Ombudsman tours regional Australia in disaster planning review, as CPA calls for ‘off the shelf’ support

regional business

CPA Australia has called for a ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ model for small businesses facing natural disasters, and Small and Family Business Ombudsman Bruce Bilson is touring the country to find out what support business owners want.

But one SME accountant says regional businesses are not engaged with the ombudsman’s Small Business Natural Disaster Preparedness and Resilience Enquiry. They’re too busy trying to recover from the last string of crises to think about the next one.

In a submission to the enquiry, CPA outlined several key recommendations, including that governments should fund an ‘off the shelf’ disaster policy, making support available to small businesses more quickly and easily.

While disasters such as bushfires and floods happen every year, there is not currently a scalable framework for response, the submission says.

The association suggested implementing what it called a “break glass in case of emergency” model for businesses affected by natural disasters, offering predetermined assistance frameworks that are available immediately once an emergency is declared.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Dr Jane Rennie, CPA Australia general manager for external affairs, notes that governments are often quick to provide support for individuals affected by natural disasters, but less so when it comes to supporting businesses.

“Based on our observations, not only is support often slow to be delivered, the processes involved are overly complex,” she explains.

“When support and information is delivered to businesses, we see duplication of effort and activity between governments and the private sector.

“Often, the knowledge and expertise developed from previous disasters has been lost.”

Are SMEs engaged in disaster planning?

Small Business Ombudsman Bruce Billson is currently touring regional towns and meeting with business owners who have been affected by natural disasters, to help inform the national enquiry and get a sense of what those on the ground really want and need.

So far, Billson’s stops have included the likes of Mackay, Lismore, Mogo, Merimbula and Bright. He is set to move on to Launceston and Burnie in Tasmania, as well as Newcastle, Cessnock and Wollongong.

An online survey inviting business owners to contribute to the ongoing enquiry has also received more than 2000 responses so far.

However, Jan Barned, a small business accountant based in Yarrawonga in north east Victoria, says the businesses she works with are not engaged with the enquiry, or thinking about disaster preparedness at all.

Barned says she met with the ombudsman at one of his tour stop offs.

“There were only three of us,” she says.

“Preparedness is very difficult to sell to small businesses,” she adds.

“They’re really more focused on recovery.”

Businesses in north east Victoria faced the devastating bushfires of the summer of 2019-20, immediately followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant missing out on two tourist seasons.

Their focus now is on getting money in the bank and getting through this summer season in one piece, Barned says.

For SMEs, preparedness is about having the right business processes in place, she explains. It’s things like adequate cashflow and strong revenues, and utilising assets to their full potential.

Businesses that have those processes in place “often bounce back a lot quicker”.

Currently, however, they don’t have the time and energy to focus on those things, Barned adds.

Disaster response should be localised

When it comes to the enquiry itself, Barned believes many small businesses are largely unaware it’s going on.

However, she would like to see any government support delivered in partnership with the local community — the local chamber of commerce and tourism board, for example.

A more localised approach will be key to get regional small businesses on board and more engaged with disaster preparedness plans. It’s also the way to make things like grants more easily accessible to SMEs.

“It’s very important in regional [areas] that it’s localised.”

Rennie agrees that any government support plan should prioritise local involvement. In order to avoid undercutting the local economy, disaster preparedness and response should prioritise locally-sourced goods and services, she suggests.

Governments should support local businesses to develop their own resilience plans “to help them prepare and ensure they have ownership and agency following a disaster”.

In a statement, Billson also said he has heard “time and time again” that local engagement, leadership and decision-making — informed by local knowledge — is critical in natural disaster scenarios.

“More often than not, it’s the local business communities who are experienced in disasters that affect their region that can best guide and support their business peers.”

Business owners can make a submission to the enquiry here, or complete the online survey here.

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