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Wednesday, 25 May 2005
Page: 91

Ms OWENS (3:38 PM) —Every time the Howard government moves, there is more paperwork—more paperwork for business, for charities, for community groups and even for families. The flow of paperwork between the Australian community and this government and its departments gets greater day by day. Every time they look sideways, somebody somewhere gets whacked with another form to fill out or another hoop to jump through. There is an unprecedented level of interference about this government. They are reaching into our homes, our communities and our businesses. There is an unprecedented level of direct control and a particularly self-serving largesse—flagpoles come to mind. It is a level of interference that we really have not seen in this country.

Now, when it comes to the paperwork burden, with their super choice measures they have super-sized it. This is overkill for the outcome they are seeking. This legislation takes something as simple as having an employee choose a super fund and turns it into the most extraordinary paperwork extravaganza—not once for business, but over and over again.

Consider the compliance burden under super choice. All existing employees under a federal award and those who are award free—some five million workers—must be given a standard ‘choice of super fund’ form by the employer by 29 July. This is just to indicate to the employer which fund they must contribute the nine per cent to. Employees can switch funds once a year. The forms must be kept by the employer for inspection by the tax office or there is a penalty of 25 per cent of the super contributions per employee, capped at $500 per employee. There are some exceptions, Commonwealth public servants et cetera, but for 400,000 employers super choice means significant additional paperwork—a nightmare of forms and process. Over time they will need to make payments to more than one fund—perhaps 20 funds for 20 employees. This will require many employers to contract and pay for new payment systems by 1 July. Then, in the event of a fund becoming non-complying—for example, if funds merge and if the employer knows about it—the employer must contribute the employees’ super to their default fund and issue yet another new choice of fund form for new payment.

I used to believe the rhetoric from the conservatives about being about small government and about being for small business. I was very young and very naive, but I used to believe it. I can understand people who had heard that rhetoric year after year believing the 1996 election campaign promise to cut red tape for small business. I can understand them believing that promise again in 1998—and again in 2001. I am not quite sure I understand why they believed it in 2004—because they said it again then—but the one thing that you can believe about this government is that they are very good at promises. They have some really good ones—cutting red tape is a really good one. And they stick to what they are good at—if it is a good promise, they just make it over and over again. Why waste a good promise by implementing it? Just keep it for the next election.

Now we see an extension of that strategy: make the problem worse, so that next time you announce a solution small business will swoon with relief. That is what super choice does: it makes a bad problem worse. Four times in a row I have heard them make the election promise that they will reduce the burden for small business. Now we have the reality. Super choice, super burden. Enough is enough. We are calling for an exemption for small business from this waste of paper and resources—for one simple reason: the government has gone overboard on the paperwork. Small business has had enough and they need a break.

This government is talking about imposing this astonishing paper burden on the husband and wife who own the drycleaners down at the local shopping centre, who probably employ 1.5 staff and a bookkeeper once every two or three weeks to run through the books. It is likely that some of those staff have already chosen their own super funds. If they came in tomorrow and said, ‘I’m consolidating my super. Can I change my fund?’ the boss would probably say, ‘Yes,’ because in small business most bosses and their staff have very good relationships. When you are talking about small businesses, you are talking about family businesses—small operations that make moderate livings for their owners. The one thing they need to do above all else is concentrate on their business—their business, not the government’s.

Back in my theatre days we had a really simple saying that kept our focus: ‘If it doesn’t show on the stage, don’t do it.’ Of course there were other issues; it was never that simple—there were safety issues and we concentrated on other things. But that simple statement kept our eye on the ball. We had another phrase—a ‘dark night’. Any night that a theatre was not operating was called a dark night. It was a non-revenue night. I keep those ideas with me when I stand here representing small business. I know that every hour that business spends working for the government instead of for their customers is a dead hour. We in this House need to have regulation. We know that and small business knows that, but we need to consider carefully every time we ask small business to work for us—to go dark, to stop working for customers. We need to know that we have considered the value of that hour to the community as well as the cost to small business. With compliance costs rising year after year in the nine years of this government—and now rising more through super choice—I cannot believe for a moment that this government gives small business a thought.

I expect that in the next few days we will have to listen to the other side jumping up and down and blaming everybody else for the increase in compliance costs. It is certain to be the states’ fault. We have already heard that it is actually our fault, even though we have not been in government for nine years. It is certainly not the government’s fault. We will hear that it was not them; they were probably not even there.

In recent months we have seen the federal Minister for Small Business and Tourism, Fran Bailey, quoted in the Financial Review. On 18 April, in an article referred to already by the shadow minister for small business, she stated:

The Government is examining ways  to improve the procedures used by its agencies and departments to assess the compliance impact of regulations on business.

That sounds like another promise to me. She states further:

The bottom line is that we simply have got to reduce the amount of red tape that business has to deal with ... This is a critical issue.

It is a critical issue, and it has become more and more critical over the Howard government’s nine years in office. Just how critical was summarised in the Financial Review on Monday—I am quite enjoying the Financial Review at the moment. The op-ed piece in the Financial Review on Monday said:

Seven years ago—before tax reform, financial services reform and corporate law reform—the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development estimated the cost of regulation for small and medium-sized Australian firms at $17 billion. It has swelled from there to as much as 8 per cent of gross domestic product ($64 billion)—

That is, it has gone from $17 billion to $64 billion a year on Howard’s watch.

Mr Kelvin Thomson —With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Ms OWENS —They are certainly not the best friend that small business ever had. That growth was before super choice, before this extraordinary burden that will turn small businesses once again into workers for the government. Members on the other side: please do not impose this ridiculous paperwork burden on small business. Let them get on with what they actually do. Let them get on with their businesses; get out of the way of small business and vote against this bill.