The sound you may have heard across the region mid-morning on Tuesday was the collective sigh of relief from thousands of business owners responding to the news that JobKeeper will be continued - albeit in modified form - for the next six months.
The pandemic has seen an unprecedented wave of support for business from all levels of government, through grants, subsidies, fee relief, free training and other measures, but the single most important factor in keeping business doors open and employees in work has been JobKeeper.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the wage subsidy is supporting 3.5 million employees and 960,000 businesses nationally.
The Hunter Business Chamber estimates more than 18,500 businesses in our region have applied for the subsidy, according to Treasury postcode data, and it is believed about 66,500 Hunter workers are being supported, based on the national figures.
Alarmingly, a report released by Business NSW on Monday indicates that up to half of those businesses believe they would have shut down by now without the subsidy.
The Back on Track report, based on a survey of more than 1000 businesses, found two in three NSW businesses do not think they would have survived without JobKeeper - and within our region that figure was closer to one in two.
Businesses reported average revenue down by more than 40 per cent and half of the respondents indicated they would not be able to maintain current employee numbers and hours without JobKeeper.
These statistics illustrate quite clearly the extent to which we are living in a false economy.
Superficially, many businesses may seem to be recovering reasonably well from the lockdown period we experienced earlier in the year, but scratch the surface and the cracks quickly begin to show.
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It's the same for the national economy, as today's mini-budget will outline.
Australia has managed well on an international comparison, but the cash splash to keep the economy going is not without consequence.
JobKeeper alone is costing $11 billion a month and the Treasurer has warned us to expect "eye-watering" debt and deficit levels in today's economic statement.
It took Australia more than a decade to recover from the last recession.
To ensure a smooth and hopefully quicker path to recovery this time, reliance on government support needs to taper to more sustainable levels while effective policies that support existing and new jobs are put in place.
The Back on Track report makes a number of recommendations in this regard.
Paramount is setting an ambitious but credible unemployment target of six per cent, from the current 'effective' figure estimated to be between 11 and 13 per cent.
Removal of red tape is another priority.
We have seen in recent months governments taking days and weeks to develop policies and implement processes that would normally take months or years.
While the results are not always perfect, it surely points to the possibility of finding easier ways to do things in future, and reducing the burden on business in the process.
But these are measures for the longer term. Where do the announcements of this week leave business now?
JobKeeper continues but the subsidy level will be progressively reduced.
That is why the chamber describes the extension as a lifeline rather than a rescue package.
It gives businesses potentially six months to map out their plan for the future.
The stubborn persistence of the virus suggests we may need to adjust to operating in a changed business environment for some time.
We know now that COVID-19 is not a passing thing.
The stubborn persistence of the virus suggests we may need to adjust to operating in a changed business environment for some time, rather than marking time and waiting for things to go back to the way they were.
Whether that means cutting costs, finding new products and markets or - and this is a perfectly legitimate option - deciding to close and perhaps start again on a new path, the extension of JobKeeper gives businesses time to take stock and seek professional advice to guide their decisions.
A bright spot in the Back on Track report was that most businesses are optimistic about the future, despite the extreme challenges of the past four months.
Businesses have made enormous sacrifices to keep the community safe during this crisis, so it would be nice to think that optimism is well-placed.
Bob Hawes, CEO Hunter Business Chamber
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