The coronavirus isn't just a threat to the health of so many Canberrans, it is already dramatically affecting our way of life in ways most of us would have thought unimaginable. For many, the direct personal risk of coronavirus has been compounded by the rapid loss of their livelihoods and life savings. On the front lines of this chaos are local businesses who need an immediate suspension of commercial rates, along with other measures, to help them and the thousands of Canberrans they employ.
Consider the husband and wife team who run your local café. With ever increasing restrictions, they are now fighting to keep their business open. Their rent still needs to be paid, they've got thousands of dollars of stock that will soon expire, and they are not sure how they will meet their mortgage repayments. To cap it off, they now need to become full-time teachers as well. Yes, they can try to reinvent themselves as a takeaway store, but that will only meet 10 per cent of their usual trade. They've already let their casuals go and their full-time chef has been stood down. This story is being repeated over and over across Canberra. Every gym, every café, every restaurant, every dance studio, tour business, hotel, community club, local sporting team, and more are in a similar or even worse situation.
In the last couple of weeks, I have spoken with more than 100 of these local businesses, and heard countless heartbreaking stories. On one occasion, as I arrived at the agreed time, the business owners and staff were in tears; they had just closed, and the administrators were arriving the next day. The pain is real and it is being experienced right now. The demand for mental health services, including Lifeline, will be significant. Sadly, this story is not unique - literally hundreds of local small businesses have been forced to farewell staff who are now for the first time seeking welfare.
Many local businesses are desperately exploring creative new ways to stay open, from the restaurant owner who is now serving from their restaurant window, the gin producer who has turned to manufacturing hand sanitiser, or the personal trainer who is now offering video tuition. However, while this will bring in some income, the reality is that most businesses have few opportunities to innovate, and even those who do won't be able to pay their rent or retain staff. They're going backwards at a frightening pace.
I've had numerous telephone calls from distressed business owners asking for rent relief, rates suspensions, a pause on their credits and liabilities. Quite simply, they can't trade and therefore have no way to pay these bills. They're sceptical about interest-free loans or deferred payments because that could make the situation worse by increasing their future liabilities. The ACT government cannot continue to charge massive commercial rates bills when these families are struggling to put food on the table.
The Canberra Liberals join others in calling on the ACT government to immediately suspend commercial rates, at the very least for businesses that have ceased trading. This measure would go some way to ensuring that these businesses are more likely to survive this crisis.
These are extraordinarily difficult times and our local businesses are doing everything they can to show kindness and compassion to their staff and their community. The ACT government must do the same to Canberra's employers.
- Alistair Coe is the Leader of the Opposition for the ACT.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
We have removed our paywall from our stories about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly changing situation and we want to make sure our readers are as informed as possible. If you would like to support our journalists you can subscribe here.