Treachery behind Labor's small business curtain

While fronting up friendly stage lines on small business the government has, behind the scenes, introduced legislation that will cripple two significant small business sectors.

After last week's small business media blitz by the Gillard government, most people in small business must feel they have a sign painted across their forehead screaming ‘come in sucker!’ Am I being excessively politically one-sided? Probably yes! But the assessment is based on facts.

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Julia Gillard placed the small business minister, Brendan O’Connor in cabinet. That’s potentially a good thing. But it’s only good if the minister then has the grunt and inclination to fearlessly defend the small business space.

I explained the politics behind this cabinet move at the time of the appointment (Carving out O'Connor's small business task, March 5). Labor must secure a sizable chunk of the small business vote if they have any chance of winning the next election. That’s their motivation. However in the space of two weeks they’ve blown out of the water any small business credibility they may have created.

Last week Gillard proudly announced the setting up of a federal Small Business Commissioner, something small business has been calling on for some time. Tony Abbott has long had a policy to do this.

Following the morning announcement, Gillard rushed into parliament crowing about how brilliant the government is for small business. They had a successful couple of media days doing this. They now have plenty of small business friendly sound bites and images to push into future election advertisements.

But on the same day they were announcing the commissioner they were, behind the scenes, attacking thousands of small business people. With the help of the Greens they rammed two bills through the senate.

One bill literally declared any self-employed independent contractor working in the clothing industry to be an employee subject to industrial relations laws. This means that anyone (mostly mums working from home) who wants to earn extra money running a small sewing business, is forced to be an employee by decree of Julia Gillard. It’s the death of the right to be self-employed in the clothing industry.

The second bill has a similar outcome in the transport sector for owner-drivers. That bill established a new tribunal that will take away the right of owner-drivers to control the prices they charge for their services. It’s institutionalised price fixing of commercial contracts and will result in huge market distortions in the trucking industry.

It may potentially breach competition laws and effectively outlaw self-employed small business in trucking. If any businessperson cannot control his or her own prices they are not effectively in business.

These small business destruction bills are part of the extensive roll out of a union anti-self-employed/small business campaign launched in November last year. I debated this with the union boss Ged Kearney when they started the campaign.

What the Gillard government and the broad Labor movement don’t ‘get’ is that when they seek to kill off self-employment they strike at the heart of entrepreneurship. This damages everyone in Australia. Labor consistently proves that it acts within a ‘corporatist’ framework. It’s big business, big government and big unions doing deals. But if anyone in big business bucks Labor’s deal-making, Labor attacks them too.

Now enter the Small Business Commissioner undertaking! It’s federal Labor conning again.

The first Small Business Commissioner was introduced in Victoria in 2003 under the Bracks Labor government. It’s primary task is to assist small business dispute resolution with large business and government departments. It’s been hugely successful but needs some small strengthening of powers.

Last year Small Business Commissioners were introduced in Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia. South Australia has given their commissioner slightly stronger dispute resolution powers than the Victorian model.

But Gillard's Small Business Commissioner seems to have no powers, according to the information released. The Commissioner will simply be a flapping mouth, able to talk to government about small business, and give opinions but do nothing of substance. Labor’s undertaking to small business people is lots of talk about pretending to do something but doing nothing.

If the position of a federal Small Business Commissioner is to have any meaning it must include powers to resolve disputes between federal government agencies and small business people. We’ve covered several cases where the behaviours of departments is appalling. One case involved the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and another involved a high profile agency (unnamed due to legal action occurring).

The Abbott opposition has made a firm commitment to a real federal Small Business Commissioner/Ombudsman with dispute resolution powers for small business people in dispute with government departments. The Gillard government has stolen the media pitch but is doing nothing of any real value. Worse, they are engaged in a consistent stealth campaign against small business people.

Ken Phillips is executive director of Independent Contractors Australia and author of Independence and the Death of Employment.

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