Too many boots are kicking small business

Real opportunities to boost small business are on the horizon, but they’re at risk of being hijacked by those whose interests lie elsewhere.

Currently the Coalition has the best small business policies. But when we see removal of the carbon and mining taxes being touted as the important policies for small business, the wrong issues are being highlighted. It’s concerning. And it’s especially worrying when big business issues get greater prominence from those who claim to represent the small business sector. 

In reality, the Coalition’s best policies for small business are:

– Removal of unfairness from contract law between big and small business.

– A root and branch review of competition policy.

– The removal from small business people from the collection process around superannuation.

– Removal of small business people from the pay clerk role in Paid Parental Leave processes.

The carbon tax has not, by itself, caused small businesses to fail. Anyone who gives that impression has no idea about small business. The carbon tax may have contributed some difficulties but most, nearly all, of the business failures that have occurred over the last twelve months would have occurred without the carbon tax. Indeed, the high penalty rates we are forced to pay on weekends and public holidays have had a much greater influence on business closures.

Competition policy is also a major issue. A recent report from the Australian Industry Group showed that Coles and Woolworths would not allow suppliers to pass on power costs increases unless the business could prove first that there had been an increase (don’t the duopoly read the papers?) and second, that it had done all in their power to minimise the impact of cost increases.

This shows a failure of competition policy. It means the duopoly can behave like lord and master of the Australian manufacturing supply chain and is having a negative impact on our ability to compete globally, including our capacity to compete in Asia. Obviously, removing the carbon tax won’t change this problem.

Our concerns are also based on valuable lessons from the past about trusting governments and big business. For example, the Howard/Costello governments regularly told small business they loved and valued us but the actual outcomes didn’t match that rhetoric. The last Coalition government ignored our needs, lectured us and told us what to think and say and then they listened to big business and delivered what big business demanded.

For this reason, we ended up with the GST and the business activity statement, which saw over two million people became unpaid tax collectors. The Howard/Costello government also bought ‘Super Choice’ into the superannuation system. There are some one million people who employ another five million people and have to collect and distribute the employees’ retirement funds into the coffers of multi-billion dollar financial institutions. 

In each instance, an already complex system became even more so for the small business person.

Every other person in the tax management system is paid for what they do; those in government agencies and in big business all get paid. But the small business person does not get paid and indeed there are some hefty fines if they don’t do this unpaid work.

Under John Howard and Peter Costello we also ended up with competition policy that protected the duopoly from competition. We ended up with contract law that protected and still protects big business from litigation. We ended up with the big landlords having local retail monopolies and being able to destroy small business whenever they need more money. This came from the fact that urban planning was left out of consideration of market dominance. We wanted it in and the big landlords and the duopoly wanted it out and, as always, they got what they wanted.  Now the whole supply chain, not just retail, is in trouble.

We also ended up with a workplace relations system designed for paymasters but claiming to be small business friendly. WorkChoices, like the Fair Work system, is designed to suit the needs and ideology of unions and/or big business, not the 96 per cent of businesses that don’t have a paymaster.

The organisations that claim to represent small business are also a concern. At the moment, for example, ACCI is stating that the three big issues for a small business are the carbon tax, the mining tax and a balanced budget.  The real issues are around contract law, competition policy, workplace relations and red tape – which are already Tony Abbott’s policies and should be the key policies for small business. Some years ago we almost achieved fairness in contract law between big and small business but with the input of ACCI and other groups representing big business, the proposed legislation did not proceed. How can an organisation claim to represent small business people when they support unfair contracts?

If the carbon and mining taxes are removed and the budget taken closer to balance we will still see millions of small business people getting up on Sunday mornings to do their BAS, do their superannuation payments and ponder how they will find the extra rent or how they will run their business with less income and increased costs. We will still see tens of thousands of business people being treated roughly and unfairly, by the big landlords and the supermarket duopoly.  

The Hon Bruce Billson MP, member for the Victorian seat of Dunkley, is the shadow minister for small business and competition. Billson gets small business and we believe that Tony Abbott listens to him, which is why they have the best policies. We hope Abbott, in the face of many pressures, continues to listen to Billson after the election instead of succumbing to the influence of groups such as the big landlords, the duopoly and the big franchisors who will want to maintain unfairness and domination based on size, not efficiency. We also hope that the needs of big business issues around the carbon tax and the mining tax do not, once again, push our issues into the background.

The micro world of business consists of millions of people; get the policies and process right for them and the economy must be healthier. Get it wrong and the economy will pay the price.

Small business does not have the funds and the influence of the big end of town or the unions but we do vote. There are some 2.5 million of us who employ almost five million other people who will be voting in September. Nice numbers. How will they vote?

Peter Strong is chief executive officer of the Council of Small Business of Australia.