Liberal Party Leader Peter Dutton sends love letter to small business sector after election loss

Source: Lukas Coch, AAP Image

New Liberal Party Leader Peter Dutton says his party will champion the “forgotten people” in small business and microbusinesses, as leading industry groups call for the Coalition to abandon its “sensible” approach to climate change policy to embrace more ambitious targets.

The Liberal Party elected Dutton as its new leader on Monday, just over a week after Labor’s federal election victory ended the tenure of former prime minister Scott Morrison and nine consecutive years of Coalition government.

Dutton, the former defence minister, ran unopposed for the party’s top job. Former environment minister Sussan Ley was elected unopposed for the Deputy Leader position.

Leadership has also changed hands at the National Party, the Liberal’s junior partner in the Coalition. David Littleproud has taken over from firebrand Barnaby Joyce to become Nationals Leader, with Perin Davey chosen as the Nationals’ second-in-command.

Coalition leadership a chance to champion small business: Dutton

While the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA) gave the Coalition’s small business policies the narrow edge over Labor’s in its pre-election rundown, the impact of JobKeeper, company tax cuts, and a curious pledge to create 400,000 new small businesses failed to secure electoral success on May 21.

Reflecting on the Coalition’s plans to win back voters who flocked to Labor, the Australian Greens, or the new wave of ‘teal’ independents, Dutton told ABC News Breakfast on Monday that his federal opposition will fight for the SME sector.

“I want to do a lot for small businesses and the microbusinesses and people who have really been hurting over the course of COVID,” he said.

“I want to grow Australian jobs and manufacturing, and you know, there’s a lot that’s going to happen over the next three years in terms of the economy, the international economic headwinds are going to be very significant.”

Advocating for small businesses will allow him to show Australia his “softer” side, Dutton claimed, after overseeing Australia’s defence capabilities and home affairs portfolios.

“There will be many debates that I can show the complete character of who I am,” he said.

Climate should be “forefront of the agenda”, COSBOA says

Industry representatives including the Australian Industry Group and Business Council of Australia have congratulated Dutton on his newfound party leadership, declaring they will work with lawmakers across the political divide to advance jobs, wages, and business opportunities.

The Coalition also has an opportunity to work with the Albanese government to form a “better understanding about where the acute worker shortages are”, COSBOA CEO Alexi Boyd says, as labour availability puts the squeeze on employers.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions even issued its own cautious message, saying Dutton has the opportunity to change how the Liberal Party approaches wage growth, productivity and insecure working practices.

However, some major players have rejected Dutton’s broader argument on climate change: that a focus on social and climate issues among big business has cleaved Australian industry from traditional Liberal Party values.

Speaking to The Australian, Dutton said he hoped chief executives would “speak up on all sorts of policies, not just social policies but other economic policies, not just climate change”.

But climate change is a genuine concern for Australia’s business community, Boyd says, rebuffing the idea climate pledges are trotted out by executives just to appease activist shareholders.

“COSBOA been pushing for the importance of climate change to be at the forefront of the agenda for governments for many years now,” Boyd told SmartCompany.

“And it’s been increasingly frustrating that the settings that businesses — both big and small — are doing in their own businesses are not reflected by the government.”

With small businesses on the front line of natural disasters, COSBOA’s pre-election rundown also said the Coalition’s disaster preparedness policies focus on “paying to fix the problem after the disaster” instead of “acknowledging their cause”.

Andrew McKellar, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, congratulated Dutton on his appointment — but declared climate action is not merely a social nicety, but a priority for Australian businesses.

“Most urgently, we implore the parliamentary Liberal and National parties to support bipartisan action on energy and emissions reduction policy,” McKellar said in a statement.

“Legislated emissions reductions targets will provide the certainty that business needs as the economy transitions to a cleaner future, driving innovation and ambition.”

New pathway for Coalition climate policies

With Labor set to win a narrow majority with 76 seats in the House of Representatives, and a crossbench promising to fight for climate action, the Albanese government now has a mandate to enact its own climate policies.

Most notably, the path is clear for Labor to push for a 43% reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to the Coalition’s pledge to reduce them by between 26-28%.

While the Coalition still counts climate hardliners like Nationals Senator Matt Canavan among its ranks, the demotion of former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce — who refused to sign a COP26 pledge, affirming Australia would take more serious action on emission reduction — may clear the way for more serious climate policies from the Opposition.

Still, an about-face would take some effort.

Littleproud will need to convince the agribusiness community of his own climate authority, after his 2018 declaration he “doesn’t really give a rat’s” if climate change is man-made or not.

In Ley, the Liberal Party also has a deputy leader who successfully argued in Federal Court that Australia’s Minister for Environment does not have a duty of care to protect young Australians from the impact of climate change.

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