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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2990


Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (15:44): I rise to support the leave of absence motion in the hope that, in the period reflected in this leave of absence, the government realise there are people out in our community struggling under their policies. The small-business community, whom I represent, feel that the government abandoned them long ago and that they vacated their interests and any effort to understand the pressures the small-business community are facing. The government granted themselves a leave of absence long ago to show no interest whatsoever in the small-business community of Australia.

People watch this parliament and I am sure they must think it is some kind of political equivalent of Midsomer Murders. There is a death every episode, whether it is the political death of a leader, death of allegiances, death of promises, death of integrity, death of undertaking, death of policy, death of good speakers as an act of convenience, death of parliamentary process when it is convenient for the government or death of agreements with Independents when they do not matter anymore. We just wonder what is going to happen next.

In recent days, I met His Excellency the ambassador—I will not say which one—from a nation that invests heavily in our country, who was lamenting the mood in his capital about how investors in Australia with significant contributions to economic opportunity and employment are left shaking their heads. They are just wondering what is going to happen next. They are wondering whether there are any adults in charge. They wonder whether government can manage to lift its head above the huddles of people working out who is going to do over whom and who might run.

According to Twitter, right now there are at least 20 Labor MPs in Kevin Rudd's office just begging him to run. The rose petals are out and everyone who has ever said anything bad about Kevin Rudd is now thinking about voting for him after absolute character vilification 12 months ago. They are signing a blood oath that they will never say anything nasty about him again. We are inching towards 4.30, when we will learn whether Kevin Rudd is resurrected in yet another episode of Midsomer Murders.

I ask this parliament to think about what we can do well over the coming weeks. It is a respite for people from seeing this circus, this dysfunctional and divided parliament, overseen by a Prime Minister seemingly completely preoccupied with her own job and her own survival and with not a jot of interest in the success and survival of small-business people and the jobs that they depend upon and provide for this economy.

Let us have a quick look at what is going on. The recent National Australia Bank quarterly SME survey found that small-business confidence, conditions, profitability, cash flow and employment levels were all in negative territory. You then look at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry small-business survey, where business conditions continue to deteriorate, quarter after quarter. They are falling again and have been tracking in a downward trajectory for every quarter over the last three years. There was a survey conducted by Sensis in its business index with small- and medium-sized enterprises. It asked a fairly simple question: how many of you think the Gillard government policies are actually supporting what you do? The result was that only six per cent of Australian small businesses think government policies are supportive of them—and I think I have found who that six per cent are.

In my travels around the country, I get asked, 'Who is the small-business minister today?' because there have been four small-business ministers in the last 15 months. All of them have had impressive union careers and would not know a small business unless during a threatening exchange over a cold pie. This is the concern. Depending on how today goes, we could end up with the fifth small-business minister in 15 months. Is there any wonder that there seems to be no interest in or commitment to small business? The portfolio is passed around like some kind of plaything at a kids party or, worse still, is dangled like a pinata—bright and shiny; 'Look at that'—and then everybody hops into it with a baseball bat. It seems that this is a passing interest that only gets a look in when an election is in the air. All of a sudden Labor decides it has to be more middle of the road in its policies and it realises that the most committed middle-of-the-road community we generally have are the small-business men and women. They are so embedded in our nation and our communities and see, day to day, the real-life experiences of their customers, their staff and the communities they operate in. Labor will think, 'We might need to talk about small business again.'

Let me make a couple of predictions. The last time, 12 months ago, when Kevin Rudd had a crack at becoming the Prime Minister again, all of a sudden he was saying where the Gillard government had lost its way. Which group featured prominently? He said, 'We really haven't done enough for small business, have we?' The retort I heard was, 'You've done plenty to small business, none of it good and, thank you, we don't want any more of that.' My sense is, if there is a resurrection of Rudd in the next hour or so, you will hear this all over again. After the punishment that has been meted out to the small-business community and family enterprises across Australia, there will be this flurry of interest that we have not seen since 2007, when Kevin Rudd was out there recognising that, when Labor politicians talk about the economy and seem to think it is only employees working for employers, there are millions of Australians who are not in that relationship; they are self-employed. They are independent contractors. They are courageous men and women who mortgage their houses to take a chance and apply their entrepreneurship and enterprise, not only in the hope that they will get ahead themselves but hoping to provide opportunities for people right across the country.

My prediction is that talking about small business will become the new black for Labor. They will see these harsh statistics that show that people feel that Labor have no interest in small business. Sadly, the evidence is backing that up quite clearly. I also predict that in maybe June we will have some sort of spectacle of small-business interest. Will it be a small-business statement? Will it be a small-business focus day? It will be some totemic thing that the Labor Party hope will get them some cheap headlines and that small business will think, 'All is forgiven.'

Ms Marino: A people's convention?

Mr BILLSON: A small-business people's convention perhaps, because there was not one at Rooty Hill, was there? In that jaunt out to Western Sydney it was almost like the small-business person was kryptonite and Super Prime Minister could not go near them for fear of any injury or illness. I think the tacticians in the Prime Minister's office knew that it would be pretty hard finding a small-business person with much positive to say, so why risk that? That is my prediction. Whatever happens, you will see some festival of interest that will last about two newspaper cycles, then the show will move on as Labor tries to resurrect itself in the eyes of the electorate.

I talked about the harm. I do not think many people realise that since Labor was elected the number of people who derive their employment out of small business has declined by a quarter of a million. There are 243,000 fewer Australians employed in small business now than there was five years ago. Yet we hear that there is population growth. The world's greatest Treasurer tells us we have an economy that is booming along: 'Everything is peachy and humming along! We are at trend growth, or thereabouts, and isn't everything just great?' But in that narrative there is a complete disinterest in and ignorance of what is happening to the engine room of the economy which, under Labor, has had a cylinder or two taken out of it.

The number of people who are employed in small businesses has also declined by more than 10,000. The share that small business provides in terms of private sector workforce has contracted quite remarkably—from over 51 per cent, when Labor was elected, to 45.7 per cent. Yet there is no recognition of that within the government. In fact, the opposite has happened. I listened intently to see whether this consistent stream of research and advice, telling people how tough things are in the small-business sector, would register in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. I paid great interest to that document. I went from cover to cover to see whether there was any positive announcement about small business in that publication. And I found one!

Ms Marino: Did you?

Mr BILLSON: I did find one. It surprised me that I found one. I read it and then I realised why it was there. It was in a chapter that said China might slow down and that that might have problems for our economy. But good news: the Chinese government has taken action to support small business in China, to try and keep its economic growth going! So the Chinese have set the example about how crucial small business is.

But I read on, and there was nothing at all in that document about the challenges small businesses were facing. The only positive statement was about what the Chinese government was doing. But then I read on further and found that there was another $380 million being allocated to the Taxation Office to continue its jihad against small business—to try and get every last dollar—and even where the dollar is not justified, to go after small business with the weight, the power and the resources of the tax office. According to the Inspector-General of Taxation the enforcement program of the ATO that targeted small businesses was going to be extended and enhanced by $380 million, and that 5,800 small businesses simply paid default tax assessments because they could not afford to fight or correct them.

That is the kind of message we hear as we travel around. It is a message of failure. Small-business owners talk to me and say, 'Bruce, it'd be nice if they left us alone. It'd be great if they were our allies and our advocates but if that can't be managed at least let there be ambivalence that has no harm attached to it.' Instead, Australian small businesses see, in this Gillard-Rudd government and whatever follows, an adversary—someone who is not on their side. This is a crucial part of our community that does not know quite what the government is doing to help them. They are just wondering what is going to be done to them next.

So, in this leave-of-absence period that we are debating, and which the coalition is supporting, I hope government ministers, whomever they might be—including, possibly, small business minister possibly No. 5 in 15 months, whoever that might be—might spend some time with the small businesses in their communities and realise that the courage and the risk, the efforts and the application, that small-business people apply to create opportunities and wealth, is understood and recognised by the government.

Last time Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister he went on that pre-election charm offensive, but nothing much came of it. We had Grocery Choice that was supposed to help consumers, but it did not. FuelWatch was supposed to help with cost-of-living pressures, but it did not work. We had a petrol commissioner, who wore that shingle around his neck, but had no new tools or powers to do anything about it. We had failed environmental programs like the pink batts and solar hot-water programs. They were unilaterally stopped while small businesses around the country were left with stock and financial obligations that no-one in the cabinet seemed to understand. We had a promise of 'one in, one out' as an approach to regulation, yet we have seen more than 20,000 new or amended regulations introduced by this government over a period where 105 have been repealed. That is hardly one in, one out.

There was a commitment to implement BAS Easy, but that just drained away. There was a broken promise about providing unfair contract protections for small business. That disappeared as well. We then saw a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, yet here we have one. It is a tax that, at his heart and in its design, has no greater victim in mind than the small businesses of Australia. Small businesses got none of the carve-outs, none of the compensation, and none of the hush money that was thrown around. They were told to either suck it up or pass it on. Suck it up! It was another cost so that margins got squeezed. That will be okay! Won't that work for a long time!

Small businesses are already struggling in this difficult economic climate where customers are cost conscious. Small businesses have upward cost pressures and overseas competitors who do not have the burdens that the Australian owners have to contend with. 'Just suck it up,' is the advice of the government, 'or pass it on to the consumers.' Then, after providing the advice to pass it on to the consumers, the government sent out the ACCC as a carbon cop, with small businesses that were contending with the carbon tax as their primary target.

This is a dismal record. You would remember that small business was promised a company tax. I remember the member for Deakin shot out a newsletter—a number of others did too—to small businesses in his electorate saying that it had been delivered. It has not been delivered. It has not even made it to this parliament—yet another broken promise.

And the government talk about instant asset write-offs as if that is some tax cut when it is simply a rephasing of tax obligations. And small business is smart enough to know they are not getting much from that. Contrast that with our plan and real solutions. Do you know what the centrefold of this document is? It is our plan for small business. I think it is the best couple of pages in this document. It is our plan for real solutions for Australia, helping small businesses grow stronger—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): The member is aware that he is not allowed to use props.

Mr BILLSON: Sorry, I thought this was evidence. My apologies. I thought it was not a prop but evidence. I will put it down, because the evidence is clear. It is part of our practical, considered plan to give small businesses the support they need. There are many measures in there that I think are what small businesses are looking for. I hope that, over the six weeks, Labor members think about that. I do hope that the Australian public get the chance— (Time expired)