Almost a year on since the miniature trains at Cockington Green were brought to a temporary stop, Mark Sarah reflects on the "pretty dire" situation which confronted businesses at the outset of Australia's coronavirus-induced lockdown.
All of Mr Sarah's staff were stood down as the Nicholls tourist attraction was forced into hibernation on March 23, just as the nation's bars, pubs and cinemas were amid a dramatic escalation in the fight to "flatten the curve" of COVID-19 cases.
Cockington Green's income had evaporated overnight, but there were still bills to pay from a summer tourist season wrecked by hazardous bushfire smoke.
"It was pretty uncertain times," Mr Sarah said.
"Luckily we were in a fairly good position as a business to be able to cover our debts and keep our team going for the time being. But it was pretty dire in the early days.
"All of us were scrambling to see how the business would continue."
As the nation's shuttered businesses pleaded for help and political pressure mounted on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his government stepped in and opened the Commonwealth's wallet wider than ever before.
The massive JobKeeper wage subsidy program unveiled on March 30 would prove a lifeline for the Australian economy, supporting about 3.5 million workers and almost a million companies through the crisis' darkest days.
The $100 billion lifeline will be pulled on Sunday, marking a critical juncture in the nation's response to the once-in-a-century economic shock.
But while the federal government is adamant now is the right time to end the support, sectors still subject to coronavirus restrictions fear they're about to fall off a financial cliff.
'There is optimism'
At the height of the lockdown in April and May, nearly a third of Canberra's private sector - which is made up of about 30,000 businesses and 150,000 workers - were relying on JobKeeper.
But that proportion has shrunk as restrictions have eased and Canberra's economy has bounced back strongly.
The eligibility criteria has been tightened as JobKeeper moved through its three phases, meaning businesses which have recovered have now "graduated" off the support.
The latest Treasury data estimates around 2900 businesses and 10,000 workers were still on JobKeeper in January.
Canberra Business Chamber chief executive Graham Catt said those figures aligned with his assessment that the pandemic-induced economic slump had split the local business community into three categories.
About 30 per cent of businesses were doing "very well", Mr Catt said. The challenge for them now was not retaining staff but rather finding them, such are the current skills shortages in sectors such as hospitality.
Mr Catt said about 60 per cent were doing OK.
It was the final 10 per cent which faced "really significant issues" beyond the removal of JobKeeper on Sunday. Those were businesses in sectors exposed to Australia's ongoing international travel ban, such as travel agents, tour operators and the international student market.
The live music and entertainment industries also continue to struggle, constrained by venue restrictions and a lack of major festivals.
But the Morrison government hasn't obliged. Instead, it has announced sector specific packages: a $1.2 billion aviation and tourism fund which includes half-price flights to selected destinations and a $135 million expansion of its RISE arts grant program.
'Something has to give'
MusicACT president Dave Caffery said grants were a "helpful boost", but not nearly enough.
Mr Caffery said Canberra's venue capacity restrictions - which he described as the most "conservative" in the country - meant the local industry wasn't financially viable.
If those venue restrictions remained in place, and JobKeeper was removed and not replaced with another similar form of support, many performers and venues would struggle to survive, he said.
"We were already brittle and marginal pre-COVID," he said.
"Something has to give. Either we sustain JobKeeper, move to 100 per cent [venue] capacity or we have a severely injured music industry."
'Do what is right, not what is popular'
Federal Labor this week sought to pressure the Coalition over the removal of JobKeeper for industries still in dire need, publishing analysis showing how much it would rip from local economies.
In Canberra, the economic loss was about $4.6 million a week, with suburbs in Belconnen and Gungahlin to be the hardest hit.
Labor is running the line that the wage subsidy is being removed too quickly, while the vaccine - seen as Australia's ticket to post-pandemic normality - is being rolled out too slowly.
Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy this week said up to 150,000 people could lose their job after JobKeeper ends, but believes now is an appropriate time to pull the program.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has for weeks argued the concept of an economy-wide wage subsidy is "no longer fit for purpose".
Part of his argument is that the Australian economy is bouncing back strongly, reflected in the fact that about 2.7 million people across 650,000 businesses have "graduated" off JobKeeper.
Mr Frydenberg has also warned of the risks in maintaining wage subsidies long-term, pointing to Treasury's review last year of the scheme which found it could disincentivise work and keep otherwise unviable businesses afloat.
While there is support within Coalition ranks to extend further support to hard-hit sectors, including arts and travel agents, there is agreement that JobKeeper has run its race.
"Politicians love giving other people's money away because it makes them very popular," Liberal backbencher Jason Falinski said.
"But the fact remains that at some point you actually have to do what is right, not what is popular.
"The right thing here is to actually ensure that we are using other people's money both responsibly and sensibly to support those sectors that need support while creating an environment in which the economy can grow."
'We'll be OK'
Mr Sarah said while his family-owned business would lose JobKeeper payments for a dozen or so staff, he was confident about Cockington Greens' financial future.
He said the business had "cut the fat" in parts of its operation throughout the pandemic, knowing it would need to eventually survive again under its own steam when the wage subsidy was pulled.
"Everybody knew that JobKeeper was going to come to an end," he said.
"There is a lot of people in tourism that really would have liked it to continue on, justifiably so, but we need to stand on our own two feet at some stage. I think we are well prepared for that."
Mr Sarah said the the snap border closures over the Christmas period - which saw Sydneysiders locked out of Canberra - showed the tourism industry remained in a precarious position.
But with school holidays on the horizon, and Floriade too, he's approaching 2021 with cautious optimism.
The summer rain has helped.
"Spring should be fantastic and it just gives you that little bit more confidence for the year moving forward," he said.
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