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Kevin Rudd talks with big business about productivity, small businesses are snubbed

Yolanda Redrup /

Small business groups have spoken out this morning, concerned about not being included in the latest productivity talks between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Business Council of Australia and trade unions.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions met with Rudd and BCA president Tony Shepherd yesterday to discuss initiatives to lift the nation’s productivity and competiveness, as well as to support growth and jobs.

Both Rudd and the BCA have been praised by small business groups for shifting the conversation to improving productivity since returning as prime minister. But the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Anderson, told SmartCompany the discussions are not going far enough.

“The discussions between the Prime Minister, the BCA and the trade unions are fine as far as they go, but they do not go far enough.

“Fifty per cent of the economy is made up of small businesses and the government needs to take steps to ensure its productivity agendas and priorities incorporate the circumstances of both corporate Australia and small and medium-sized businesses,” he says.

Anderson says the four priority issues for the government to address include: “A crackdown on red tape, simplifying the taxation system, making it easier to employ people and building better infrastructure”.

“These are the four priorities which are the top of the agenda for ACCI to pursue with the government and Abbott’s opposition so the next government has a better understanding of small business conditions.

“I’ve been in discussions with [Small Business Minister] Gary Gray as recently as yesterday and discussions with other ministers, but we want the prime ministerial dialogue to broaden out and incorporate the small business movement,” he says.

Following the meeting, BCA president Tony Shepherd said the government’s engagement with business is a positive step which is “overdue”.

“Today we talked about a number of the issues affecting productivity and competitiveness, such as industrial relations, regulation, skills and energy policy,” he says.

“But as we have said all along, what we are looking for is decisive, real action on the ground that will genuinely address the challenges we face, not joint statements and superficial agreements.”

Shepherd says despite the talks, there is “a long way to go” until real solutions are formulated to address the pressing issues.

“Many of the measures talked about today – such as fast tracking the move to emissions trading, tinkering at the edges of the Fair Work Act or convening management talk fests to discuss productivity – are either too short term, ad hoc, miss the point or risk making things worse for the business environment, not better,” he says.

SmartCompany contacted the BCA, but it had no comment on the lack of small business representation in prime ministerial productivity talks.

SmartCompany also contacted Kevin Rudd  to discuss engagement with small business, but received no response prior to publication.

The talks began following Rudd’s return to leadership. Since then, he has committed to lifting national productivity growth and outlined a national competitiveness agenda.

Council of Small Businesses of Australia executive director Peter Strong told SmartCompany he’s still waiting for Kevin Rudd to keep his promise of a meeting with COSBOA.

“It’s disappointing, the BCA is a great organisation which represents big business, but there are 2 million other people out there who are employing another 5 million people and we need to engage with them. If not, we have failed.

“We have great dialogue with the BCA, but we need to be brought into these discussions. The BCA doesn’t talk on the behalf of small business and it’s never claimed to,” he says.

A spokesperson for Small Business Minister Gary Gray told SmartCompany work has been done to develop a “meaningful agenda to discuss with COSBOA”. 

“The government looks forward to engaging the Council’s help in reducing red tape, and improving the nation’s productivity.

“In addition, yesterday, the Minister for Small Business and the Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business (Bernie Ripoll) attended the peak small business conference – the annual summit for the Council of SMall Business of Australia…they launched an e-resource kits, announced plans to strengthen the $130 billion franchising sector and a new approach to tackle late business payments,” the spokesperson says.

Strong says the key issues which will lead to immediate productivity boosts are around removing the collection of superannuation from small businesses, developing a better understanding within organisations like the ACTU and the government of how small business works, as well as altering policies so small business owners aren’t the paymasters.

The Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Mark Stone said in a statement the discussions between the ACTU, BCA and Rudd are meaningless because small business wasn’t involved.

“It is inconceivable that there be discussions about productivity without involving the sector that employs the seven million Australians who comprise almost 60% of the workforce,” he says.

“Since resuming as Prime Minister, Mr Rudd has failed to match his talk with action when it comes to his relationship with business and the issues that are important to the small business community,”

VECCI executive director of workplace policy Richard Clancy told SmartCompany it shares the same priorities as ACCI.

“We’d like to see a response from both sides of politics to the proposals being put forward,” he says.

“We want to deal with simplifying the tax system and restore quarterly company and income tax collection…a trial of the government giving small business a credit guarantee since it’s difficult to get credit from financial institutions and…we need a sensible discussion about the penalty rates system – that’s where it really hurts small business.”

Other recommendations Clancy proposes include the removal of payroll tax, making government responsible for superannuation payments and paid parental leave payment administration, as well as increasing the capacity of workplaces to make their own flexible arrangements with staff.

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