Sir Peter Cosgrove interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane

Event: BizRebuild Chair General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK AC(Mil) CVO MC (RETD) interview on ABC AM with Sabra Lane

Speaker: Sir Peter Cosgrove, BizRebuild Chair; Sabra Lane, Host

Topics: BizRebuild, bushfire recovery

Sabra Lane, host: We heard earlier this week that the federal government is working on repurposing its bushfire recovery payments for small businesses. The feedback it's getting is that the system is just way too bureaucratic and too slow. As we just heard, the Business Council set up its own program called BizRebuild. It's led by the former Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove. Sir Peter, thank you for talking to AM.

Sir Peter Cosgrove, BizRebuild Chair: Pleasure.

Sabra: How much has business raised for this initiative, and how many communities are you currently helping?

Sir Peter: Well, we're helping well over 20. Now, as to the quantum of money, I know that we've handed out over a quarter of a million dollars worth of vouchers, but that's tip of the iceberg stuff. So short answer, millions, millions, but I just can't give you a 5,333,000 type of figure.

Sabra: All right. What's the most important thing right now for the communities badly affected by fires?

Sir Peter: Confidence, at this stage. Confidence is cheap but confidence only exists when people say, "real help is on the way and it's being delivered and we'll remain involved." So we're in a bit of a race. We've had one or two reports of people who say, “well, that's it. This was the final blow. I was already doing it tough so I'm locking the place up and selling up." And we don't want that. So we see it as a bit of a race between our expert assistance and people's confidence to remain and give it another go.

Sabra: You're heading up a business-led initiative. Some people I've spoken to say it's a gleaming light. And they contrast that with government assistance, which they say is slow and frustrating and demoralising. What are you doing right that governments could learn from?

Sir Peter: One thing I want to say, because you just have to stick up occasionally for people. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency and the other arms and legs of government that are applying taxpayers’ money are very conscious that, A) they have to be as speedy as they can and take away their bureaucracy. But B) they are accountable for the expenditure of taxpayers' money. That's always going to be an obligation for them to be careful and accountable. What we can do though is because we have the confidence of the wider business community, is move swiftly and we can move to targeted areas.

We're not looking and cannot really expect to look to individual homeowners, that sort of thing. We are looking at the small businesses that exist in the bushfire damaged areas, like Kangaroo Island and our job there is to get these folks organised with a plan to go forward and immediate assistance. We're doing things like providing vouchers for people to tool up. By that I mean, small business equipment. It could be carpenter's tools, or it could be an IT system restoration for a business that does its work over the internet. That sort of stuff.

Sabra: Some small businesses say they are frustrated. That they weren't burnt down but they were badly affected by soot and smog and they've had a lack of foot traffic for now six, seven weeks, no customers. They're at wit's end, because they're not getting government help. What advice can you give them?

Sir Peter: Hang on and make sure that you engage with us. Because now, not only are we nearby, but we're getting pretty practised at having these conversations and then having an outcome at the end of it with small business. My advice to them would be - do you mind if I give you a 1-800 number?

Sabra: Go for it.

Sir Peter: Right. It's 1800 497 121. You ring that number and you'll get a BizRebuild person. And then you can say, “I’m in” wherever the settlement is, wherever the village is, wherever the town is, I do this, when you get next around and how can I lodge my concern”? The other one, we formed a partnership with the local governments of the areas that have been smashed, also with the chambers of commerce. So if the businessperson knows somebody from that line of country, they should just give them a call as well and say, "What's this about BizRebuild?" And hopefully that'll be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sabra: Some of these small business operators too are worried about the workers that they've previously employed. Casual staff who themselves have lost homes and they're not getting work. How concerned are you by that?

Sir Peter: We've got to look at all aspects of business. Not just the proprietor, the premises and the nature of the business, but the workforce. Because if a small business loses its long-term employees, they're lost to the business where they were comfortable. So we're trying to work a number of lines here. One is to make it possible for their business to continue. The second one is to find alternative employment with one of the Business Council's many contacts that will provide temporary work before the business in question can take on their employees again.

Sabra: I know this isn't part of your remit, but I'm hearing that there's some residents are still, quite a few residents, are still living in tents in parts of New South Wales. That must be pretty hard. What's your advice to them?

Sir Peter: I feel for them, of course. Anybody who's got a roof over their head and sees their fellow Australians reduced to a desperate level is conscious of that. And I'm going to branch out as well, coronavirus and all those sorts of things, this is like the Egyptian plagues. So, yeah some of our fellow countrymen are doing it tough particularly if they've already had a knock. So what we'd say to them is, be staunch. Because there's so much energy and goodwill still for people who are victims of the bushfire. That we believe things will get better rapidly. A tent might look pretty unattractive, but it's just a way station on the pathway back to a roof over your head in the normal way.

Sabra: Sir Peter, thank you very much for talking to AM.

Sir Peter: Sabra, my pleasure.