Just south of Batemans Bay in NSW is a village called Mogo, with a population of about 300, a private zoo and up until late last year, a charming array of heritage buildings reflecting its gold rush heritage.
Lisa Paul, Co-ordinator of the BizRebuild
On New Year’s Eve, Mogo got caught in the voracious progress of the state’s bushfires. One in four of the village’s businesses were destroyed. Within weeks, Mogo’s fate was being repeated across a black summer of fires that barreled down the Australian east coast and devastated four states.
Six weeks after Mogo’s fire, a convoy of trucks rolled into the village, carrying demountable buildings that would become the start of Mogo’s new pop-up mall. The buildings were donated by ATCO but the initiative was part of the Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) BizRebuild project that aims to get bushfire-affected small business back on its feet.
BizRebuild was one of two bushfire-related initiatives that the BCA announced in January – the second was a partnership with Equity Trustees to set up the Australian Volunteer Support Trust to help the families of volunteers who lose their life while they are volunteering. BizRebuild is a charitable trust with DGR status. It was initially set up to run for five years but is now expected to become an on-going support mechanism for small businesses struck by disaster. It is chaired by former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove and co-ordinated by distinguished former Federal public servant Lisa Paul.
Lisa has seen up close how the impact of the bushfires has been compounded for many communities by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were told when Sir Peter held the first roundtable - when this initiative was set up by the BCA - that what businesses needed was number one - tourists back and number two, cash,’’ Lisa says.
“And COVID’s prevented tourists from coming back and so it’s exacerbated the effects of the fires…because the small businesses in the fire-affected zones across four states all relied on summer tourism, so they’ve lost their high season.’’ The advent of social distancing has not only impacted restoring the tourists’ trail but also, more fundamentally, made the vital one-to-one conversations that are integral to the personal and business recovery, so much harder
The selection of Sir Peter and Lisa to take on these two senior roles reflects their separate experiences of post-disaster management and rebuilding – Sir Peter has been integral to several recovery efforts in the aftermath of national disasters, including Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Lisa led the Federal government’s domestic response to the 2002 Bali bombings.
Lisa was a secretary of Federal government departments for 11 years and served five prime ministers. She is chairperson of national youth mental health foundation headspace [no capital “h’] and a director of Social Ventures Australia, among a long list of positions and appointments.
Despite observing the unique conjunction of the bushfire recovery and the pandemic putting additional pressure on local communities, Lisa believes that businesses have the capacity to rebuild.
“I think a lot of business owners …are resilient people – they are all entrepreneurs, no matter how big or small – and they think to themselves, “This is dreadful, what’s the opportunity here?’’, Lisa says. “But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to understate the real anguish and distress and mental health impacts of the bushfires.’’
“One of the things that gets incredibly difficult is say, you’re a husband and wife and you’re running your small business and it’s been your life, and your house has burnt down and your business has been smashed revenue-wise because you’ve lost your summer trade and suddenly you’re having to make decisions about insurances, and what’s your future and at the same time you’ve been through the fire yourself and you’ve got what they call bushfire brain…it’s really hard.’’
BizRebuild will work closely with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, plus a range of charities and NFPs, who remain active in the recovery process, whether it’s Red Cross or the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal.
The initiative is believed to be the first national co-ordinated business approach to disaster recovery and although it may be attached to the BCA, its capacity to rebuild extends beyond business to include community infrastructure.
The premise behind BizRebuild is a simple one, and it is something of a mantra for Sir Peter – that small business binds communities. “We're a bit of a cut through organisation because we go straight to small business,’’ Sir Peter said recently. “That's the glue of the community, if the businesses fold, then the community will often just dissolve.’’
Now, possibly more than ever, the strength of that glue, the toughness of those bonds, is being tested. And the additional pressures that come on small local businesses are as routine as trying to work their way through the demanding paperwork that often accompanies request for official help.
“You’ve got to fill in the forms,’’ Lisa says. “We still haven’t cracked the old chestnut of having to provide your own data multiple times. I think that drives people absolutely crazy …that’s not for us to do but working with government and all the other players in responding to a disaster, it would be marvellous to crack that.’’
In the meantime, what BizRebuild offers is some guidance on how to go about filling out the paperwork. “So, one of the things we’ve advocated for, and we’ll try to do as much as we can ourselves, is offer quite personalised support to small businesses to navigate their way through all the forms, and the assistances,’’ Lisa explains. “We can’t get to everybody and we’d love governments and other NFPs to help. But I can see a need in any future disaster for even more personalised support: literally sitting down with people and helping guide them and they’ve asked for that.’’
Sitting behind the on-ground delivery of advice and support is the actual BizRebuild fund itself. “On my understanding, a lot of the other tax-deductible funds aren’t able to donate to businesses or to infrastructure, for example, whereas we can do both,’’ Lisa says. The practical application of that though is a diverse offering that ranges from professional advice – in-kind help from professional services firms – to cash vouchers to provide replacement tools for those lost in the fire. “We’ve also been giving advice, and while we could visit, we would have experts roll in, on request, by a community, and offer advice on insurance, cash management or mental health,’’ Lisa says. ’’And that’s gone over really well and we’re just getting back into that now that some of the [COVID-19] restrictions are lifted. And that will come back to being even more important once JobKeeper finishes.’’
Back in Mogo, the businesses that were burnt out are now finding a new life in the demountables and the pop-up mall. There’s optimism in Lisa’s voice when she reflects on what’s changed since February. “The Mogo Aboriginal Land Council has a new temporary building for the next couple of years while they go through the insurances and the clearances and the rebuild of their own,’’ she says. “They’re probably trading and operating years in advance of what they might have been and that’s the sort of thing we’re keen to keep helping with.’’
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