Can we trust the raft of SME promises?

The small business lobby is finally finding its feet and both parties are scrambling to meet this neglected bloc's needs. But doubts persist about the ability of each to deliver.

Following his success in the Brisbane leaders’ debate mid-week, embattled Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has increased his media appearances and has even had glimmers of support from commentators that the Rudd fightback might work. 

Labor will be hoping Rudd's is a bit more successful than John Hewson's ‘Fightback' in 1993 – the name of the 650-page blueprint for the nation that was dubbed the 'longest suicide note in history' after Hewson lost the 'unloseable election' against Paul Keating.

One thing this campaign shares with Hewson's is a desire to build support among, and unlock the economic potential of, small businesses.

There have been a string of wins for small business as Rudd tries to outdo Abbott yet again, this time in ‘slashing red tape’. 

There was Thursday's annoucement that firms with under 20 staff won't have to administer Labor's 18-week paid parental leave. 

Then there’s Labor’s promise to allow firms of up to 100 staff to use the Small Business Superannuation Clearing House – a system that allows all staff super contributions to be made as a single payment online. 

And finally comes the GST promise: rather than lodge four Business Activity Statements a year, SMEs can lodge just one. 

Together, these moves are an indicator of a fast and furious series of closed-door meetings between small business groups and both Labor and Coalition staff, trying to deliver exactly what this core voting group wants.

The Council of Small Business Associations put out a feisty statement on Tuesday to show it isn’t mucking around. It said: "COSBOA believes that for too long the key business policies of Australia has been decided by a small number of developers and big landlords; by only two retailers who dominate process, communications and policy; and by the very large unions who are driven by ideology rather than reality. 

"These groups have received too much focus from the representatives of big government and this has made it difficult for the great innovators in Australia, the self employed, to get rid of stress and get focused on new opportunities and for growth."

COSBOA executive director Peter Strong says he's meeting frequently with both sides of politics to see what progress can be made in response to COSBOA’s extensive list of policy demands, and the group will release its recommendations on the parties' final policy lists in the final week of the campaign.

Meanwhile, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry launched its largest ever small business reform campaign just after Rudd returned to the ALP leadership.

The campaign is called 'Small business: too big to ignore', and in case either small business minister Gary Gray or shadow small business minister Bruce Billson forget this for a minute, there's a members page on the campaign website that already has 85,000 messages from disgruntled SME owners.

ACCI has also released its ‘Reform Blueprint’ – a policy document similar in scale to the BCA’s ‘Action plan for enduring prosperity’ released in July.

With its paper, ACCI focuses on four aspects of SME life: cutting red tape; simplifying the tax system; making it easier to employ staff, and; building better infrastructure. 

Labor has been doggedly courting the small business vote for 18 months, following Brendan O’Connor’s short-lived appointment as small business minister. 

The Coalition makes much of the fact that Labor’s internal brawling has meant five different small business ministers in six years, and though Labor’s list of policies – particularly after the addition of the three policies above – stack up well alongside the Coalition’s, many just don’t believe they will deliver what they promise. 

A spokeman for small business shadow minister Bruce Billson points out that removing the paid parental leave administration burden was put up by the Coalition as legislation while Julia Gillard was still PM, but it was voted down by Labor. 

On the Super Clearing House, the Coalition says that superannuation administration belongs with the ATO, but by housing it within the Medicare administration structures it has remained hidden and unused by many small businesses. 

And on reducing GST activity statements, the Coalition points out that easing that burden was a 2007 promise that it has not yet delivered on. Moreover, while it sounds like a workload lightener Billson’s office say it may lead to “bill shock” for some businesses at the end of the year. 

There are still two weeks to go in the campaign, and given the success the business lobby groups have had in eliciting pro-SME policies in the past few weeks, the pace of meetings will not let up until election day. 

However, with both sides showing a willingness to promise just about anything to get over the line, business owners will have make their own judgement about which side can actually deliver what, for now, are just lines in a policy document.