Re­cov­ery funds to hit bud­get

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - GE­OFF CHAM­BERS ROSIE LEWIS

Scott Mor­ri­son is pre­par­ing to un­veil new fund­ing and re­cov­ery mea­sures in re­sponse to calls to fast-track fi­nan­cial and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port for small busi­nesses, tourism oper­a­tors and key re­gional in­dus­tries rav­aged by the bush­fire dis­as­ter.

The Prime Min­is­ter, who will an­nounce a $50m pack­age on Wed­nes­day for ad­di­tional food vouch­ers, sup­port ser­vices and fi­nan­cial coun­selling, spoke with more than 70 busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Can­berra on Tues­day to dis­cuss fur­ther stim­u­lus op­tions.

Busi­ness lead­ers pressed Mr Mor­ri­son to ac­cel­er­ate a small­busi­ness pack­age, which would in­clude im­me­di­ate cash­flow mea­sures and fi­nan­cial relief, grants and in­ter­est-free loans to help re­build lo­cal economies.

An­nounc­ing an ini­tial $100m fund to sup­port up to 19,000 farm­ers, fish­ers and foresters in fireaf­fected re­gions, Mr Mor­ri­son in­di­cated on Tues­day that the bud­get bot­tom line would take a hit but would not com­pro­mise the “broader fis­cal po­si­tion”.

The gov­ern­ment is ex­pected to pri­ori­tise fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to re­build in­fra­struc­ture and sup­port farm­ers, wine­mak­ers, tourism oper­a­tors, wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and small busi­nesses.

Anal­y­sis by pri­vate satel­lite map­ping con­sul­tants Dig­i­tal Agri­cul­ture Ser­vices shows nearly a mil­lion hectares of prime agri­cul­tural land has been dam­aged by bush­fires, along with more than 1.6 mil­lion hectares of log­ging forests and tree plan­ta­tions, ac­cord­ing to the first sci­en­tific study match­ing fire zones to land use.

The anal­y­sis shows al­most as much pro­duc­tive land has been caught up in the in­fer­nos as na­tional parks and other con­ser­va­tion zones, 3.2 mil­lion hectares of which are in the bush­fire ar­eas de­fined by four states.

The DAS study records the big­gest pro­por­tional im­pact of the fires in na­tional parks and forestry, par­tic­u­larly in NSW, where of­fi­cial bush­fire bound­aries cover 25 per cent of con­ser­va­tion ar­eas and 30 per cent of na­tive pro­duc­tion forests and tree plan­ta­tions. It shows nearly 50,000 struc­tures are within the fire zones, though it is not known how many of those have been de­stroyed and how many were saved.

Fol­low­ing a com­bined na­tional se­cu­rity and spend­ing re­view com­mit­tee meet­ing on Tues­day, Mr Mor­ri­son held a small busi­ness roundtable along­side Josh Fry­den­berg, Small Busi­ness Min­is­ter Michaelia Cash and Na­tional Bush­fire Re­cov­ery Agency co­or­di­na­tor An­drew Colvin.

The Prime Min­is­ter praised the “pas­sion and enthusiasm” of small-busi­ness oper­a­tors in fireaf­fected com­mu­ni­ties and told them the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was work­ing with states, coun­cils and big busi­ness, in­clud­ing re­tail­ers and banks, to help sup­port them.

“They have a pas­sion which is ex­tra­or­di­nary but it is a pas­sion that I know would have been un­der ex­treme threat and ex­treme chal­lenge as we work through these ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances on the ground,” Mr Mor­ri­son said.

Se­nior cabi­net min­is­ters are hold­ing round­tables with key stake­holder groups meet­ing with dis­abil­ity, trans­port, health, en­vi­ron­men­tal, char­ity, sci­ence, ed­u­ca­tion, tourism, agri­cul­ture and fi­nan­cial sec­tor rep­re­sen­ta­tives and groups.

Aus­tralian Cham­ber of Com­merce and In­dus­try chief ex­ec­u­tive James Pear­son, who at­tended the roundtable, said he hoped the gov­ern­ment pack­age would pro­vide di­rect fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance and called on au­thor­i­ties to en­sure red tape did not hold up fund­ing be­ing pro­vided to busi­nesses.

“For busi­nesses in the fireaf­fected com­mu­ni­ties, cash is king, and right now they don’t have any,’’ Mr Pear­son said. “Ev­ery ef­fort should be made by gov­ern­ment at all lev­els, the pri­vate sec­tor

and the pub­lic to in­ject cash into re­gional busi­nesses as soon as pos­si­ble. What that can mean is that peo­ple who have can­celled their book­ings to re­gional com­mu­ni­ties should roll over their book­ing, not ask for a re­fund. Don’t just can­cel but resched­ule.”

Mr Mor­ri­son said the gov­ern­ment’s $50m pack­age to sup­port char­i­ties would “help stim­u­late bush­fire-af­fected com­mu­ni­ties”.

“For many peo­ple right now, it’s the ba­sics that count,’’ he said. “We need to make sure ev­ery­one has food on the ta­ble and clothes on their backs. We will di­rect relief providers to team up with lo­cal busi­nesses so this money can have a dual ef­fect of help­ing fam­i­lies get back on their feet as well as boost­ing lo­cal economies.”

Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Brid­get McKenzie, who an­nounced ex­tra sup­port for pri­mary pro­duc­ers — pro­vid­ing up to $75,000 in grants for farm, fish and forestry busi­nesses — warned su­per­mar­ket gi­ants not to short-change bush­fire and drought-af­fected farm­ers.

Se­na­tor McKenzie said they had to be up­front on prices be­cause “farm­ers don’t grow food for free” and needed to “make a liv­ing”. She said Aus­tralians would have to pay more for their fruit and veg­eta­bles, meat and milk as a re­sult of the bush­fires and drought.

“The su­per­mar­kets … need to let the Aus­tralian pub­lic know that be­cause of the bush­fires and the drought, you will have to pay more for your milk. Pro­ces­sors are do­ing the right thing by farm­ers, by ac­tu­ally pay­ing milk cheques when in many cases they’re not get­ting the prod­uct,” she said.

“There­fore, that’s hav­ing an im­pact on their busi­ness. It’s up to the su­per­mar­kets to not just talk about be­ing the fresh food peo­ple, but get on with sup­port­ing in a very real and tan­gi­ble way be­cause farm­ers don’t grow food for free. It’s a busi­ness.’’

The two ma­jor su­per­mar­kets said while drought con­tin­ued to be a ma­jor is­sue for sup­pli­ers, farm­ers and grow­ers, they were yet to see any im­pact on their fresh food sup­ply chains from the fires.

Mr Mor­ri­son said that as sup­port fund­ing ramped up: “These is­sues will be rec­on­ciled when the bud­get is brought down in May to as­sess the over­all im­pact of where ex­pen­di­ture has come to on these is­sues be­tween now and then.

“I’ve made it re­ally clear that my fo­cus is on de­liv­er­ing the re­cov­ery and the sup­port and what is needed now, and pay­ing the price and the costs that are needed to be met here and now and over … at least, the next two years.”

SEAN DAVEY

Sa­man­tha Knee­shaw sub­merged her­self in her swim­ming pool at Lake Con­jola for 10 min­utes with her dive tank dur­ing the New Year’s Eve fire

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