Scott Morrison is preparing to unveil new funding and recovery measures in response to calls to fast-track financial and logistical support for small businesses, tourism operators and key regional industries ravaged by the bushfire disaster.
The Prime Minister, who will announce a $50m package on Wednesday for additional food vouchers, support services and financial counselling, spoke with more than 70 business representatives in Canberra on Tuesday to discuss further stimulus options.
Business leaders pressed Mr Morrison to accelerate a small-business package, which would include immediate cashflow measures and financial relief, grants and interest-free loans to help rebuild local economies.
Announcing an initial $100m fund to support up to 19,000 farmers, fishers and foresters in fire-affected regions, Mr Morrison indicated on Tuesday that the budget bottom line would take a hit but would not compromise the “broader fiscal position”.
The government is expected to prioritise financial assistance to rebuild infrastructure and support farmers, winemakers, tourism operators, wildlife rehabilitation and small businesses.
Analysis by private satellite mapping consultants Digital Agriculture Services shows nearly a million hectares of prime agricultural land has been damaged by bushfires, along with more than 1.6 million hectares of logging forests and tree plantations, according to the first scientific study matching fire zones to land use.
The analysis shows almost as much productive land has been caught up in the infernos as national parks and other conservation zones, 3.2 million hectares of which are in the bushfire areas defined by four states.
The DAS study records the biggest proportional impact of the fires in national parks and forestry, particularly in NSW, where official bushfire boundaries cover 25 per cent of conservation areas and 30 per cent of native production forests and tree plantations. It shows nearly 50,000 structures are within the fire zones, though it is not known how many of those have been destroyed and how many were saved.
Following a combined national security and spending review committee meeting on Tuesday, Mr Morrison held a small business roundtable alongside Josh Frydenberg, Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash and National Bushfire Recovery Agency co-ordinator Andrew Colvin.
The Prime Minister praised the “passion and enthusiasm” of small-business operators in fire-affected communities and told them the federal government was working with states, councils and big business, including retailers and banks, to help support them.
“They have a passion which is extraordinary but it is a passion that I know would have been under extreme threat and extreme challenge as we work through these terrible circumstances on the ground,” Mr Morrison said.
Senior cabinet ministers are holding roundtables with key stakeholder groups meeting with disability, transport, health, environmental, charity, science, education, tourism, agriculture and financial sector representatives and groups.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson, who attended the roundtable, said he hoped the government package would provide direct financial assistance and called on authorities to ensure red tape did not hold up funding being provided to businesses.
“For businesses in the fire-affected communities, cash is king, and right now they don’t have any,’’ Mr Pearson said. “Every effort should be made by government at all levels, the private sector and the public to inject cash into regional businesses as soon as possible. What that can mean is that people who have cancelled their bookings to regional communities should roll over their booking, not ask for a refund. Don’t just cancel but reschedule.”
Mr Morrison said the government’s $50m package to support charities would “help stimulate bushfire-affected communities”.
“For many people right now, it’s the basics that count,’’ he said. “We need to make sure everyone has food on the table and clothes on their backs. We will direct relief providers to team up with local businesses so this money can have a dual effect of helping families get back on their feet as well as boosting local economies.”
Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie, who announced extra support for primary producers — providing up to $75,000 in grants for farm, fish and forestry businesses — warned supermarket giants not to short-change bushfire and drought-affected farmers.
Senator McKenzie said they had to be upfront on prices because “farmers don’t grow food for free” and needed to “make a living”. She said Australians would have to pay more for their fruit and vegetables, meat and milk as a result of the bushfires and drought.
“The supermarkets … need to let the Australian public know that because of the bushfires and the drought, you will have to pay more for your milk. Processors are doing the right thing by farmers, by actually paying milk cheques when in many cases they’re not getting the product,” she said.
“Therefore, that’s having an impact on their business. It’s up to the supermarkets to not just talk about being the fresh food people, but get on with supporting in a very real and tangible way because farmers don’t grow food for free. It’s a business.’’
The two major supermarkets said while drought continued to be a major issue for suppliers, farmers and growers, they were yet to see any impact on their fresh food supply chains from the fires.
Mr Morrison said that as support funding ramped up: “These issues will be reconciled when the budget is brought down in May to assess the overall impact of where expenditure has come to on these issues between now and then.
“I’ve made it really clear that my focus is on delivering the recovery and the support and what is needed now, and paying the price and the costs that are needed to be met here and now and over … at least, the next two years.”