Disrupting the new Order of Mates

Just who needs protecting from today's powerful elites? For Bruce Billson, it’s the economically critical small business sector left in the cold by Labor’s big-government, big-union view.

Back in the 1980s, marxist writer John Pilger coined the term 'the Order of Mates' to describe what he saw as a group of wealthy, powerful pals who ran the country irrespective of who was in government.

That was the hey-day of people like Kerry Packer, Alan Bond, Christopher Skase and John Elliot, and Pilger accused them of exploiting hard working Australians and skimming too much wealth for themselves.

A quarter of a century later, that fairly simple marxist critique has become more complex. Many Australians have become much richer than in the days when one-Kingswood families stopped for meat pies at the Ampol servo. Now it's more drive-thru espresso in your Audi SUV.

But the notion persists that 'the people' need protecting from powerful elites. That theme underpinned the ACTU's 'Your rights at work' campaign that turfed John Howard out of the lodge. It is also a key theme running through the Liberal Party's campaign to do the same to Julia Gillard.

The question is, who needs protecting from whom? Is it battling factory workers exploited by cigar-smoking industrialists (it was when Pilger identified the Order of Mates)? Is it 'everyday Australians' being ripped off by Gina Rinehart and duped by a compliant media (Pilger's current enemies)? Or could it even be hard working Australians being controlled and exploited by a nexus of union leaders and the Labor Party? 

The latter might seem a heretical thought to lefties, but too much has emerged in the past year to make it clear that some representatives of 'working families' put themselves first.

Some of the cars and homes that were the everyday trappings of life for former HSU bosses in Victoria could only be dreamed of by 'workers'. The multi-million dollar deals that surrounded the activities of NSW Labor powerbroker Eddy Obeid would be alien concepts to most working families. And Labor is today being accused again of having a 'jobs for mates' ethos, with the former ACTU boss joining seven other union notables in key appointments to the Fair Work Commission made yesterday.

Genuine, selfless representation of workers undoubtedly takes place within unions, but do the union leaders who currently prop up Julia Gillard through Labor's complex factional power structure constitute an 'elite', and just who needs protecting from them?

Shadow minister for small business, Bruce Billson, thinks he knows – the nation's small businesses who are left mate-less by the self-interested actions of big corporations, unions and the Labor government.

Billson's portfolio is at the centre of that long-established Liberal Party story. Hardworking, aspirational people – often families, as Leon Gettler describes today (Time to take family business seriously, March 29) – who re-mortgage their houses to keep their businesses running, who put in 16-hour days during the week and, says Billson, who spend far too much of their weekends pleasing bureacrats with 'red tape' paperwork.

Managing staff superannuation is a prime example. I recently visited a Canberra shop run by Peter Strong, who is also chief executive of the Council of Small Business Associations, and found him hopping mad over a letter he'd received from the Rest Industry Super that read: "If you do not pay your contribution(s) to REST within seven days of the date of this letter, or advise us that no contributions are due to be paid, REST will instruct its credit manager ... to commence legal action ..."

Strong, who said he was not in arrears, wonders why the many SME businesses represented by COSBOA's member associations should even have to touch their employees' super.

Many within the Liberal Party see industry funds themselves as part of the Labor Party's 'jobs for mates' network, with over-representation on their boards of union officials with no particular skills suited to managing large pots of capital. 

The Coalition took a policy to the last election to take managing staff super out of the hands of time-poor SMEs and give the task to the tax office, to administer through the normal PAYE tax system. Key to this plan is that the ATO has all the systems in place to chase up employers who don't pay the right contributions.

Likewise, the Coalition plans to administer its controversial paid-parental-leave scheme through the Family Assistance Office – taking another current 'red tape' task (administration of Labor's more modest paid parental leave scheme) off the hands of SMEs.

To both Billson and Strong there is too much bullying of small businesses which, if freed up from these kinds of tasks, and left to do what they do, are the potential big employers into 2014.

Indeed, should Tony Abbott form government in September, the job cuts that will flow from public sector cost cutting need to be replaced, rapidly, by the private sector (Banking on an Abbott bounce, March 6).

That's where Billson thinks the Coalition’s long-standing focus on the SME sector will achieve what, he says, Labor has failed to do – he says there are 243,000 fewer employees in the SME space than when Labor came to power and 10,000 fewer employing firms. 

For the Coalition, it's the 46 per cent of the workforce working in the SME space that need protecting from Labor policy that favours larger corporations, where workers are more easily recruited to unions. "Labor wants to fit up SMEs, to treat them like large companies, to make it easier to push for pay and conditions as they do with large companies," says Billson.

So from the Coalition perspective, it's clear who needs protecting from whom. Incoming Small Business Minister Gary Gray, a one-time Woodside Petroleum executive, is emblematic for Billson of the big-government, big-union, big company view of the world that leaves SMEs in the cold.

That's not the only 'Order of Mates' that can be identified, depending on one's political leaning. But it's the one Billson and friends will be looking to disrupt at the September election.

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