NEW research has revealed little more than a third of Northern Rivers businesses expected a strong start to 2015.
And almost a quarter of businesses are planning to cut staff numbers over the next three months.
According to the quarterly Griffith University-Northern Star Business Confidence Index Poll, there are fears the March state elections could have a significant impact on business confidence.
Many businesses have now taken up "neutral" positions when asked about their confidence in the Northern Rivers economy.
Positive responses, totalling 36%, were down by 8% since the previous poll in October 2014, with neutral responses totalling 44%, a 20% rise.
- Property: Positive 40%, (down 12 %); neutral 32 % (down 4 %); negative 16 % (up 4 %)
- Rural industries: Positive 49% (up 13%); neutral, 28% (the same) negative 12% (down 16%)
- Tourism: Positive 44% (the same); neutral 40% (up 16%) negative 0% (down 12%)
- Retail: Positive 28% (down 12%); neutral 52% (up 18%); negative 20% (down 2%).
SOURCE: Griffith University-Northern Star Business Confidence Index Poll
The poll also revealed a lack-lustre holiday period, with only 38% reporting a positive level of trading.
Griffith University Pro Vice Chancellor Business, Professor Michael Powell, said the results showed the need for political parties to have practical new policies.
"The rise in neutral sentiments regarding the economy as a whole is concerning and presents a challenge to the political parties to drive home how they plan to help businesses in the region," he said.
"It is up to all parties to counter stereotyped opinion and to produce new hope, as clearly many businesses are continuing to struggle and are looking for real change.
"It is significant no respondents to the poll were highly positive for the second consecutive quarter.
"Clearly there is scope for gains for those who produce policies that will give a genuine boost to business."
The poll also found that over the next three months, 24% of businesses were planning to reduce staff.
One-fifth of businesses said they would consider increasing staff numbers.
About a third of businesses said they expected turnover to decrease, while 24% expected an increase and 44% expected the same turnover.
NSW Business Chamber regional manager, John Murray, said sales, revenue and profits were down in the December quarter.
The organisation released its latest NSW Business Conditions Survey this week.
"It appears to have been a disappointingly quiet end to the year for local businesses," he said.
"The vast majority of Northern Rivers businesses reported that key indicators such as capital spending, staffing levels and perception of the state's economy were unchanged since the previous quarter.
"Almost a third of businesses considered that the state's economy had weakened in the December quarter due to a combination of low business and consumer confidence."