New South Wales senator—may be the fact that the state government has yet to agree to the terms and conditions.

My exposure over many years to disasters of this nature has been essentially through the activity of the disaster, whether it be famine, fire, earthquake or tsunami, inside or outside Australia. I've seen up close the tragedy of these bushfires that we all speak about now. I've seen natural disasters and the unnatural disaster of war. I spent 19 days from Christmas Eve travelling around the fire areas, providing support to people and reporting back to our organisation on how to help small businesses, individuals, large businesses, councils and many other people. That's a manifestation of the assistance that we have provided to everyone in these areas.

Senator Hanson-Young forgot the nature of the MPI and merely stepped back into nowhere to criticise Hawaii travels. She forgets that there are three sources of fire. As a rural bush firefighter, as someone who fought these fires for six days and travelled around the firegrounds, I'm fully aware that the source of any fire is fuel. In this case, in many, many areas the fuel load was extraordinarily heavy. The second source of these fires was the availability of oxygen. Because it was hot and dry weather, the source of oxygen was there. The third was the source of ignition. That ignition was certainly there for many, many reasons. What makes small business and everyone else vulnerable is the fact we now live in the bush to an extent that we have never lived in the bush before.

This government is helping small business. It's put out agricultural packages. It's put out small-business packages. It's put out tourism packages. It's put $100 million into clean-up packages, $58 million into support for families, $100 million into small-business agricultural grants of up to $75,000, $15 million into additional funding for the Rural Financial Counselling Service and $50 million into supporting immediate work to protect wildlife long term. We won't be lectured by Labor or the Greens on this issue. We help small business, and we have traditionally, and we were supported by the voting population in the last election.

5:21 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Molan knows, probably better than anyone in this chamber, that the most important job of any government is to protect its citizens. This government has failed dismally with this summer's crisis. I'm very glad the Labor Party has brought before us today this discussion on the economic costs of climate inaction. It's not a discussion we often have, especially with this mob on the government side of the chamber. We tend to talk a lot about the impacts of climate inaction on our environment, ecosystems and communities but we very rarely talk about the impact on the economy.

Small businesses in the coastal regions of Victoria and New South Wales and on Kangaroo Island are reeling in the aftermath of these fires. It's not just small businesses in the directly affected regions; I had feedback in Tasmania, both on the east coast and the west coast, in the last week of January that people's businesses, bookings and sales of products had been impacted by these fires as well. It's okay for Senator Birmingham to stand up in question time today to say, 'We've just allocated $76 million to a tourism fund,' but the government have just been caught out spending $150 million on their own private slush fund—straight-up corruption. It is straight-up criminal activity promoting the government's own self-interests, their personal interests and their political interests. How do Australians feel about that? There's also another slush fund we've found out about. That is money we could be spending on our fire-affected communities.

I'm glad we're having this discussion about the economic costs of climate change. The crisis this summer is already predicted to exceed $100 billion in cost terms. Add to that the floods we've seen in recent days from extreme weather events—a new record broken in Sydney for the highest rainfall in a short period of time—the hailstorms here in Canberra and the health effects from smoke inhalation. This cost to the economy—to small businesses, to individuals, to our GDP, to our surplus; however you want to frame it up—is ultimately going to be catastrophic as well. I say to all those people out there who know climate deniers—I know some, especially in this chamber. One just spoke before he left. He said he 'doesn't like to listen to the evidence'—that is a quote directly from Q&A. I say to them: talk to them about the economic cost. A lot of Liberal voters understand economics, they understand business and they understand the costs. This is tangible to them. It is black and white. It's a thing we should talk about a lot more because the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of action.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | | Hansard source

I do note that there are approximately five minutes remaining for the matter of public importance. Is there any senator who wishes to speak? Senator Whish-Wilson.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will if no-one else is on their feet. We saw this government when they were elected in 2013. Mr Tony Abbott, in one of the most ruthless and cynical political campaigns in this country's history, tore up all the parliamentary work that this parliament has legislated on clean energy, on transitioning our economy and on reducing our emissions. It was on the basis of one slogan: 'Axe the tax'—the cost of living, the cost of taking action on climate.

I ask Australians and especially small businesses out there who are suffering: what is the cost of inaction? If you listen to the best available science—and I know Senator Molan and others on that side don't want to listen to that science—we're on track for much worse in the future of this country if we don't reign in emissions and we don't show global leadership. This summer has to demonstrate to us that we are one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events from a changing climate, from a climate crisis. Australia stands to lose so much if we don't act.

While we have these unprecedented fires and we have these devastating impacts on small businesses in our communities, what do we get from this parliament? Today we got some stupid, hysterical debate in the other place about funding a coal-fired power station—government funding, taxpayers funding a coal-fired power station. On one hand this government wants to put in money to prop up a dying coal industry with its stranded assets for its own short-term, cynical political purposes, and on the other hand they take $76 million of taxpayers' money and give it to small businesses who have lost their livelihoods from these catastrophic fires, from these extreme weather events. The hypocrisy in this is actually sickening.

Australians want to see both chambers of their parliament, the House and the Senate, come together, put their political differences aside and act on climate change. While we can be kind and give public funds to small businesses, to farmers and to individual communities—while we can donate personally through philanthropy—the kindest and most honourable thing we can do, the highest possible honour we can give our fireys, those who lost their lives and those who have been impacted, is actually taking the threat of climate change seriously and mitigating the risks, doing what is essential. If we want to make sure that we don't see more disasters, more crises, more sadness, more heartbreak in future summers of this country in places like the east coast of Australia, in Western Australia, in South Australia, in Tasmania and, indeed, in the Northern Territory, we need to do something.

I am bitterly disappointed that in this week that we've been back to parliament, we're back to the same old tricks, the same old debates, talking about how we can prop up coal-fired power stations, rubbing our hands together gleefully about new coalmines, pushing ahead with offshore oil and gas development, fracking, and seismic blasting in Lake Macquarie in New South Wales. When it is going to end? When are we going to wake up and realise that we're at this time in history where we need to take strong, decisive action? We need to take radical action to curb emissions. We need to take the strongest possible action to act on climate change.

We have no time left. The time to transition to gas, to go to the middle ground, was 20 or 30 years ago. So I say acting on climate is the best thing we can do for small businesses and our communities around this country.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the discussion has expired.