Small Business Party takes the fight to Town Hall

City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, the founder and leader of the Small Business Party. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

In the time of Covid-19, small businesses need strong representation more than ever. John Moyle spoke with Small Business Party (SBP) founder and leader Angela Vithoulkas, as well as SBP members and supporters, about the issues facing small businesses in the current climate.

City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas, the founder and leader of the Small Business Party, is seeing red over the way small businesses in NSW have been treated and is taking the fight to the NSW local government elections in December.

“The City of Sydney has done nothing to advocate for the realities that small businesses are facing,” Angela Vithoulkas said.

“Part of the City’s remit in governance is to advocate to other levels of government on behalf of our residents and business owners, and the only thing that the City has done is photo opportunities with state government and a crack at the federal government for not rolling out the vaccine faster.”

Formed by Vithoulkas in 2017, the Small Business Party was envisaged as a voice for small businesses and those employed by them – who account for a whopping 50 per cent of the workforce.

Back in 2017, Vithoulkas was concerned about the lack of state and city responses to the impact of the light rail, including that on her own George Street cafe.

Now, Sydney is enduring its second lockdown, with no end or pathway forward in sight.

Empty CBDs a threat to small business

Last year, within a couple of weeks, the CBD was emptied as people transitioned to working from home, and thousands of small businesses began to wither due to a lack of trade.

This second time around, there has been an even greater impact, as recovery and assistance measures have been lacking, and the state government’s stimulus for small business is proving illusionary at best.

“The CBD is down to two per cent foot traffic and the help that these businesses need is cash,” Vithoulkas said.

“We know that this is not working but nobody is talking about it and I would put this right at the [door of the] state government who created this mess.”

Businessman Paul Crossin is running with Vithoulkas for the City of Sydney and does not see the CBD bouncing back anytime soon, despite all the talk by both the state government and the City of Sydney of 24-hour economies and creative spaces.

“How Covid will impact on the major cities and their sense of community is a real challenge and I don’t hear anyone talking about that,” Crossin said.

“Rebuilding is going to be a major challenge and you hear someone like Harry Triguboff saying that he will be converting some of his officer floors into residential to try and bring people back into the city.

“Major corporations are downsizing due to the decrease in the floor space they need.

“What is Council going to do about that and how is the state government going to accomodate that?”

A shell game with tenants

One issue that many thought was resolved was the state government’s efforts on eviction moratoriums and mediation between tenant and landlord.

Adam Hofbauer has spent years building his cafe business, Bandit’s Roost in the CBD, only to have it become a millstone around his neck as he was forced to jettison food, lay off staff and continue to pay full rent to a landlord who would not go to mediation.

In reality, the state government was playing a shell game with tenants, stating that they had avenues for rental moratoriums and deferment of rent without any commitment to enforcement.

“Our landlords are 100 per cent protected under the law, and we as tenants are 100 per cent exposed to the terms of our leases despite the fact that the economy and the environment has completely changed since we signed our leases,” Hofbauer told the Sentinel.

“It’s a flawed situation – why would a landlord listen to the tenant when the tenant is not supported by law?

“To defer rent means that you will be paying 50 per cent more that your original rent and this is when there are no customers in the city.”

In Hofbauer’s case his landlord is in Hong Kong and has to date refused any calls for mediation.

“I’ve spent $21,000 so far on NCAT (NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) and Service NSW applications and lawyers, and we are going around in circles as there is no law to protect us,” Hofbrauer said.

“The last letter I got from my landlord was ‘please pay me $240,000’ … and they are expecting $480,000 from me by 2023 when my lease expires.”

Angela Vithoulkas said: “The only people under the illusion that tenant and landlord mediation is working are not dealing with landlords.”

‘It’s time to send a message’

While she is not running for a public office, executive coach Sharon Grant has become a staunch advocate for the Small Business Party.

“People are fed up with getting the raw end of the stick and it feels like a big party game where they don’t listen and small business is now jack of it as things are getting tougher in a relatively buoyant economy,” Grant said.

“Small business owners are … fed up with people not listening and I sense a lot of anger.

“It is always going to be hard to get people to vote for a small special interests party because our system is typically a two party system – but [voting for the Small Business Party] still sends a message to the major parties that small business is not getting its issues heard.”

Vithoulkas said the City of Sydney could have used its close relationship with the Office of the Small Business Commissioner to do much more for those impacted by Covid.

“They could have asked, ‘Why is the Office of the Small Business Commissioner charging our small businesses to do mediation with landlords?’ and ‘Why hasn’t the state government given the Office of Small Business the powers to compel mediation results?’”

Vithoulkas also made the point that while 75 per cent of the workforce was able to work from home, small business owners generally needed to be on the premises to make any income.

“Imagine you had to go to work everyday and you weren’t getting paid,” Vithoulkas said.

“These small business owners are running up debts that an everyday person cannot understand and the government and City are just issuing platitudes.”

Come December, this is going to be one party that many small business owners will want an invite to.

The NSW local government elections will be held on Saturday, 4 December. The Small Business Party will be running candidates in the Sydney, Parramatta and Hawkesbury LGAs.

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.