Nicholas Way

New figures show SMEs are multiplying: Labor needs to spell out its position.

The constituency that grew

It hardly rated a mention in the mainstream media; just another piece of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But you can bet your payroll tax that the political hard-heads on both sides of the fence are taking a long hard look at its significance.

The statistic is the revision — upwards — of the number of small businesses alive and kicking in the economy. In 2001, it stood at 1.2 million. Six years later, that number stands at 1.88 million, a staggering 57% increase, and, more importantly for the politicians, a lot of voters.

Certainly Fran Bailey, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, wasn’t going to look this gift horse in the mouth. Her office was quick to issue a media release touting the benefits of small business to the economy and asking what a Labor government would do for these 1.88 million businesses.

“The latest figures show that small business is more important than ever, with small business driving innovation, exports and jobs growth. The challenge for Labor is to release policies that will support, not hinder, this growth.”

She lauded what the Government has achieved for small business, from exempting it from unfair dismissals to making it easier to deal with big business under the Trade Practices Act. Labor, she pointed out, opposed unfair dismissal, opposed tax cuts, and now wants to impose two years of family leave on small business.

Of course it was political rhetoric on a grand scale; it is, after all, an election year.

That said, Bailey makes a good point. Small business is a sizeable constituency and a Labor Party that doesn’t acknowledge this political reality and devise policies accordingly will make its task of winning the Treasury benches that much harder.

It’s not easy for Labor; policies that appeal to small business often grate on its union constituency and the employees they represent. Unfair dismissal is such an obvious example.

But Labor cannot bypass the challenge: it must spell out its position on small business.

It must acknowledge the critical role small business plays in the economy, and devise policy that reflects this.

It will mean finally ending the antiquated thinking by some in Labor’s ranks that says small employer equals non-union employer equals bad employer.


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