Many WA businesses 'confident' they will survive pandemic, state-wide survey finds

Mon 04 May 2020

ABC Great Southern / By Kit Mochan and Jessica Hayes

The open plains and sheer cliffs of the Nullarbor.

Western Australia has been shut off from the rest of the country for a month.(ABC Open Contributor: Brady Johnston)

Amidst widespread shutdowns, surging unemployment and growing talk of a recession — the coronavirus pandemic is understandably weighing on the mind of Australia's business sector.

Key points:

  • Western Australia's Regional Chambers of Commerce and Industry has found business confidence has risen across the state
  • Businesses said they're grateful for government financial supports that have been put in place and attribute this largely to their growing confidence
  • Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington has urged Western Australians to holiday local once travel restrictions are lifted, to help regional tourism operators

NAB's closely watched monthly survey showed that Australian business confidence fell in March to the lowest level since records began in 1989.

However as Australia's two largest economies, Victoria and New South Wales, are still ground to a standstill there are some early signs of green shoots west of the Nullarbor.

Western Australia, alongside the Northern Territory and Queensland, has moved to reopen parts of their state much sooner because of sustained low numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Outback roadhouse and fuel stop

Most businesses surveyed in outback and regional WA think they can survive the pandemic.(The Drone Way: Ben Stamatovich)

Now some of the hardest hit businesses, including hospitality and tourism operators in cut off regional areas, are reporting back to their industry body with unexpected assuredness.

The state's Regional Chambers of Commerce and Industry recently polled 371 businesses across WA and over three-quarters said they were confident they would outlast the pandemic.

"Last time it was 60 per cent, the time before it was [half] so what that's telling us is that people are feeling confident that their business is going to survive or that they're going to make it through," RCCIWA chief executive Kitty Prodonovich said.

"Some of these businesses have in fact closed for now or they've lost 100 per cent of their business, but there is an increased level of confidence that they will be able to survive and recover."

A woman wearing glasses and a floral shirt smiles at the camera.

WA Regional Chambers of Commerce chief executive Kitty Prodonovich says there's optimism around regional businesses survival. 
(ABC News: Julian Robins)

Businesses behind COVID curtain cautiously optimistic

It has been more than a month since the WA State Government implemented the toughest border restrictions in the nation.

In addition to shutting the state border, Premier Mark McGowan drew a curtain dividing the state's eight medically vulnerable regions from Perth which simultaneously bled them dry of tourism dollars.

While Mr McGowan maintains it will be some time before border restrictions lift, Ms Prodonovich said his and the Commonwealth's handling of the crisis had buoyed confidence.

"Our first survey taken in the second to last week of March was taken when there was a lot of confusion and JobKeeper hadn't been announced yet, so the sentiment now is that of course people are hurting, there's no doubt about that," she said.

"[Now] there's a more, I wouldn't say wildly optimistic, [however] I'd say positive outlook that regional business communities are going to be able to survive.

"The stimulus relief and support measures and packages that are being put in by the state and federal governments, they are going a long way to securing those businesses.

"[They're] keeping people in jobs and minimising the economic impact... and we're seeing this wholly collaborative approach to people helping businesses to minimise impact and be there when we enter recovery."

Two people standing in their empty restaurant

Bunbury restaurateurs Bec and Brenton Pyke say they can see the light at the end of the tunnel after a tumultuous few weeks.(Jessica Hayes)

Counting themselves among the cautiously optimistic are restaurateurs Bec and Brenton Pyke, who own and operate three food businesses in the state's south west corner.

"The first couple of weeks were quite stressful because it was mainly focused around the unknown because everything was changing," Mr Pyke said.

"I know we've put a lot of our workers back on, so I'm guessing a lot of businesses have put their workers back on [as well] with JobKeeper [and customers have been] out spending a bit [they're] probably tired of eating soup and toast.

"We feel as though we're in a good position to pick up where we left off, as opposed to a few weeks ago when we were worried about how we were going to find the energy to rebuild and what we would have to rebuild with."

Breaching humpbacks off the coast of Albany

Tourism operators are hopeful that Australians and possibly New Zealanders will be able to safely holiday in places like Albany, after months of being locked in their homes.(Source: Vicki Lyn Photography)

This is an optimism not being shared by businesses in other states.

In the regional Queensland city of Gladstone, the local chamber of commerce conducted a survey of its own and it found that 35 per cent of the 125 respondents feared they would not be solvent by the end of June.

Aussies urged to spend and holiday locally

In the port city of Albany, on WA's southern tip, white sand beaches and caravan parks lie empty.

This is a place where the tourism sector usually accounts for 12 per cent of the city's GDP.

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One of the city's longest running whale tour operators Paul Guest said he'd picked up casual shifts as a truck driver, after the humpbacks arrived but the tourists were markedly absent.

"I could probably work seven-days a week and you have to, the bills don't stop although the state government has fortunately put off our rent... [that's] a saving of $20,000 a year," he said.

"I'm hoping that basically what's going to happen is once the regions up... or the state borders open up... that people start travelling within Australia.

"People will say, 'Hey, we've been stuck inside for a while, we haven't been able to do anything, let's go do something we've thought about doing [for a while]'."

Albany's Mayor said there was a sense of resilience building, as good news continued to trickle down from the state's daily coronavirus briefings in Perth.

Dennis Wellington standing with arms folded

Albany's Mayor Dennis Wellington says the tourist town is in a good position to rebound, despite being shut-off from the rest of the nation.(Kit Mochan)

"I think WA has done pretty well in terms of flattening the curve and adhering to [what] the government wants to do, it's been terrific, Mayor Dennis Wellington said.

"As a result of that the curve has been flattened very quickly and we'll probably come out of this very quickly."

Unlike in northern WA, the regions profitable farming sector has been important factor in cushioning the bottom-line blow, but Mr Wellington said once travel restrictions lifted all tourism operators needed extra attention.

"Tourism is our second biggest industry, agriculture is our biggest, [but] it's an enormous amount... you see all the motels, hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, service stations [they] don't really survive without the tourist numbers," he said.

"Normally at Easter you can't get a bed anywhere in Albany and this year it was a bit like a ghost town, so we desperately need to do some marketing when the borders open to make sure those businesses get as much patronage as they can get.

"When we get to the situation where the borders open, I think they'll come open before the international [and] the state borders... we need everyone in Western Australia to holiday locally and keep our money locally and keep our businesses going."