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Pre-election poll on the voting intentions of small business indicates waning support for the Government; Minister defends the Government's record on small business policies

KARON SNOWDON: Support for the Labor Government is falling among the country's small business owners, reflecting an emerging trend from a range of opinion polls in this long run up to the next election.

The latest poll, one of the regular Yellow Pages quarterly survey of business sentiment, asked small business people for their voting intentions. It revealed that 60 per cent of the 1200 surveyed believe Labor policies are bad, with only 4 per cent thinking they were good for small business. And three quarters of those who'd decided already how to vote would go with the Coalition; only 17 per cent with the Government.

Federal Minister for Small Business, Chris Schacht, says he's accepted such things as a fact of life a long time ago.

CHRIS SCHACHT: It doesn't have me worried because over the long history of Australian politics it's just been a given that overwhelmingly the small business community historically has always supported the Coalition, just as overwhelmingly trade union members and workers in Australia have supported the Labor Party.

KARON SNOWDON: So you are saying you can ignore the small business sector....

CHRIS SCHACHT: No, I don't say I ignore. I'd never ignore the small business community, but as far as voting intention is concerned, the thing that came in the survey was - compared with the last election - there'd been on average around about, I think, between a 5 to 7 per cent drop in the small business support for the Government compared with the last election.

Now that is about the same as other general published opinion polls at the moment that are around the place have also shown, so the survey is not out of kilter compared with the last election and with what generally surveys are showing, which is that the Government is at the moment a little bit behind the Coalition.

KARON SNOWDON: Well from these survey results, you've got three quarters of those who have made up their minds on how to vote, saying they would vote for the Coalition. So are you just prepared to write off that three quarters of what is a significant section of the electorate?

CHRIS SCHACHT: I'm never prepared to write off any voter. I haven't been in politics for 30 years on the basis that I write people off at all, and I will continue on behalf of the Government to explain the full range of small business policies. And over the last two and three-quarter years since I've been Small Business Minister, I have visited and have meetings with small business totalling over 600.

I explained the policies that we have. For example, at the moment, which wasn't at all mentioned in this survey about issues affecting the small business community, I am explaining the Government's Better Business Conduct package, which is to significantly amend the Trade Practices Act in Australia to give small business a better opportunity to protect themselves economically against the economic power of big business.

That has been overwhelmingly endorsed by over 30 small business organisations around Australia, and yet the Coalition, led by Judy Moylan, the Shadow Minister, as of yet cannot declare whether they support this legislation.

KARON SNOWDON: But lots of small business people are unhappy with the broader government policies in industrial relations, the unfair dismissal laws, taxation policies, which do impinge on your area but for which you've got very little control. That must make your job quite difficult to win that sector on policies that you believe are good for it.

CHRIS SCHACHT: Well, let me take them one at a time. You talk about taxation. I don't beat around the bush in talking with small business in saying that there are certain government taxation policies that we are not going to change.

We're not going to change the FBT, but we will look at ways to make compliance with the FBT easier. We are not going to significantly change Capital Gains Tax, but we'll always try to look at ways of making compliance with it and the compliance cost easier. The same with the general taxation system. Everybody wants lower taxation but they also want the Government to spend more money in their area, and the small business community is no different from any other sector of the community in that.

KARON SNOWDON: While we're dealing on the tax issue, can I take you up on that point. There's a Senate report on small business tax arrangements which was finished in June, which the Government still hasn't responded to, and people are waiting for that.

CHRIS SCHACHT: Yes, I know, and I have said on the record that I am having discussions with the Treasurer about the recommendations in that Senate report and the general issues it's raised, in particular the issue of how you set the provisional uplift factor in taxation. And he knows my view that we ought to get an arrangement on the provisional uplift factor that is fair to everybody.

It is now before the Treasurer and he knows that we have to respond to that report in the near future and I would expect an announcement sometime in the near future. And as of yet, we haven't got one idea from the Coalition, only had speculation that they may consider a number of ideas, but not one commitment.

I've actually, on Trade Practices, put the commitment, put the legislation on the table, and they can't make up their mind to support it. I think that's the difference between the Government and the Opposition.

KARON SNOWDON: On the issue of employment, I've heard it several times now, from a number of people and a number of organisations to do with small business, that they feel constrained in employing people - partly because of government policies, which they say make it too expensive to do so. And that out of this survey, unemployment was the number one issue of concern for the small business sector.

CHRIS SCHACHT: Yes, and I'm pleased that the small business community like the rest of the community sees unemployment as a number one issue, and that is the number one issue for the Government. But I'd have to say, I've heard these complaints, but at the same time as they're saying this, over the last two and three-quarter years, 600,000 people extra have been employed in Australia and hundreds of thousands of those have been in the small business sector. So I think that belies some of the concerns.

KARON SNOWDON: Federal Minister for Small Business Senator, Chris Schacht, and on next week's Business Report I hope to speak with his opposition counterpart Judy Moylan.