ALP unfair dismissal stance changing? … More big names to fall under tax net … Non-resource SMEs avoid floats … Qantas freight charges under scrutiny … Skype gets even better

Labor’s position on unfair dismissal could be softening

Tensions are emerging between senior Labor politicians and deputy leader Julia Gillard over industrial relations, as Labor repositions itself so as to be seen as supporting the aspirations of all working Australians.

Craig Emerson, opposition spokesperson for service economy, small business and independent contractors, told SmartCompany this morning he will be talking to Gillard in the next few weeks about unfair dismissal.

His aim to capture the vote of small businesses will not be affected by Labor’s stance on unfair dismissal laws, he says. “There is no reason independent contractors and small business can’t be part of the labor constituency along with the union movement. We support the aspirations of all working Australians,” he says. He would not say if Labor would change its stance on unfair dismissal.

His comments come hard on the heels of news that Labor leader Kevin Rudd is backing away from the hard line approach to WorkChoices taken by predecessor Kim Beazley, who had proclaimed at public rallies that he was going to rip up the WorkChoice laws.

Rudd also promised corporates at a Business Council of Australia dinner last night that he would consult with business on workplace relations issues, infrastructure, education and tax.

Emerson says Labor will also be releasing a small business policy soon. “Small business is a very high priority,” he says.

— Amanda Gome

More big names to fall under tax net

The decision of entertainment entrepreneur Glenn Wheatley to plead guilty to tax charges arising from Operation Wickenby, Australia’s biggest-ever tax investigation, should send a shiver through many of the other taxpayers who have already been raided under the investigation.

The Wheatley scalp is the strongest indication to date that the investigations are far more than hot wind and are based, clearly in Wheatley’s case, on sound evidence. Some sceptics in the tax profession had been initially saying that Wickenby would not amount to anything.

Wheatley was among dozens of people and companies named on warrants for raids by almost 300 tax and law-enforcement officers on two days in June, 2005.

This warrant, served on a Sydney law firm, sought documents relating to 14 people including Glenn and Gaynor Wheatley, and the Geneva-based financial service providers and suspected tax scheme promoters Philip and Richard Egglishaw.

Operation Wickenby is a joint operation of the Australian Crime, Australian Federal Policy and the Australian Taxation Office. Clearly, the Wheatley scalp will give the investigators much more determination to keeping going. Expect more warrants and more big names to emerge.

— Michael Laurence

Non-resources SMEs avoid IPOs in 2006

Private equity and cheap debt turned most SMEs off floating on the ASX in 2006, and some industry observers are predicting 2007 will be no different.

Unspectacular prices and the increased availability of private investment is driving small and medium-sized businesses away from the sharemarket, the author of a new report on emerging companies says.

HLB Mann Judd corporate finance head, Justin Audcent, says there has been massive growth in initial public offering (IPO) activity in the SME resources sector, but it has not been matched by the rest of the SME market.

“The advantage is not just better prices – a lot of companies that would usually be candidates for public listing are finding they are able to get better prices from private sources,” Audcent says.

“A major upside of a trade sale is you can often get a clean exit, but with a listing there’s usually a limit to how much you can sell down.”

Of the 168 companies that listed in 2006, 86% were small caps, raising $1.02 billion in funds. Just 25% of those were not in the resources sector.

Pengana Emerging Companies Fund manager, Ed Prendergast, says he has seen a drop off in small cap offerings in the non-resource sector. But he is one who is not ruling out more activity, especially in the maintenance and construction, environmental services and financial services sectors in 2007.

The sharemarket slowdown in the third quarter of 2006 may also be partly responsible for the drop off in floats, senior client adviser at Austock, Michael Heffernan, says.

“IPO activity is building up again now, and we expect the market for new capital raising to be very strong indeed over the next year,” Heffernan says.

— Mike Preston

Qantas freight charges under scrutiny

Small and medium-sized businesses in the import and export sector are joining forces in a class action against Qantas and several other international airlines.

They allege the airlines colluded over the last seven years to keep air-freight prices artificially high.

Businesses using Qantas freight services will be hoping this court action will mean prices will fall.

The companies are seeking $200 million in damages from Qantas, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines and British Airways.

Businesses that have bought more than $20,000 of air freight services over the last seven years will be affected by the class action.

Similar class actions have been launched against airlines in Europe and the United States.

Meanwhile, private equity consortium Australian Airline Partners formally lodged its $11 billion bid for Qantas this morning.

Shareholders have until March 9 to accept or refuse the Macquarie Bank-led bid.

— Mike Preston

IT news

Skype is likely to win more fans in business after announcing new features that will make it easier for business to install and manage its services and give IT administrators greater control over employee use, according to IT newsletter, ITwire.

— Amanda Gome

Economic round-up

The private sector has overtaken government as the biggest spender on infrastructure over the last decade, Federal Treasury’s summer 2007 economic round-up reveals.

Since 1987 total infrastructure spending has increased from 3.2% to 4.5% of GDP. The government contribution over that period fell by 0.07% to 1.8% of GDP.

A sharp decline in new order and export growth meant January was a bad month for exporters, a new manufacturing report by Australian Industry Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers reveals.

Skills shortages and higher interest rates were to blame for the drop, the reports authors say.

— Mike Preston


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