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Understanding the economic landscape of affected regions is essential to understanding how best to proceed with economic recovery assistance and activities. The provision of small injections of immediate or short-term assistance to enable businesses to get back on their feet needed to be balanced with a good understanding of the economic nuances of the region to support a robust long-term strategic economic recovery plan. Business mentoring enabled business owners and operators to understand sustainable options for their individual circumstances.
Those interviewed through the review were very positive about the role and benefits of having an experienced economic development officer with excellent local connections based at the DISH to provide mentoring and business advice. As a result of this work, most respondents agreed that a long-term and strategic approach to economic recovery was preferable to limited short-term assistance.
The review highlighted that some business owners thought that some of the rigorous assessment processes made access to financial assistance difficult. Some grants required supporting evidence that had either been destroyed or was unable to be produced, and this made administration of the grants complex and time-consuming.
There is an obvious need for the processes to be rigorous to ensure that decisions regarding funding are sound and transparent. There is no suggestion that the standards of evidence and assessment should be loosened, so this highlights the need for messages about safe record-keeping to be widely communicated to business owners before an emergency. Further to this, business owners must be reminded that following an emergency, expenditure receipts should be kept so that they may claim for legitimate expenses.
Another reason affected businesses found it difficult to access funding was partly due to legislative constraints concerning the disbursement of funds from registered charities. It was suggested that the consideration of immediate assistance for small businesses could be improved in future recovery efforts if certain tax implications were waived in instances of disaster recovery.
Because funds donated by the governments of South Australia and Western Australia were not from registered charities, they were able to be used for the Winter Package, which directly supported primary producers to recover their operations. This source of funding gave greater flexibility and enabled the implementation of programs to assist businesses, where other charitable funds were not able to be used for this purpose.
As previously noted, this also highlights the usefulness for donors to be given options for giving. Those who do not require tax deductibility of their donation may prefer the option to donate to businesses.
A further avenue that some respondents to the review raised was the provision of start-up funding and training support for social enterprise ideas which would help with recovery efforts. It was felt that either through Appeal or Tasmanian Government funding, the multiple benefits of this approach warrant exploration in this context. Outcomes could include provision of local employment, building entrepreneurial and business skills, as well as meeting social needs within the community.
The review found that the Tassie Comeback Tour advertising campaign was well received and successful at bringing people back into the region and in particular, galvanising community spirit and support for the benefit of the local businesses. This initiative was recognised as a worthwhile investment, as it had a noticeable effect on passing trade.
After its establishment in February 2013, STERG achieved its initial goals but found that short-term progress on the ground was difficult to bring about. Feedback suggests that STERG is seen to have potential as a driver for collaboration between both of the municipalities and considerable opportunity to contribute to the long-term economic recovery of the region, but that it was not necessarily the best vehicle for immediate assistance. The role of STERG going forward will continue to develop in collaboration with DEDTA according to the response to this opportunity by the local business community.
The provision of assistance through several major recovery programs targeted primary producers, as defined by the proportion of income derived from primary production being more than 51 per cent. This income threshold is agreed between Australian and State Government guidelines for disbursal of disaster relief funding for the clean-up and assistance grants.
While it is recognised that such a threshold is important, in some circumstances it did have the effect of excluding certain producers with mixed sources of income and newly established farms from recovery assistance programs. As this group of producers also provide an important economic contribution to regions, it was suggested that some flexibility should be considered when determining eligibility for future recovery programs, with regard to the long-term strategic economic focus of each region.
The financial assistance for primary producers and use in refencing, fodder and re-seeding was well received in general, although there were exceptions. It was repeatedly noted that it was difficult to help primary producers when assistance was couched in ‘hardship terms’; one respondent said, “You had to badger [farmers] to take some money.” Additionally, some respondents noted that the delivery of the Winter Assistance Package may have been more useful in providing the desired outcomes if it had been provided earlier.
In the period immediately following the bushfire, rural landowners were inundated with offers of assistance for restoring damaged and destroyed fences, clearing vegetation and other similar tasks. The impressive effect of this voluntary assistance can be measured in terms of kilometres fenced, for example, but feedback indicates that a higher value may have been in the morale boost provided to the recipients of this generous assistance.
While Volunteering Tasmania, BlazeAid, and Landcare Tasmania all worked hard to coordinate action for priority areas and supply volunteers with work and materials, the review identified that such efforts can prove very challenging. For example, at times BlazeAid volunteers were short on fencing materials and were therefore unable to progress with much needed works. Feedback suggests that there is scope to improve coordination and motivation of volunteers across the different phases of the recovery so that their extraordinary generosity can be best utilised in times and places of most need.
A similar contribution has been made by work-crews supervised by the Tasmania Prison Service. Originally initiated through the Winter Assistance Package, the program was extended twice, with a current conclusion planned for the end of April 2014.
This program has obvious benefits for the primary producers who receive assistance, and also provides an opportunity for the participants to build practical skills and make a contribution to the recovery effort. The success of the partnership is a reminder that collaborations can sometimes occur with unlikely partners.
Over the longer term, the enormity of the task and high cost of repairing fences has become increasingly apparent. These factors caused additional hardship for people whose properties were damaged by the bushfires and in some cases may have impeded their recovery. Assistance with costs and through provision of labour to affected landowners may reduce this ongoing impact and be of benefit to the broader community.
In addition, the added complexity of fence ownership and replacement costs when neighbouring land is publicly owned continues to cause concern. This issue may warrant further consideration, to ensure that fencing costs for repairs and replacements are equitable for all landowners, regardless of their neighbour.
In the period immediately following the bushfires, there was an acute need for stock feed and this was donated and organised on an ad-hoc basis by a number of individuals. While this was provided largely through donations, it was thought that the collection and distribution of this feed would benefit from a coordinated approach to provide quality control and ensure that donated feed is delivered to areas of greatest need. Subsequent discussions indicate that Rotary Tasmania would be well placed to be tasked with this role for future emergency and recovery efforts, having coordinated delivery of around 1,000 bales of feed in the early days after the fires.