Resourceful Gray gets a small business googly

Gary Gray has the credentials to be a very good resources minister but the economically and politically crucial small business portfolio will test his talents.

The Australian mining industry breathed a sigh of relief today when Gary Gray became resources minister. But for the small business portfolio Gray, as the fifth minister in 15 months, has no track record in this vital area.

The miners have always had Martin Ferguson to stem the widespread anti-mining sentiment among most Gillard ministers. No one understood mining better than Ferguson. But Gray is not in the Gillard anti-mining pack. Gray was national secretary of the Labor Party between 1993 and 2000 and a key force in the ALP election campaigns in the 1990s. But he stepped down in 2000 to join Woodside Petroleum in Western Australia.

Moreover, Gray was brought up in Whyalla where his mother still lives. Gary’s mother was none-too-happy about the original Rudd-Swan mining tax because it would have virtually wiped the town out. Gray also opposed that tax – and not just because his mother insisted on it. Gray understood the devastation it would have caused, not just to Whyalla (The tax is black and white for Gray, June 16, 2010).

Gray is married to Deborah, the daughter of Peter Walsh, former finance minister in the Hawke government and one of the finest finance ministers in Australia’s history. 

Small business is a different story. In the last 15 months no one has been in the portfolio long enough to know when to alert the government to the implications of the anti-small business proposals that arise in cabinet – and there have been plenty.

Partly in response to the anti-small business stance of the Gillard government, small businesses creation in Australian has fallen sharply.

A centrepiece of the Liberal 2013 election campaign is the plan to double the rate of small business creation in Australia with an associated rise in employment.

Among the planned policies is a dramatic reduction in the 20,000 or so regulations that Rudd and Gillard have introduced – most of which ended up targeting small business because there was no one in cabinet to help.

The Coalition will adopt the old ALP policy of a 'fair contracts' board to protect small enterprises from unfair deals with large organisations, in much the same way consumers are protected. The ALP dropped fair contracts protection because it might have made life tougher for their union mates negotiating with large companies.

The current government has made life as tough as possible for independent contractors. But they will be promoted under Abbott.

Opposition spokesman for small business, Bruce Billson, has an array of small enterprise booster actions, which is why he is so confident the small business start-up rate will double.

But Billson will need to watch out. Gray might not be experienced in small business but he is talented and might just enable the Gillard government to finally understand small business issues in its last six months.