It goes without saying that the bushfire emergency over the past two weeks in SA, NSW and Victoria – and the related evacuation of large areas in some of these Australian states – is unprecedented. The most recent emergency comes on the back of bushfire destruction in NSW and QLD in October and November 2019.

In the face of these bushfires, there have been some incredible stories of survival and of businesses going that extra yard to ensure that emergency services are supported – and that affected communities have the basic services they need.

“We have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to the coordination efforts between emergency services, government bodies and the fuel industry over recent weeks”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

“Suffice to say, I am proud to be part of an industry that has risen to the challenge of supporting fire crews as that battled large fires and of supporting local communities by doing whatever was necessary to ensure vital fuel supplies were maintained in fire affected regions – or restored quickly when interrupted by fire”, said Mark

With a large number of uncontrolled fires still burning, the risk is not over for many communities but, for others, the process of rebuilding their businesses and local communities has just begun.

Importantly, this process isn’t just about providing immediate relief. For many businesses, their revenues were well below average for much of the past year as a result of the drought. Lower agricultural production in many regional areas has served to reduce household income which, in turn, has meant that most people in these communities have less to spend with local businesses – and so many businesses were struggling before the fires hit.

Areas like the NSW South Coast and Victoria’s Gippsland region had been looking forward to a much-needed revenue boost from the 2019/20 holiday season only to find tourist numbers wiped out by road closures and large-scale evacuations.

“To say that the recent bushfires in the midst of a three-year drought have devasted many regional and rural communities in Australia would be an understatement – but you learn from talking to many affected local communities that they remain committed to getting back up on their feet. again”, said Mark

The list of support needs is long and varied. For some business owners it is about knowing what they can claim for and how to submit insurance claims. For others, it is about reinstatement of critical electricity and telecommunications infrastructure or replenishment of stock losses.

For businesses located in towns affected by the previous fires some months ago, their challenge is the loss of foot traffic which has reduced seasonal revenues by up to 60% compared with the same period last year. Similar issues are being experienced by businesses not directly impacted by fire but operating in summer holiday locations that are largely deserted.

The impact is even being felt by businesses and communities located on the major routes to and from the big summer holiday destinations. In the town of Braidwood, the three-week closure of the Kings Highway – the main route between Canberra and the holiday regions of the NSW South Coast – has resulted in some businesses suffering a 90% reduction in seasonal revenues – and subsequently electing to close their doors.

Armed with a knowledge of issues affecting our members, ACAPMA has been working with the Federal Government and other industry associations to better understand how businesses affected by the fires can be supported as the grapple with the substantial challenges associated with rebuilding their businesses – and the communities they serve.

Thankfully, and despite media reports to the contrary, all Australian Governments and major industry sectors have moved quickly to support local businesses in affected communities. This has included introduction of measures designed to assist with the immediate cash flow challenges now being faced by many businesses.

Australian banks, for example, have implemented comprehensive actions that include the provision of ‘repayment holidays ‘on business loans for businesses that have been affected by the disasters in recent months. Assistance includes options to restructure repayments over the medium term to reduce the drag on cashflow during the business recovery process.

Energy and telecommunication companies have put a hold on ‘robot payment reminder’ systems and encouraged affected businesses to make contact to check whether they qualify for special assistance – but at the very least, ensuring that affected businesses are not pestered by automatic payment reminder systems at a time of significant stress.

The Australian Tax office (ATO) has already instigated assistance measures for all affected businesses, with these measures having been introduced several months ago when the first fires hit communities in south-east Queensland and northern NSW.

ATO support includes providing affected businesses with automatic 2-month deferral of payment and lodgement obligations (including BAS payments and lodgements).  The ATO can also waive penalties, provide interest free periods or set up payment plans for those impacted by natural disasters such as these fires.

ACAPMA understands that the ATO is in the process of updating eligible postcodes (where businesses in these postcodes are eligible for automatic relief). Affected businesses in postcode areas not currently identified, or businesses seeking more information on what assistance is available, are encouraged to contact the ATO Emergency Support Hotline on 1800 806 218.

Financial assistance programmes have also been announced by the Commonwealth Government and many State/Territory Governments. These programmes include interest free loans with a two-year repayment holiday so that businesses can purchase assets and equipment needed to rebuild infrastructure and inventories.

All Australian governments have advised that they understand that there will also be a need to help businesses rebuild customer foot traffic over the medium to long term and a series of measures are currently being developed to assist with this process.

The big message here is that businesses impacted by the disasters in recent months should contact key government and service providers to see what relief is available. The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) is also a good source of information for affected businesses.

“Many business owners will be suffering extreme anxiety in the face of what appears to be an insurmountable challenge and this has been one of the major issues that has been emphasised in communications with all Australian governments in recent days – with an urgent need for support services to be provided to these people”, said Mark

“Thankfully, there are a raft of organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army that have already been deployed into fire affected regions for this purpose”, added Mark.

For its part, ACAPMA stands ready to assist affected member businesses (and local communities) with the challenges of rebuilding by providing guidance on the assistance that is available and making connections with support services where required.

Members experience difficulty in securing assistance, or encountering difficulty in processing insurance claims are welcome to contact the ACAPMA Secretariat on 1300 160 270 or by emailing Mark McKenzie via markm@acapma.com.au (or calling Mark on 0447 444 011).