Gippsland hit hard by drought, fire and COVID-19

NEW figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics have revealed the effect the COVID-19 crisis and the January bushfires have had on employment across rural and regional Victoria, and in particular Gippsland.

The number of people employed outside of metropolitan Melbourne fell by 20,800 between February and May, 2020.

Driving this decline were employment falls in Gippsland, which resulted in the number of people employed dropping by 11,200 between February and May 2020 – a fall of just under 10 per cent.

Before the pandemic struck, there were about 300,000 jobs based in rural Victoria.

While the unemployment rate for regional and rural Victoria increased to 4.9 per cent in May from 3.4 per cent the previous month, this would have been far higher without the federal government’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker support payments.

Rural Councils Victoria chairman Mary-Ann Brown said the detailed Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed there were an extra 18,400 rural and regional Victorians not in the labour market.

“This is a major blow to rural communities, and we are calling on the state and federal government to do what they can to provide support,” Cr Brown said.

“Research by Rural Councils Victoria shows that a job in a rural town with 1000 people or less has 37 times greater positive impact on local economies than a job in a regional city with a population of 100,000 or more.”

Cr Brown reiterated Rural Councils Victoria’s calls for state and federal governments to provide a $4 billion emergency package for rural Victoria, adding the package was crucial for rural communities, families and workers, as well as food security and the health and wellbeing of Australians generally.

She said rural Victoria was crucial to the state on many levels.

“Before the pandemic, there were about 300,000 jobs based in rural Victoria,” she said.

“Rural Victoria contributed about $40 billion to Victoria’s gross state product.

“The largest employing industry in rural Victoria was agriculture, which is essential for the national economy,” Cr Brown said.

“Victorian food and fibre product exports were worth $14.2 billion in 2018-19 and comprised 27 per cent of the Australian export total.

“The tourism sector was also vital to the rural economy and the state’s economy as a whole.

“Rural and regional tourism in Victoria was worth $8.1 billion in 2017-18.

“The federal and state governments must step up with a rural emergency package to ensure food security, as well as maintaining and creating jobs.”

Cr Brown said an emergency package would provide rate relief for individuals and business, bring forward essential road repairs, provide stimulus for tourism-related businesses (such as payments for workers who can then be employed to undertake repairs), extend contracts with existing projects, and bring forward projects from future years.

The package would also guarantee any funded projects at risk of being postponed because of drought, fire and COVID-19 issues, expand existing contracts to also include service or work for neighbouring municipalities, provide funding to external-council partner organisations (such as charities) that are contracted to provide services for council work and expand existing private sector funded projects with government funding.

Speaking in an International Council for Small Business video marking Small and Medium Enterprises Day, which was on Saturday,

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell said the Australian small business sector needed to be supported as it emerged from the global crisis.

“So many small businesses that were viable just a few months ago, are now facing enormous challenges as they try to recover from both the devastating bushfire season we had here in Australia and then this pandemic,” she said.

“The latest statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal the extent of the pressure small businesses are under right now.

“Two-thirds of businesses reported a decrease in revenue compared to last year.

“Of those businesses, roughly three in 10 estimate that revenue has fallen by more than 50 per cent.

“As we start to see restrictions lifting and many small businesses opening their doors again and ramping up, it is vital small businesses are supported in their efforts to innovate and grow.

“… my office has produced a comprehensive COVID-19 Recovery Plan recommending a suite of reforms to help small businesses survive and thrive in the post-COVID recovery phase.

“The recommendations cover a broad range of areas including taxation, access to justice, industrial relations, government procurement and cutting red tape.

“Ultimately the plan provides the framework to build essential support for Australian small businesses which is a good way to get the economy firing on all cylinders again.”