There is no doubt that COVID-19 or at least the restrictions that have kept the virus at bay in the ACT hit some businesses hard, particularly hospitality.
Discount voucher programs have been one way for governments to support businesses and boost traffic through stores and venues. Business Minister Tara Cheyne has pressed on with the ChooseCBR scheme, announcing this week $2 million worth of vouchers along with improvements to the original model trialled in December that was plagued with problems and copped its fair share of criticism.
One can understand the intent, but does a COVID-free Canberra more or less back to normal really need such a scheme?
Most of the businesses involved so far are cafes and restaurants, with a few other retailers, including Adam and Eve at Fyshwick, listed under personal care along with some day spas and some other service providers.
The idea is to bolster businesses during the bleaker winter months of the year, but since the curve was well and truly flattened, Canberra’s economy has powered back to its usual efficient self.
Unemployment is again the lowest in the nation at 3.4 per cent, the housing market is on fire and people have been spending up big in the shops since Christmas.
Last month’s retails numbers showed turnover in the ACT above pre-pandemic levels as shoppers poured back into shopping centres with plenty of spare cash after not being able to travel.
Plenty of them have been having the odd coffee while doing so, and paying surcharges so businesses can cover the penalty rates they don’t really want to fork out to their staff.
So in the most stable economy in the nation, with the highest average salaries and a secure public sector employment base, should government, which is already spending a motza at all levels to keep things going, hand out another couple of million to mostly well-off Canberrans to put through businesses that should really be doing OK by now?
Everybody acknowledges the importance of small business, but they have already been the beneficiary of massive government support, including JobKeeper and extended tax write-offs.
And if a business really needs a boost, will a few vouchers do the trick?
COVID-19 can’t keep being blamed for everything that is not quite right. Perhaps the answers to a failing business lie elsewhere.
It will also be interesting to see how many people actually bother to access the digital vouchers and get their discounted meal, haircut or sex toy.
I hope I’m wrong and the take-up is whole-hearted and it does make a difference for a business or two.
But this is $2 million that could be spent elsewhere, say on a few more affordable houses, or women’s shelters or school maintenance or a sports facility.
What we don’t know is how much the program has cost to model, set up and run.
That will add considerably to the overall cost.
This is more a gesture than a genuine stimulus measure, and after the trial flopped, the government should have shelved the idea and moved on.