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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 89


Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (19:49): The Excise Amendment (Reducing Business Compliance Burden) Bill 2011 and the Customs Amendment (Reducing Business Compliance Burden) Bill 2011 represent a worthwhile step by this government in reducing red tape and compliance burdens, particularly on small business. I make that positive remark to open the batting because so rare are the opportunities to say that about something tangible which could be helpful to small business. But this actually is one.

This positive measure was originally proposed by the Howard government. I have before me a press release dated 8 May 2007 from the then Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, Peter Dutton, announcing this very measure. Sadly, the parliament was prorogued before the measure was legislated. For many small businesses, this began the 'welcome to your nightmare' with the election of the Rudd and Gillard governments. This measure had its genesis in the Howard government years. It was accurately identified by then Minister Dutton as a measure building on the Howard government's track record of reducing red tape for small businesses. I think we are onto our third or fourth Labor Assistant Treasurer with responsibility for this area and the Gillard government is introducing the measure, which actually commenced in 2007. You do not want to rush these things! Obviously there are a range of interesting reasons it has taken so long, but it is actually a positive measure. It was recognised by the first Assistant Treasurer in the Labor government as being something that was truncated by the proroguing of parliament. Then Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen made that point on 13 May 2008.

In a nutshell, these bills facilitate a more orderly reporting cycle for small business. Rather than a weekly requirement on small businesses to report on and pay excise—a tax on certain goods produced in Australia or imported relating to alcohol, tobacco, fuel, crude oil and lubricants—there will now be a monthly reporting cycle with monthly settlement of excise obligations. This is a good thing. This should see a reduction in the lodgement of paperwork from 52 returns a year to 12, a more orderly process for alignment of reporting with normal business reporting cycles and more orderly arrangements for remitting any tax liability that arises. That is a good thing.

I sat here, however, and listened carefully to the government speakers talking about their proud record for small business and wondered whether I was in a parallel universe. Some of the remarks were just dripping with hypocrisy, given the comparison between what has actually been done by this government against the claims being made by its members. I will do the House a favour by updating the current regulations-in, regulations-out record of this Gillard-Rudd government since its promise of one in, one out. You might recall I was quite critical and referred to that great philosopher Maxwell Smart in suggesting the government had missed by 'that much' in achieving its policy commitment. I think up to the election the record was about one out for every 220 in. In fairness, and I am a reasonable man by most people's evaluations, that has improved. As of the end of November in the last calendar year, that had changed from one regulation out for 220 in to one regulation out for every 204 in. That is an improvement. I will give the aggregate result since the election of Labor according to the common law record, which captures all the movements in legislative instruments, including select legislative instruments, statutory rules and regulations. The regulations-in record is 16,173 since the election of Labor. That is 16,173 new regulations in—and the regulations-out figure over that period is 79. So there is certainly scope to achieve red-tape reduction, and it is pleasing that the government is picking up on a Howard government initiative to actually do something about it.

If they were very serious about it, though, they would embrace the commitments in the positive agenda of the coalition. I am not just saying they are positive because I crafted them, or because everyone in the small business community says they are positive—even some learned commentators not known for loose bouts of praise. No, I am actually drawing from the assessment of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. For those who are listening, when there is an election and prospects of a change of government the Prime Minister's department produces a blue book. This blue book contains the knowledge being transferred to the incoming government and provides an overview on policy commitments and what steps the Public Service will take to implement those election commitments. Interestingly, the Prime Minister's own department concluded that the small business microeconomic reform agenda, encapsulated in our real plan for small business, was a very positive thing for small business. It said it could provide an important boost to productivity as well. That is a very strong endorsement. It leaves you wondering. We dished up more than a dozen specific measures, including tax cuts, proper reward for risk-taking in small business, access to finance and help with paid parental leave. These were grotesquely misrepresented by those opposite as something that will not involve small business in being the pay clerk but will actually be financed not by an increase in tax but by a deferral of a tax reduction for the most profitable companies in the land. So that is the idea compared with the government's one. There were other measures in this plan about unfair-contract protection being extended to small business, protecting those people who are self-employed, and independent contractors, by stopping this coordinated attack on that very important group of small business people and also the attack on the personal services income laws. The plan is about actually giving small businesses a chance to have access to Commonwealth contracts and then pay their bills on time. I was happy to reveal the half billion dollars of delayed payments to small business just in recent weeks. Also there was the establishment of a dedicated advocate for the small business community who would be working alongside a cabinet-level minister—a small business and family enterprise ombudsman. It is about giving small business a say at some of the major economic agencies and forums, such as the board of taxation, getting our competition laws to give small business half a chance in a competitive economy and getting the government off the back of small business through reductions in red tape.

We have gone further as we have outlined a number of very specific changes. There is actually one that should have been before the parliament today, another practical coalition initiative to have small business relieved of the unwanted and unwarranted burden of being the pay clerk for the government's paid parental leave scheme. For reasons that are best known to the union movement, the government is insistent on having all employers do the government's work for it and be the pay clerk for paid parental leave payments. It has been able to offer no justification whatsoever for that. However, I was given a secret union document revealing that if that machinery were not enforced upon all employers it might impede the unions' agenda to force up paid parental leave payments from employers to eligible employees as part of a coordinated industrial campaign. So this is one of these little behind-the-scenes whispering campaigns that we have learnt so much about with the Labor Party—just witness the Australia Day matter—and which goes on and substitutes for good leadership and good governance in this country. Here is a dirty deal that has been done to fit up all employers, big and small, with the machinery to pay the government's paid parental leave arrangements solely so the unions can then come along and force employers to top up the deficient scheme.

We have got amendments before the House that should have been debated today and that actually say that the employer should only do that where they agree to do it and where the eligible employee agrees. That is pretty straightforward. It is a matter of choice. I recall the government rolled out Sony as its example when it attacked my proposal last time. They are not a small company. Their pay office staff is probably five times the size of your average entire small business, but that is the example that the government brought out. Sony said, 'We're happy to pay it because we'll just tack it on to the end of our own scheme.' Now that is great if they are in a position to do that, and what the coalition says is, 'Knock yourself out if you want to be that pay clerk.' But for those people who are time poor now, why is this being imposed upon them? We looked to the new small business minister, Senator Arbib, known to be a powerbroker and known to roar in some circles of the Labor Party. But there was not a squeak from Senator Arbib when he had his first test and a chance to do something practical and substantial for the small business community to tackle red tape. No, instead he has come out double-teaming with Minister Macklin to give me a spray, not addressing the issues and targeting the practical solutions that we are providing for small business but holding a personal attack on me.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr KJ Thomson ): Order! Speaking of addressing the issues, the member for Dunkley might like to return to the bills that are before us.

Mr BILLSON: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure you heard the other contributions and—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I have heard them and I have been giving plenty of latitude, and I have given the member for Dunkley plenty of latitude.

Mr BILLSON: You are very kind and that is very reasonable given the ranging comments that came from other members on the government side in this place. So, talking about a practical small business initiative, we then go and look at an interview that the small business minister had with SmartCompany. The question is asked whether it would be easier if he were in cabinet and he says that no, that does not matter and that what you need is a minister who can bust down the door of cabinet when there is something that the small business community needs to have said. Well, he has gone from door buster to feather duster. He has been pushed over by a soft breeze. Then, after being a feather duster he comes out with pure bluster. That is the transformation—no help and no assistance, just a gratuitous go at me. He has ignored the substantive issue of concern to the small business community. He is protecting his own reputation and ignoring the needs of small business.

This measure today, which had its genesis in the Howard government, now comes before this parliament some four years later. Hopefully it will be a step that will improve the record of one out for every 204 in. Hopefully it will see 16,173 regulations out for 79 in. Perhaps this might be a better start for the government this year. Heaven knows, their best year since they were elected was their first year, where there were 33 instruments repealing legislation compared with just under 4,700 new ones. That is the high-water mark they have to compete with. In the meantime, this bill is a good measure and that is why the coalition is supporting it.

If Labor is fair dinkum there is another measure that should have been debated here today. It was listed on the Notice Paper last week but has been quite mysteriously pulled. It was a practical measure to help small business by giving them the option not to do the pay clerk role of the government if they are not in a position to do so or not inclined to do so. It is a real test for members in this place, particularly some of the Labor members talking about all the good things the government is doing for small business, to turn their minds to whether they want to make that practical step. We wonder when that bill will come back.

The minister said he would knock down the cabinet doors if small business views were not being taken into consideration. That was his quote. He has managed not to do that. He has managed to be blown over and brushed around like a feather duster, and then he comes back with pure bluster. What about dealing with the substantive issue. That is what this bill before the parliament seeks to do, but this is a very modest step. I hope it is a habit that is catching. It is nice to see a very modest piece of red tape reduction and regulatory relief for small business, albeit a carbon copy of what the Howard government brought forward under, at the time, Minister Dutton.

The government can pick up the plan the small business community wants implemented. They do not have to be shy about it. They can just say that they are outsourcing policy development on small business to the coalition. They could pick up the billion-dollar commitment to reduce the cost and burden of red tape that is being led by my friend and colleague Arthur Sinodinos. There are so many good things that could be done if only the government swallowed its pride and recognised that it had no feel whatsoever for small business. We need to do this because confidence amongst the small business community is very low, and many small businesses I talk to are profoundly disturbed about their economic prospects for the future.

While the government boasts about the conditions of the economy, the statistics tell a remarkable and frighteningly different story. Did you know that the number of small businesses—and this is recognising that small business is the engine room of the economy—employing between one and 19 people has declined over the life of this government? There are now some 14,500 fewer small businesses employing between one and 19 people, compared to what was the case before the Rudd and Gillard governments were elected. There are some 300,000 fewer people with jobs in the private sector in the small business community.

There are worrying concerns about the punishing impact of the carbon tax and what it will do for a sector that is uncompensated and seemingly not of the slightest interest to the government, namely, the small business community. They will cop the harshest hit of this compounding carbon tax right through the supply chain.

Then you hear government members talk about the tax relief being given to small business. Let us just recap on where that is. In the last election the coalition was offering more relief for small businesses structured as companies. It is patently wrong when the Treasurer says 2.7 million small businesses will get relief from company tax reductions, because only a third of small businesses are actually companies and fewer still are profitable and paying company tax. Moreover, in the mining tax there is a measure to repeal the entrepreneurs tax offset. That will increase the tax paid by the 400,000 smallest businesses in this country, some of which will see their income tax double as a consequence of the mining tax. So, when you hear the Labor members talking about all the things they are doing for small business, all I can say is that some of those remarks are dripping with hypocrisy. The actual record is disturbing. I am here to work with the small business community to get going and get the support they provided happening again. (Time expired)