THE WA Government's recent announcement that drought-affected small business owners will receive help in assessing the state of their businesses has been labeled as window dressing by the Farm Machinery Dealers Association (FMDA). Small Business Minister Hendy Cowan said the new program's initiatives provided critical support to small businesses at a time when they were feeling the flow-on effect of a poor season in their region. "The emphasis of these programs is to encourage existing small business operators to assess their current position and plan the way ahead," Mr Cowan said. He said the business diagnostic service was the key component of the package that would allow small businesses, especially those facing difficulties, to apply for a professional assessment of their business. "The end result of the assessment will be recommended action for assisting the business to get back on track," he said. FMDA president Ian Bolto said the association appreciated the limited immediate support available under the new program. However, he did not think the initiatives addressed two major problems that had been identified in a recent series of four meetings held for rural businesses by FMDA. He said rural businesses had an immediate problem of holding their skilled staff in rural towns and cutting salaries was one of the few immediate cost-saving areas available to small business. However, this caused another problem. "Once families leave towns, it's the start of the downward spiral and difficult to arrest, not least attracting people back into the towns," he said. Mr Bolto said the other immediate problem was a lack of spending by farmers in the months of January, February and March, caused by no requirements to spend until closer to seeding. The GST quarterly cycle also made it preferable to buy at the end of March, while farmers generally had less money to spend in light of lower commodity prices. He said the problems in the south-eastern Wheatbelt area were not just caused by poor harvest in 1999 but a build-up of problems caused by frost, rust and low rainfall over the past three seasons. The new package, to be administered by Business Enterprise Centres (BECs), included the opportunity to access specialist guidance, increased business support programs and subsidised workshops in marketing. Mr Cowan also encouraged small businesses to make the most of all the other service programs offered by the Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) and the BEC network. These include the opportunity to be matched with a business mentor and access to the Regional Smart Program, a program targeting those who wish to start a new business venture. FMDA secretary Sandy Lewis said he was also left unimpressed with the program. He said BECs should have been helping businesses long before this and that, considering they had not been successful up to now, doubted anybody would trust them. He said, while the Smart Program's objective was to help people to start a new business, the FMDA wanted to "save the ones that are already there". pMore drought aid reports, Section 2, pages 2,3.