SME disaster relief: We need a national approach

feature-bushfire-200When the embers have cooled or the floods have passed, who’s looking after the sustainability of small business in regional Australia?

This year’s extreme heat and dry weather have again ensured Australia’s disaster season won’t end event free, with the Bureau of Meteorology on Monday recording its hottest day on record since 1972.

With recent bushfires in Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales and tropical Cyclone Narelle hitting Western Australia, local communities are preparing for the worst.

Tasmania’s estimated direct loss from the current bushfires already exceeds $42 million. That disaster’s true economic impact is yet to be realised. Emergency services and volunteer organisations remain on standby across Australia for fear of a repeat of the tragic Black Saturday bushfires that claimed 173 lives, 414 injuries and the destruction of 2,100 homes.

We count deaths, injuries and the destruction of property but we also need to think about long-term impacts on regional economies. Disasters can have a crippling effect on business in small towns and regional cities. That effect isn’t fixed by emergency support for householders rather than the small businesses essential for long-term regional viability.

After initial torment from natural disasters, individuals and communities are faced with substantial clean-up and recovery efforts. They are all too often impacted by the realisation that homes, vehicles, businesses and livestock have perished. They seek to answer the question ‘how will I afford to pay for this one?’.

For most individuals, short-term help is at hand. Financial assistance under the current disaster management framework is available through the Commonwealth’s Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (AGDRP). Assistance consists of a one-off payment of $1,000 per eligible adult and $400 per eligible child over the age of 16. The payments – activated by Emergency Management Minister Nicola Roxon on the advice of the Attorney-General’s Department – provide easily accessible disaster assistance for individuals to meet the immediate impacts of a disaster.

In addition to assistance provided through the AGDRP, personal hardship and distress payments for individuals are often made available under Category A of the joint Commonwealth-State Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA).

However, with assistance focusing on the individual, small business and primary producers are often left to “weather the storm”. Queensland local government is calling for disaster assistance reform to reduce burdens imposed by the very assistance seeking to alleviate burdens from disaster itself. It’s a call worth considering if we are serious about national resilience and regional sustainability, terms in media releases often not put into practice on a coherent national basis.

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