More than 700 applications, 147 approved: Bushfire-affected businesses left waiting for government grants

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The remains of a house destroyed by a bushfire in rural NSW. Source: AAP/Dan Peled.

Hundreds of small businesses in bushfire-affected communities are still waiting to find out if their applications for government grants will be successful, almost two months after the Morrison government announced its small business-focused relief package

During Senate estimates hearings yesterday, it was revealed there have been 738 grant applications from businesses in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. 

Of those, 147 have been approved. 

Additionally, there have been 104 applications for concessional loans, but only five of those have been approved. 

Andrew Colvin, head of the government’s newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency, was questioned about the delays by parliamentarians during the estimates hearing, according to the ABC.

While Colvin said he believes the agency has “acted pretty quickly” to distribute funds to affected businesses, he said given the agency is “dealing with public money, and taxpayer dollars, we need to ensure that’s done in an appropriate way”.

At least part of the hold-up appears to be because of the division of responsibilities between the federal and state levels of government. While the federal government is providing the funds for the business grants, these are being administered by the states.

The delay also comes amid ongoing uncertainty about which businesses are in fact eligible for government assistance. 

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in January grants worth $50,000 would be available to affected businesses, on closer inspection, it emerged the available grants would instead be split into two separate $25,000 claims

The federal grants will also only be available to firms with fewer than 20 full-time workers, and which have suffered “direct damage” as a result of the fires.

Speaking to SmartCompany this morning, Peter Strong, chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia, said COSBOA has been speaking with members of the government and sending the message that “we need to react differently, and react quicker to the needs of communities”. 

While Strong acknowledges the role of both the Commonwealth and the state governments in contributing to the delays, he says this is not the first time small businesses have been left waiting for help after natural disasters.

“We’ve learnt this lesson before, but we haven’t applied it,” he says.

The application forms for these grants and loans are complex and time-consuming, says Strong, and while it is important such process adhere to relevant guidelines for responsible lending, the reality is it makes it “difficult to react when there’s urgency”.

Meanwhile, some small businesses in bushfire-affected areas are also waiting to be reimbursed by the state governments for services used by personnel at the height of the firefighting effort. 

Sally Bouckley, owner of Southbound Escapes, an accommodation business in Narooma on the NSW South Coast, told the ABC she is owed $6,000 by the New South Wales government for hotel rooms used by bushfire evacuees.

Bouckley says she was told the invoice would be paid within 30 days, but that time has now lapsed.

“I just think that for businesses that have been financially impacted the way they have, it would be really nice if they could have paid us a bit sooner,” she said.

The NSW government is now reportedly urgently looking into the matter, after being questioned by the ABC. 

NOW READ: Confusion reigns as promised $50,000 bushfire grants for SMEs split in two

NOW READ: Tax reprieve for SMEs as ATO offers bushfire support

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