Australia — The Victorian government is banking on a massive tourism campaign to rebuild shattered towns and communities following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires.
Announcing a $51 million joint federal-state government package of loans and grants for small businesses directly affected by the deadly February 7 blazes, Premier John Brumby said tourism was a significant industry in most of the bushfire-ravaged areas.
And, he admitted, Victoria’s image had taken a big hit from the bushfires, which have made headlines around the world as well as around Australia.
Under the assistance package, businesses and farmers can apply for grants and loans up to $25,000, with an immediate $5,000 cash grant available to kickstart the rebuilding process.
Speaking at the Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm, Mr Brumby said it was one of many hundreds of tourist-based businesses affected by the fires that would benefit from the assistance package, which includes business mentoring and counselling to develop business plans for moving forward.
“Tourism is a big issue throughout these areas,” Mr Brumby said on Wednesday.
“There are other areas as well – the Yarra Valley vineyards, a lot of their business has been cancelled as people are concerned about the fires.
“We’ve been through this a few times unfortunately, but we’ve seen successful tourism campaigns conducted at the right times.
“In all of these areas in the next few weeks, you’re going to start to see a huge amount of activity … there’ll be large numbers of people associated with construction activity and there’ll be people who move back into these areas (that are) temporarily accommodated.
“You will see this recovery in stages. To be honest, there’s a little bit of brand-name damage to Victoria as a whole because of the fires.
“People have seen the fires every night on TV … whether it’s visitors from interstate or overseas, they’ve seen that.
“We’re going to have to spend a little bit to reassure Australians and people from overseas that Victoria’s a great place to be.”
Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm owner Mitch MacRae said he had lost virtually his entire stock – as many as 400,000 fish – at an estimated cost of $500,000, but said the business assistance package would help him rebuild, with an initial focus on the tourist market.
“We need to get stock back on the place, we need to get farming again, get all the guys working again,” Mr MacRae said.
“We lost nearly all our stock, about 35 tonne … but our house is still here, our main infrastructure’s here, but we need to get rolling again as soon as possible, get the tourists back up in the area as well – that’s another initiative that’s very important.”
Earlier, Mr Brumby met residents from Buxton, including local farmer and bushfires survivor Ray Donkin, who lost everything except his livestock but who is now faced with selling off his cattle because of a lack of feed.
“A lot of us will be forced into that position. There’s plenty of fodder coming in but you can’t sustain them on that a lot, you can’t sustain them on just hay ….” Mr Donkin said, adding he felt better off than others in areas such as Kinglake and nearby Marysville.
Victorian Opposition leader Ted Baillieu welcomed the package but said it did not go far enough.
“The government will have to do more in a number of areas to provide further assistance to businesses that have been impacted,” Mr Baillieu told reporters.
He said it was not just businesses that had been damaged or destroyed that would suffer, but those in the service industry who relied on general activity in the area.
“We would urge the government to look again at the nature of the loans they are providing, the size, and look at deferring interest payments in the longer term.”
He also encouraged the government to defer some of its own taxes and charges, including land taxes, which are due to be sent out in the coming weeks.
The federal government says it will give more than $200,000 to Victorian community legal centres to help those affected by the bushfires.
Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the money would be offered to help people seeking advice on housing and tenancy issues along with replacing lost identification papers.
Insurance advice will also be offered by the centres.
“The devastating Victorian bushfires have left many families with a range of legal matters that need to be considered,” Mr McClelland said in a statement.
“This assistance will help them deal with these issues as they begin to start rebuilding their lives.”
The bushfire legal helpline is 1800 113 432.
“I would like to voice the Australian government’s appreciation for the legal professions contribution to the recovery effort, particularly those people who are giving their time and expertise on a pro bono basis,” Mr McClelland said.