Why Tony Abbott must focus on winning over small business: Gottliebsen

Step by step the coalition under Tony Abbott is moving its leader’s attention away from big business and turning it towards small and medium sized businesses – the party’s support base. Not since Robert Menzies has any Liberal leader attempted such a radical switch, although John Howard kept a very close eye on the small and medium sized business area.

When Abbott slapped a tax on the profits of large corporations to fund his child care policies he was effectively saying to large corporations “you have made you bed with the ALP, now go and lie in it”.

The chances of Tony Abbott winning the next election are not high. However, the idea of the ALP being the party of ‘big’ unions and ‘big’ companies and the coalition representing smaller enterprises and non-union employees was spelled out in a carefully worded speech by shadow Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, Eric Abetz. Speaking to the HR Nicholls Society last week, Abetz asked why “workplace discussions always seem to centre on organisations like the unions – which represent 20 per cent of workers, or the Australian Industry Group or the ACCI who would be lucky to have a similar coverage”.

“Now Mr Rudd and Labor have made it clear they are only interested in big unions and big business,” he said.

“But who speaks for the 80% of workers and business people who have made a decision not to join a particular organisation? I see that my challenge is to ensure that the coalition is their voice in the Workplace Relations space.

“Now don’t get me wrong, the ACTU has an important and legitimate role to play. But it does itself no favours when it uses members’ money to run advertising against a yet unannounced policy. The arrogance and contempt for members and their funds is astounding. Especially when it is acknowledged there is a substantial overlap between trade union membership and Liberal Party voters.

“Business organisations also have an important role to play. But how on earth is it in their members’ interests to call on the opposition to roll over and pass Labor’s attempts to emasculate the Australian Building and Construction Commission?”

That emphasis in Abetz’s statement on ‘big’ is the Senator’s, not mine. Small and medium sized business are a magnificent Liberal Party target because smaller enterprises are finding it very difficult to handle the new shift allowances and penalty rates plus the unfair dismissal rules.

In addition, they are not getting their share of the economic recovery because they are being squeezed for funds by ‘big’ banks (my emphasis). The big banks need to watch out because Abbott will have no sympathy for them in his quest for the top job in Australian government.

Although Abbott’s chances of becoming Prime Minister are slim, as I have pointed out before, the government could easily change if Nick Sherry’s radical plan to decimate independent contracting gets legs in the ALP.

As soon as I wrote that comment, Abbott’s people were on the job and if Sherry is not put back in his box, independent contracting (including plumbers and electricians) will be a big election issue. It is exactly the ‘present’ Abbott is hoping for because it will cement his position as the representative of smaller enterprises. And because smaller enterprises are the major employer in Australia, he can reach their employees as well.

I think Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan are too smart to pursue something as stupid as the Sherry plan. Kevin Rudd understood the Howard connections to the small enterprise community and his 2007 election campaign was in part directed to them. Abbott must be considering quoting what Rudd said in the last election campaign and say ‘I will deliver what Rudd promised you’.

This article first appeared on Business Spectator.

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