The government’s support for bushfire-affected small businesses is a substantial relief package, but what small business really needs from parliament is a plan to tackle climate change today. Not tomorrow, not in 10 years, today.
This bushfire season, we have witnessed one of the most devastating environmental crises our country has ever experienced. It is hard to put the level of loss experienced across Australia these past few months into words, but I’m sure we have all felt it. In turn, we’ve seen humanity at its best — the incredible bravery of firefighters and first responders, the outpouring of generosity from Australian communities and friends around the globe.
Just this weekend, 75,000 people attended the Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert, showing support for the victims and volunteers, and bringing attention to the ongoing impact this fire season has had.
And while there are still bushfires burning, there has also been a surge of support for small businesses affected by the disaster. Many of the areas hit hardest are coastal communities whose local economies depend on tourism and retail. Grassroots movements such as Empty Esky and Spend With Them are urging Australians to visit and shop in bushfire-affected areas to help the quick restoration of local economies.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of the Australian economy. What these community-led movements acknowledge is that small business (and the people behind them) have taken a critical hit, the effects of which will be felt for years to come.
Last month, the government held a small business roundtable to determine the extent of the problem. The scale of this meeting between small business and federal members has been described as ‘unprecedented’, with over 50 small business groups and representatives meeting directly with the Prime Minister, Treasurer, and Small Business Minister.
The federal response to the roundtable was quick, with the PM tweeting his commitment to “help small business rebuild” whatever the cost, followed by a formal small business support package consisting of loans, grants and tax assistance, designed to address concerns raised in the round table. This short-term financial relief is essential and it’s heartening to see both a clear monetary commitment and the federal government taking notice of the concerns raised by small business representatives.
That being said, it’s important we establish something here — there is a world of difference between disaster relief, medium-term adaptation and true long-term mitigation of the effects of climate change that will deliver resilience for small businesses.
This package is a relief measure, not a plan.
A relief measure would be a sufficient response from the government if what we were dealing with this bushfire season was a one-off, freak event. Unfortunately, that’s not what we are dealing with. This crisis is the result of human-made climate change and, if we continue on our current emissions trajectory, we will see its scale happen again and again. We’re already hitting the impacts head-on in an unequivocal way.
The response small business needs from the government now needs to be more rigorous and extensive than a one-off financial boost. It should show how the government is taking necessary action to stop this happening again.
But against the backdrop of announcing this package, the government is still asserting that Australia is doing enough to combat climate change, that we will ‘meet and beat’ our emissions targets, that there is no need for further reduction measures and that, as Minister Corrman argued last month at Davos, ‘not all coal mines are bad’.
The reality is Australia has the worst performance on climate policy out of 57 countries.
Is this acceptable in a country whose economy and wellbeing is so dependent on the weather?
If the government won’t take immediate measures to decarbonise our economy, then relief packages alone are like rebuilding a house of cards while a gale is blowing.
To rebuild trust with small businesses, a government response needs to go beyond disaster relief. Politicians need to demonstrate they understand the long-term economic risks at play here and how they will impact small businesses. Because it’s small business that will bear the economic brunt of climate change first.
The government must move beyond partisan point-scoring to make way for responsible policy development and a demonstration to small businesses that their success is worth more than a dig at the opposition. It might seem like a big ask but the Australian government has set aside its differences before to push through legislation — just consider the success of the bi-partisan approach to gun control legislation, one of the most successful policy responses to gun violence in history. It can do it again, if it takes the moral and economic imperative seriously.
What would a bi-partisan approach look like this time around? A full-throated acknowledgement that human-made climate change is occurring. A carbon price that will fund disaster relief and adaptation measures. Everyday Australian and small business shouldn’t have to foot the bill while massive mining corporations skirt responsibility. Taking an active, constructive role in international climate change dialogues. These are all things that the government could establish today.
The most meaningful response the government could make for small businesses in light of the bushfire crisis is a real plan to combat climate change. An economy built on agriculture, tourism, and small business cannot afford inaction. This is the time to step up.