“False advocates” of small business are unwilling to accept change for the better, says Peter Strong

Peter Strong JobKeeper

COSBOA chief Peter Strong. Source: supplied.

The excellent article by Ewin Hannan in The Australian on Saturday told a depressing story.

That story, as I see it, was about two different approaches to getting change.

One group’s approach is to secure change in workplace relations through negotiation and consensus, through give and take.

The approach of the other group — a group that claims the IR space as its own — is to deliberately and covertly destroy any chance of change by those outside its exclusive club.

The Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) has experienced this before. We will not put up a white flag and will continue to pursue the changes we need for small business employers and their employees.

Our main goal is simplicity — we want an average person employing someone for the first time to be able to understand what the rules are, do what they need to do to give that person a job, and continue running their business. A simpler system will also make it easier for employees to know their rights.

Importantly, COSBOA knows that an all or nothing approach isn’t constructive. We are willing to compromise to create change, even if it’s incremental. 

It is disappointing that some organisations that claim to represent small business people do not actually do so, instead spending time behind closed doors secretly undermining good policy for these small and family business people. It is time they are called out. 

These groups have previously presented one face to the public, and a different one behind closed doors.

Some time ago, when I first got into the small business advocacy space, I recall that the Rudd government proposed some very solid legislation around removing unfair contract terms for contracts between big and small business. This is an essential requirement particularly in the construction sector, but also in retail.

But, when the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Master Builders’ Association (MBA) got wind of it, they quickly killed it off as their big business members didn’t want to have to treat small business people fairly and openly.

Even though behind closed doors these organisations stopped legislation that was good for small business they still, in public, asserted their complete support for the small business people of Australia. The outcome of their treachery is profound. 

As a result, there have been many small business people and families — no one knows exactly how many, but they are in the thousands — who were left to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the biggest construction companies, the biggest landlords, and the biggest supply companies.

Most big businesses probably did the right thing but some didn’t; business families were bankrupted, houses were lost, and caring relationships were destroyed due to no fault of the small business people — not to mention the significant mental health impacts. Have no doubt, the behaviours of these associations are incredibly damaging for small business people and the economy.

To reinforce this lack of concern, one leader of a large chamber of commerce and industry once told me: “The best thing about small business, Mr Strong, is that when one falls over there is always another to take its place.

This conveys a disgraceful lack of care for the people he claimed to represent. 

Eventually, the Abbott government managed to get legislation through. But despite the best of efforts, it was a much watered down version of what we needed.

Now, COSBOA, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman and others, including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, are pushing hard for changes to make the unfair contract terms legislation better fit for purpose.

Will ACCI and the MBA — plus others like Australian Industry Group and the Australian Mines and Metals Association — fight against that change behind closed doors, while pretending to support it in public? That will depend, I suppose, on what their big business members want.

These groups have descended into the practice of the true ruling class. They are shooting the messengers and bullying and threatening elected officials behind closed doors. I will deal with their lame insults (eg. “COSBOA is naive” and “COSBOA is an empty drum”) on social media where it is much more fun.

So, let’s ask the following about their behaviours.

Why did this small cabal, the employer industrial relations club, go behind closed doors and move into their own self-focused exclusive WhatsApp world?

Why did they threaten the government of the day with dire consequences if it did not do as it was told?

Why do they bend the truth and promote false narratives?

Why do they not negotiate in good faith?

Why are they distrusted?

The ability of our economy to thrive post-COVID is dependent upon growing productivity and sharing the financial benefits fairly between businesses and employees.

When you read Ewin Hannan’s article you will see that COSBOA, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions have all demonstrated a willingness and ability to adopt a consensus approach.

The others have not. But they did stop change — good change.

SmartCompany welcomes submissions from all industry associations, which are in keeping with our editorial standards.

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