The recent ‘Convoy to Canberra’ protests in the Australian capital have drawn headlines around conspiracy theories, anti-vax sentiment and supposed international involvement.
On the ground, however, they have also had a devastating effect on the local small business community — an effect Canberra locals are trying hard to counter.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Peter Strong, former chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia and Canberra local, says while the protesters were camped out at Canberra’s EPIC exhibition park, businesses in the area were virtually “under siege”.
The owner of one supermarket was physically manning the doors, only opening them to people who were wearing masks, he says.
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One pub was forced to close early on a Saturday night, other business owners were forced to call the police.
Reports suggest protesters have been denied entry to shops or restaurants for refusing to comply with check-in rules or wear facemasks. Some businesses have reportedly been hit with bad reviews as a result.
This disruption also kept regular customers away, ultimately costing business owners money.
“They would have in some cases lost many thousands of dollars,” Strong says.
That’s before considering the effects on staff members who were facing anger and abuse, and on business owners themselves.
Alan Tse, co-founder of Canberra-based Altina Drinks, says initially the protests were not too big of a deal. Everyone has a right to express their views, he tells SmartCompany.
“But things started getting out of hand as more of them arrived but also became more aggressive,” he explains.
Altina Drinks regularly participates in the weekly EPIC Farmer’s Market, he explains. Last weekend, protesters broke into the venue, and organisers deemed the market not safe to operate.
The event was cancelled at 5.30pm, less than 12 hours before it was due to begin at 5am the next morning.
For Altina, this meant missed sales opportunities.
“We are fortunate that our products are shelf-life stable … there are always other opportunities for the same products,” Tse explains.
For other business owners, however, the situation would have been “very frustrating”, he says.
“Businesses who have fresh produce or baked goods not only lost their opportunity to make a living, but products would have gone to waste.”
The role of politicians
While Strong notes that not all of the protesters were violent, disruptive or abusive to small business owners (or anyone else), he calls on the government and individual politicians to be more vocal in strongly condemning those that were.
“What’s happening to our society that these sorts of people seem to be able to freely walk around and abuse others?”
Elected representatives have a responsibility to help support and protect small businesses, he adds.
“Are we happy by people being given carte blanche … to go out and abuse small business people and their staff?”
Canberra’s community response
The disruption to businesses has, however, been countered by an outpouring of support from the local community.
People have reportedly been actively leaving glowing reviews of their favourite haunts, to counter one-star ratings from disgruntled protesters.
Last weekend, the protests forced mental health charity Lifeline to cancel its annual book fair, one of its biggest fundraising events of the year.
In response, the ACT government announced it would donate $25,000 to Lifeline Canberra, and the charity has reportedly seen donations of more than $700,000 since, both from Canberrans and from supporters around the country.
According to Strong, consumers were sharing information online about which areas to avoid. Later, they shared when those areas were safe again, encouraging people to get out there to support the local businesses.
Tse notes that he has also seen new farmer’s markets popping up, offering more opportunities for SMEs to make up for lost sales, particularly for businesses selling perishable goods.
Canberrans have “always been great local business supporters”, he adds.