Re­tail res­cue: rent, tax re­lief

SHOP OWN­ERS’ DEBTS MAY BE COV­ERED THOU­SANDS OF WORK­ERS LAID OFF 90PC OF COM­PA­NIES FEAR FI­NAN­CIAL BLOW

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - DEN­NIS SHANA­HAN SI­MON BEN­SON GE­OFF CHAM­BERS

Scott Mor­ri­son is con­sid­er­ing an emer­gency stim­u­lus pack­age to un­der­write the com­mer­cial rents, rates, taxes and util­ity bills of re­tail­ers and small busi­nesses fac­ing col­lapse af­ter tens of thou­sands of jobs were shed on Thurs­day as the na­tion moved to­wards a re­tail shut­down.

The clo­sure of large re­tail chains as a re­sult of COVID-19 re­stric­tions has forced the govern­ment to con­sider putting busi­nesses into a “deep freeze”, with debt and rent holidays to keep them vi­able be­fore they are re­booted to lead the post-virus eco­nomic re­cov­ery.

The pack­age will be taken to the na­tional cabi­net meet­ing on Fri­day morn­ing where NSW and Vic­to­ria will flag “third stage” lock­downs that could see all nonessen­tial work­ers forced to stay home if in­fec­tion rates con­tinue to rise.

The na­tional death toll from COVID-19 in­fec­tions rose to 13 on Thurs­day night, with the to­tal num­ber of cases ris­ing to 2806.

A na­tion­wide sur­vey by the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics has re­vealed that 90 per cent of com­pa­nies are brac­ing for a mas­sive fi­nan­cial blow, with 50 per cent of busi­nesses claim­ing to have al­ready been sig­nif­i­cantly hit.

Fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments are con­sid­er­ing fur­ther res­cue pack­ages to ad­dress the col­lapse of busi­ness for re­tail­ers, small traders and shops that were fac­ing a “force ma­jeure” and likely clo­sure be­cause of a lack of sales.

States are al­ready look­ing at ways to re­duce te­nancy costs, such as land tax and pay­roll charges to ex­tend the life of small busi­nesses.

The con­cept of putting small busi­nesses into a cryo­genic fi­nan­cial state, to be re­vived later to lead the eco­nomic re­cov­ery, would mean shield­ing them from for­mal at­tempts to fore­close on loans, be­ing sued over rent or te­nancy agree­ments or be­ing forced into in­sol­vency.

The move comes as re­tail gi­ants Pre­mier In­vest­ments and Ac­cent Group an­nounced on Thurs­day the tem­po­rary clo­sure of all stores across the coun­try in re­sponse to COVID-19 and a col­lapse in foot traf­fic. In a state­ment to the ASX, Pre­mier In­vest­ments said it would close its Aus­tralian stores for four weeks, di­rectly im­pact­ing 9000 jobs here and over­seas. The cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories gi­ant, which owns Smiggle, Dotti, Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Port­mans, Peter Alexander and Jac­qui E, has said it will not pay rent to land­lords.

Footwear re­tailer Ac­cent Group, which owns The Ath­lete’s Foot, Platy­pus and Hype, will close more than 500 stores for a month and stand down up to 4500 staff.

De­spite ex­emp­tions be­ing provided by the na­tional cabi­net for hair­dressers and bar­bers, ma­jor hair­dress­ing chains have de­cided to tem­po­rar­ily shut their doors.

Fac­ing do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional travel re­stric­tions, Flight Cen­tre on Thurs­day stood down 6000 work­ers glob­ally, in­clud­ing 3800 work­ers in Aus­tralia, as air travel grinds to a halt. The

an­nounce­ment fol­lowed moves this week by Qan­tas, Virgin and Hel­loworld to shed a com­bined 29,500 jobs in re­sponse to travel bans.

Tens of thou­sands more jobs have been lost in the hos­pi­tal­ity, health and tourism sec­tors, with cafes, restau­rants, gyms, bars and clubs forced to shut­down. Casino oper­a­tors Crown Re­sorts and Star En­ter­tain­ment this week stood down up to 17,100 em­ploy­ees.

Mall and shop­ping cen­tre own­ers have been urged by the in­dus­try body to agree to not ter­mi­nate leases for non-pay­ment of rents fol­low­ing re­ports that some shop­ping cen­tre own­ers were squeez­ing small re­tail­ers.

Shop­ping Cen­tre Coun­cil of Aus­tralia chair­man Peter Allen said: “This is sur­pris­ing and, if cor­rect, very dis­ap­point­ing and frus­trat­ing to hear.”

The na­tional cabi­net is on Fri­day ex­pected to re­con­sider po­ten­tial school clo­sures in term two and whether fur­ther lock­down re­stric­tions may be nec­es­sary fol­low­ing the health pro­tec­tion com­mit­tee’s warn­ing that the next step could in­volve “clo­sure of all ac­tiv­ity ex­cept es­sen­tial in­dus­tries and ser­vices”.

State gov­ern­ments have flagged a shift to learn­ing from home fol­low­ing the Easter holidays and be­gun urg­ing par­ents to keep chil­dren away from schools.

Josh Fry­den­berg said on Mon­day Trea­sury was ex­pect­ing that an ex­tra one mil­lion peo­ple, in­clud­ing sole traders, ca­su­als and work­ers, could be forced on to welfare sup­port fol­low­ing the mass clo­sures of busi­nesses across the na­tion.

Through a mix of di­rect fis­cal and mone­tary pol­icy mea­sures, the Mor­ri­son govern­ment and the Re­serve Bank have pledged $190bn in sup­port of small busi­nesses, key sec­tors, work­ers, families and welfare re­cip­i­ents to com­bat the eco­nomic shock from COVID-19.

Fi­nance Min­is­ter Mathias Cor­mann went on the at­tack over An­thony Al­banese’s de­mands for stronger and faster lock­downs on Thurs­day, ac­cus­ing the Op­po­si­tion Leader of un­der­min­ing ex­pert med­i­cal ad­vice.

“Things are tough enough out there without po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary un­der­min­ing the med­i­cal ad­vice and sug­gest­ing that we should close down even more busi­nesses where the med­i­cal ad­vice doesn’t says we should,” Se­na­tor Cor­mann said. “We are never go­ing to close down busi­nesses based on po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions. If there is a de­ci­sion to close down cer­tain sec­tors in the econ­omy, it is go­ing to be be­cause the med­i­cal ad­vice clearly and un­equiv­o­cally in­di­cates that is re­quired to pro­tect peo­ple’s health and to save lives.”

The com­mon­wealth’s Deputy Chief Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer, Paul Kelly, has been forced to weigh into the po­lit­i­cal stoush, say­ing the pub­lic com­men­tary by a grow­ing num­ber of health pro­fes­sion­als is lead­ing to con­fu­sion and un­clear mes­sages. “It’s not help­ful,” he said.

The lat­est ad­vice from the med­i­cal body set up to pro­vide rec­om­men­da­tions to the na­tional cabi­net re­veals chief med­i­cal of­fi­cers were draw­ing up lock­down mea­sures that would likely be a “carefully con­sid­ered clo­sure of all ac­tiv­ity ex­cept es­sen­tial in­dus­tries and ser­vices”.

COLIN MURTY

Po­lice divers at Fremantle Har­bour dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion, in sight of the cruise ship Ar­ta­nia, moored off nearby Rot­tnest Is­land

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