Incorporated pursuant to order of Council of 7 September:

I rise to speak on the coalition’s Local Government Amendment (Rates and Charges) Bill 2021. My contribution will be brief and outline the reasons why we feel we cannot support this bill. Let me first say that this bill purports to support small business and Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party absolutely agrees with its intent. Now is not the time to be introducing new charges and fees onto small businesses getting back onto their feet—especially not $5000 a year type charges. But we think the way this bill has been drafted is somewhat flawed. We all know where this bill has come from—the Greens-led Yarra council passed a resolution that would allow them to charge around $5000 to small businesses for using car parking spaces to operate their business. Given the lack of feasibility for most businesses to operate outside—and no less, in Melbourne’s unpredictable weather—these have been aimed at hospitality businesses. Whilst the focus of these ‘car park operators’ in the media has been on Melbourne’s city proprietors, I’m pleased to say that a number of businesses in my electorate have taken up the initiative. It’s great to see main streets reinvigorated at such a tough and isolating time. I have to say this scheme and other government supports haven’t been without their issues to small business. One example was a hospitality business in Horsham. That business put in seating on the footpath, with a gap between the premises and the tables, as is normal, so that people can walk past. When it came to this venue selling alcohol, they were allowed to serve it at their new outdoor seating, but they weren’t allowed to serve it on the pedestrian footpath obviously because it had to remain clear for foot traffic. However, due to the poor drafting of the ‘red line plan’ what this actually meant in practice was that staff would have to jump from the indoor premises to the outdoor seating to make sure they weren’t stepping on the footpath to serve alcohol. Because of this they weren’t physically able to serve alcohol outside for a considerable while.
It’s ridiculous. It’s an example of how bureaucratic nonsense can get in the way of business prosperity and development. Another business waited for months—yes, months—for a COVID small business grant because they forgot to put an apostrophe in their application, meaning that the business names didn’t match up. When the apostrophe issue was fixed, they found out that because the owner, who had just purchased the business, hadn’t updated the business name through their ABN, they weren’t eligible. It was something like $25 to renew and was clearly an oversight when purchasing a new business and doing all the other things new business owners have to do. After all, why wouldn’t this owner want to renew the name of the restaurant that had been successfully running in the town for 20-plus years? Another example of red tape strangling small businesses. I would like to thank the minister’s office for acting extremely quickly to fix this error once we had raised it with them. It’s just a shame these things happened in the first place given the pressure businesses have been under. In relation to this bill, though, we have the following concerns:

  • We can’t just take over councils’ autonomy every time one of them does something we don’t like, unless it’s outrageous and detrimental to the safety and wellbeing of certain persons.
  • This bill and policy in no way reflects that some businesses have done well—and in fact, flourished—during COVID. And power to them. But it shouldn’t mean that every business gets a freebie. The bill has no revenue or profit testing.
  • Similarly, this bill incorporates for businesses that are created between now and 2025.
  • Similarly again, the mandate to not increase fees until 2025 assumes that between now and then most businesses will make pre-COVID profits and potentially as a result of utilising car parking spaces will make proportionally higher profits for the next four years.
  • This bill is broad enough to stop all additional rates, fees and charges from councils being increased, even with CPI or other metrics.
  • The bill neglects the precarious position our regional and rural councils are in. Ms Maxwell and I both have regional electorates and they are struggling to the point where I’ve called for a stabilisation fund to put them on a more even playing field with the metro and suburban councils.
  • This bill has the potential to not allow my councils to adequately fulfill their obligations to residents and puts them in an undesirable financial position. I have seen councils from my electorate not happy about this bill and they certainly weren’t consulted on it.
  • Lastly, councils are elected by their residents. If they do things that are unsupported, stupid or insulting, like a $5000-a-year tax for being innovative with their business, then I’d hope the disappointed residents would speak with their votes at the next council elections.

So, in summary, we would ordinarily support anything that supports small businesses and especially at a time like right now when we’ve had 270-plus days of lockdowns. But this bill doesn’t address some key concerns such as inflexibility and a lack of means testing and certainly was introduced without consultation.

It’s for these reasons that unfortunately we will be opposing this bill today.