About 4000, or 1 per cent, of the estimated 400,000 sole traders in the state benefited from the government’s $100 million sole trader support fund.
Sole traders were excluded from the state’s Business Support Fund. Only sole traders who worked from commercial premises or a location leased by the trader were eligible, meaning the $3000 cash grants were available to about 30,000 sole traders. The criteria excluded mobile sole traders including outdoor personal trainers, tutors and tradespeople.
A Victorian government spokesman said the government had committed more than $13 billion since March to help businesses and the community handle the pandemic.
“The government has allocated more than $6 billion in direct economic support for businesses and workers, including payments of $2.6 billion through the Business Support Fund,” he said.
“Where program uptake has been lower than expected, eligibility criteria has been amended where appropriate and funds redirected to high-demand areas.”
Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said his office was swamped with complaints from small business owners last year who said they were struggling to access government support.
“Critical financial support was too little, too late for tens of thousands of family business and sole traders, many who were destroyed by Daniel Andrews and his inaction,” he said.
“Small businesses are the backbone of the Victorian economy but Andrews’ focus remains on protecting the unions which are his major political donors.”
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass launched an investigation into the state government’s multibillion-dollar Business Support Fund in September after receiving what she described as a flood of complaints about the fund’s administration.
Ms Glass, whose role is to scrutinise the state government’s actions, was approached by more than 750 business owners who detailed lengthy delays and communication failures by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.
She said there were examples of poor communication by the department, a lack of discretion shown by officials and claims people’s applications were being rejected for minor administrative errors.
Ross Pickrell owns a business that operates free walking tours in Melbourne. He received a $10,000 grant in May during the first round of the scheme. When he applied for the second round in July, he was asked in late September to provide additional information, which he did, but never heard back.
Think tank the Grattan Institute’s budget policy program associate Tom Crowley said grant programs targeting depressed sectors were a useful complement to broader stimulus streams like JobKeeper.
“But effective stimulus should also be timely,” he said.
Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, urged the state government to redirect unused stimulus to businesses in industries, including tourism, that were still facing uncertain futures.
“We know that for some businesses in some sectors, the fight to survive will intensify this year,” he said.
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Paul is a Victorian political reporter for The Age.
Annika is state political editor for The Age.