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Business grants hard to access, slow to arrive

Frustrated by lengthy delays in support payments and what they say is a lack of direct contact with the Chief Minister, local business groups have been invited to meet tomorrow with government officials from Economic Development who are managing the ACT’s lockdown Business Grant program.

Those Business Grants will provide $20,000 to employing businesses and $7,500 to non-employing businesses with an annual turnover of more than $75,000, a total payroll of less than $10 million, and whose turnover has declined by at least 30%.

Ten thousand businesses might be eligible, the ACT Government expects. As of Tuesday afternoon, Minister for Business Tara Cheyne said, more than 1,130 applications had been approved, to a value of more than $18.6 million.

But local business leaders said they knew of only two businesses that had been approved. They say the process is difficult and opaque, and that the government treats it like a normal grant activity, rather than as welfare support for businesses. John-Paul Romano, chair of the Inner-South Business Council, said he implored Ms Cheyne months ago to be able to keep businesses going.

“At my last meeting, the last thing I said before she left was: ‘Please, for the sake of God, be ready that if we go into lockdown, there are payments ready to go two or three days after lockdown starts.

“Six weeks into lockdown, and more than 5,000 businesses in Canberra haven’t got their money – and others don’t want to apply because they can see how difficult it is to get the money.”

Tom Adam, president of the Phillip Business Community called the application process a deterrent. “If [the government] think the application process was a simple one, they’re sorely mistaken.” The government had to update the website with examples of how to apply, he said. “If you need to update a process on how to do things, it means the process wasn’t clear.”

Business owners had been asked to provide information that was not originally requested, delaying their application.

“It shouldn’t take you 12 weeks to get a grant from the government,” Mr Adam said. “If you ask for information that wasn’t required at the start, and say: ‘Now we need this information, you go back to the start of the queue,’ you’re being disingenuous.”

Nor did business owners know the status of their application once they applied, Mr Adam said.

“The lack of transparency in the process is disgusting.”

Businesses needed certainty; they needed to know whether they had been approved, and when they would receive the funds. If they knew money would arrive in a month, they could plan for that contingency.

“Until I have a compass bearing to focus on, I’m floating in the ocean hoping that at some point a gust of wind will blow my sails. I don’t know which way to go, ” he said.

“Do I turn around and say: ‘Close the doors, my business is ruined’ – or do I keep fighting, trying to keep my customers on board, desperately seeking every single cent in the hope that I might get the business support grant in the future?”

Communication with the government was difficult, Mr Adam and Mr Romano said.

The government sent emails, with the businesses’ names copied and pasted; a telephone conversation would be easier, Mr Romano thought.

“If we can’t ring up and find out the status of our application, when you can go to the council and ask for an application update, it screams of ineptitude and a lack of ability to process it and a lack of understanding,” Mr Adam said.

Business leaders wanted the government to stop treating the grants as a normal grant activity, rather than as social welfare support for businesses.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency and emergency attached to this,” said Kel Watt, a spokesman for Braddon United Retailers and Traders.

Businesses desperately needed the money now, Mr Romano said. Many had nothing in their bank account, some were being threatened by the Tax Office, suppliers had cut off supplies, landlords were threatening to evict them, and some were suicidal.

“The government, six weeks into a lockdown, having had 18 months to prepare, has not put a cent in their bank account. That’s solely on the government.

“If something happens, all that delay is on the government’s hands – and they’ve got the blood on their hands.”

John-Paul Romano, chair of the Inner-South Business Council

Ms Cheyne acknowledged this was a difficult time for business. She said the ACT Government would change the system to ensure applicants were emailed notifications as they moved through the different stages of assessment. A large team worked seven days a week, and payments were approved seven days after applications opened.

Yesterday, the ACT and Federal Governments also announced an additional COVID-19 Business Grant Extension payment of $10,000 for all employing businesses and $3,750 for non-employing businesses.

Further one-off grants will be made to the tourism, accommodation, arts and events, and hospitality businesses of up to $20,000.

Liberal MLA Leanne Castley said businesses were desperate and unsure how much longer they could hold on.

“The Government has continually moved the goal posts on what financial documents need to be provided for the business grants to be paid, which is leaving many business owners frustrated, exhausted, and with little or no money left to operate,” she said.

“We are almost five weeks into a lockdown and only 10 per cent of eligible businesses have been provided with support by the Labor-Greens Government; this is cruel and a slap in the face to the business community.”

–Canberra Weekly


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