Peter Strong: The election draws closer, but questions still remain over Labor’s small business policies

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Source: SmartCompany.

There are just over two weeks to go until we can find out who will govern Australia.

When Anthony Albanese made his election launch in Perth on the weekend he didn’t mention small business. He didn’t mention many things is the truth but, and it is a big but, small businesses are actually some 2.3 million people who vote, who employ more than 5 million people and who have influence. They should have been mentioned.

We know Richard Marles, the Deputy Leader of Labor, gets small business, and he has engaged strongly with the sector. Jim Chalmers who will be Treasurer if Labor wins on May 21 also gets small business issues and there are others that do the same. But are there enough of them?

Does the potential prime minister Albanese get small business? I’m not sure.

Progress has been made

What does that mean? If the PM of our country is disconnected from small business, will he forget that we are actually people with health issues like everyone else? It is not just our health that is at risk when we start businesses — and grow them if we are inclined that way. What is also at risk are our assets, our houses, our relationships and the jobs and health of our employees. 

Previously as part of my commentary on the election I’ve looked at the power of the small business vote; the influence small business folk could have on other people’s votes; and the puzzling lack of focus on the difficulty we have on finding workers for our jobs. So, what has been my experience in general with the major parties in the past?

It is often said that the Liberal Party is the party for small business, and it should be. The founder of the Libs, Robert Menzies, once gave an extraordinary radio speech called The Forgotten People where he focused on the need to foster those who create opportunity for others. It is well worth a read.

But when I became involved in small business advocacy in the mid 1990s, I noticed that the Coalition did not actually deliver the goods for small business and instead looked after big business and the laissez-faire ideology of hard right economists and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Eventually the Coalition, with the inimitable Bruce Billson as small business minister, delivered the goods. They continued to do so through Kelly O’Dwyer and Michaelia Cash. They continued to deliver during COVID-19 and funded activities such as the ‘Go Local First’ campaign. That campaign has been highly successful in keeping a focus on local businesses and their importance to jobs and the health of communities right across Australia. That campaign was also heavily supported by Labor MPs through social media, thank you to them.

Another important change within the Coalition has been around competition policy. In the dark past of the early 2000s when this policy was debated the Coalition would just bleat on about ‘let the market decide’, but that has changed. The Coalition and the ACCC understand the importance of true competition — not faux competition that exists for the benefit of large businesses.

Then again, have no doubt the extreme right economists in the Coalition and in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry are ready to pounce and push their destructive ideology back to the fore and push small business back under the heel of the powerful. This is also important if we are to grow a truly competitive manufacturing sector then we need sensible competition policies not superficial beliefs; and we also need a well-funded ACCC.  

It’s worth noting there are some economists who seem to have an actual phobia, indeed an emotional dislike, of small businesses for some reason — most of them (the economists) are to be found in the Federal Treasury and some in universities where they preach their silly shallow ways. They are still there waiting to drag the coalition back into lazy economic policies. So far, they are just noisy but we must always be alert.

Questions for Labor

Now we come to Labor. I have mentioned that Albanese doesn’t often, if at all, mention small business. It is not in his front of mind. I believe Julia Gillard, a past Labor PM, was very good for small business and introduced, for example, an instant tax write-off and also the national small business commissioner which eventually morphed into the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO). Good results.

But without small business being front of mind with a potential prime minister what might happen? The fear I am hearing from industry is around the power of certain unions. The questions I would like to see answered by Labor are a few.

Will they bring back the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), which would destroy any chance that owner drivers could have viable businesses? Last time the RSRT was proposed — and almost imposed — on the transport sector, it caused some owner drivers to go bankrupt. This is because banks called in some loans and others lost contracts, all because of the fear of the imposition of draconian laws; laws that would have only benefited big businesses and the Transport Workers Union.

The construction sector is at risk. Labor proposes to close down the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) which would bring more violence and crime into the construction sector. That is not a good thing at all. The Master Builders Association (MBA) and others are onto that issue, but we need an answer from Labor on exactly how they will rein in the criminal behaviour of the construction part of the CFMEU. And never forget the big construction businesses that work underhandedly with the CFMEU at the cost of smaller contractors in that sector. That’s why we need an ABCC.

The competition policy from Labor has, in the past, been written by the retail union — the SDA. That union only has members in big business such as Coles and Woolworths and indeed have cosy deals done with big employers to basically force workers to join the union. The SDA will not want competition to get in the way of membership. We need Labor to guarantee they will not let the SDA write competition policy. They will not water down competition laws or disempower the ACCC.

Finally, we come to manufacturing. Will manufacturing small businesses be allowed to blossom and grow or will the focus be on creating big manufacturing business with union membership and the lack of innovation that comes from big business domination?

It would be good to get answers to those questions from Labor — please. And a guarantee from the Coalition that competition policy will improve even more.

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