Councils well placed to help businesses in COVID-19 hotspots: Treasurer

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says councils can give targeted support to struggling local businesses amid calls to ramp up federal government financial help in COVID-19 hotspots.

In a letter sent to independent Warringah MP Zali Steggall on Monday, Mr Frydenberg outlined $267 billion of direct economic and health assistance the federal government had provided nationally during the pandemic but did not commit to further aid for areas now back in lockdown.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said councils had the ability to help local businesses.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He was responding to two letters Ms Steggall sent in December requesting new support measures, including a return to the $1500-a-fortnight JobKeeper wage subsidy for employees in COVID-19 hotspots – such as Sydney's northern beaches region, which is partly in her electorate – and lower hurdles to qualify for the scheme.

JobKeeper dropped to $1000-a-fortnight for full-time workers and $650 for part-timers on Monday and is set to end in March. In the six months to September, the wage subsidy cost the government $77 billion.

"Over 7000 businesses supporting around 20,000 individuals in the northern beaches region of Sydney have received over $100 million in JobKeeper payments in October and November," Mr Frydenberg said in his response, which Ms Steggall and Northern Beaches Council mayor Michael Reagan shared with several local businesses.

The Treasurer noted the NSW government had also provided "significant support" and assistance during the pandemic through tax relief, waived fees and direct grants and stimulus.

However, he suggested local government authorities could provide help.

"I note the ability of local governments to provide targeted support for this localised outbreak that complements the extensive and substantial Commonwealth government measures already in place," he said.

Cr Regan said businesses on the northern beaches were "doing it really tough", particularly in the northern zone under lockdown orders. The council had put together support worth $8 million for businesses, including grants and fee waivers.

"Our small business community needs support from all levels of government, right now," he said. "Council is committed to continuing to do what it can."

Ms Steggall said Mr Frydenberg's response was "unsatisfactory" and did not address the impact of a second lockdown over the critical Christmas period, which had been "brutal" for local businesses.

"I do strongly believe the council is doing as much as it can within its power … local council will have dramatically impacted funds as a result of fee waivers that have occurred," she said. "At the end of the day, I do think the responsibility is with the federal government."

Local Government NSW and the Australian Local Government Association president Linda Scott said councils had gone "above and beyond" to support local businesses, including undertaking deep cleaning, co-ordinating new areas for deliveries and waiving fees for certain permits.

"Councils have gone to the very limit of their resources to help their communities get through this extremely difficult period … even after being removed from the National Cabinet table," she said, adding they would continue to lobby to be involved in these meetings.

"Failing to extend federal government support to COVID hotspots has the potential to destroy the magnificent and united efforts made by all levels of government, by business and by the community."

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Peter Strong said councils should look at providing more fee waivers and flexibility for businesses. He also said JobKeeper had to be extended for some businesses but those that were going to fail regardless shouldn't be supported.

"Part of that would be potentially applying for another form of JobKeeper, which includes putting a plan together to show you can [recover]," he said.

The Treasurer did not respond to requests for comment.

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