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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31640

Mrs HULL (11:44 AM) —It is a great pleasure to rise to support this government's interest in and commitment to ensuring that small businesses are able to actively operate their businesses in an environment that can give them some kind of insurance and security. I for one support the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting Small Business Employment) Bill 2004. I would like to see the maximum number of staff in a small business increased from 15 to 20, because I think there is some misunderstanding at many times as to what actually constitutes a small business—that is, how many employees you have before you then enter the realm of a small to medium enterprise and then a large business. There is always some confusion about that.

We have been asked to restrict our speaking times today in order to move legislation through, so I have cut short what I would like to present to the House in support of this bill. Now that I have listened to the member for Calare's speech, I would like to make some comments on his thoughts that redundancy takes place when there is going to be a restructure for growth or to benefit the company, perhaps financially. Redundancy can also be a sink or swim decision for a small business. Many times a redundancy means that the owner needs to take stock of their business because, through no fault of their own, conditions of the small business may be declining and the profits may be declining. That is something they might have to confront. Redundancy is not only about restructuring for growth. Clearly, it can be about survival. That is often forgotten. Sometimes in small business you do have to restructure, but it can be a restructure downward in order that you can survive the ensuing period—maybe not to employ four or five people, or 10 or 12 people, but to employ three people or six people, respectively. To ensure ongoing employment for them, you have to make some hard decisions so that your company and your small business can continue in operation at all.

We heard about how employees work and provide services in good faith to an employer and that they need to be rewarded for that. When does the time come for recognition and reward of the good faith that an employer enters into and provides to employees? An employer provides a working wage in good faith and commitment to their staff. They take people on and take enormous risks. It is the employer who has the overdrafts and the many sleepless nights. It is the employer who is constantly working out how they need to look at or change their business and keep up with the ensuing market areas so that they can be competitive. It is the employer who has their house mortgaged and who owns very little of value because everything is tied up in their business. And everything that they do make goes back into making that business even better and, hopefully, bigger so that they can employ more people.

There is a constant call for other operators to ensure that the small business person is living up to standards. There is constant hassle about OH&S, and a whole host of impositions are put upon a small business without remuneration—things that a small business owner or operator has to absorb and accept, taking out more finance and, perhaps, a larger overdraft to ensure that their business can continue to employ. Meanwhile, the employee goes to work, dutifully does a day's work and dutifully leaves. That is where their responsibility stops. But an employer's responsibility never stops. Who can tell where their responsibilities start and stop? It is one of those things; and they are absolutely committed. The member for Calare said that 70 per cent of small businesses are profitable. What defines a profit—a few hundred or a few thousand dollars in the black? The only measure of being profitable in a small business is that you are not in the red, but there is no account of how little you have in the black.

There needs to be clear recognition, real recognition, of the contribution of small business operators and owners as small business workers. There is some assumption that small business owners and operators are not workers. They are out there working on the floor, working at the counter, delivering whatever they have to deliver in whatever type of business they have. If you have a medical practice, you are operating a small business and you are working right alongside the staff for enormous hours. Doctors are still there for many hours after the staff have signed off for the night, closed the computer down and gone home. If you are in a business like a smash repairer, like my family business, it is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week job—it never ends. When your staff leave at five o'clock in the afternoon, after having come in at eight o'clock in the morning and after having had morning tea and lunch, you stay there and go on duty to ensure that, when accidents happen in the night, you are up and about to bring in the work so that the staff have a job the next day. Where is the recognition of the contribution of the small business owner and operator to the people that they employ? There is a significant lapse of understanding, particularly in this House, as to just what constitutes a small business. A small business owner and operator works on the floor. They do not sit around all day. It is a 24 hour a day workload mentally, physically and emotionally for anybody to run a small business.

I know business owners who keep people employed when, because they are going out backwards, they should not, and they do this because they are absolutely dedicated to their staff and will do anything and spend any money they have in their own reserves to ensure that they are doing the right thing by their staff. But how many times do you hear recognition that owners and operators of businesses do the right thing by their staff? You only hear about the consequences in the cases of the small minority of people who may do the wrong thing.

Small businesses continue to be the lifeblood of many communities, including those in rural and regional Australia. In this current period of drought, it is small businesses that have continued to keep their staff employed and have battled on, knowing that they are playing an incredibly important role in their local economies. Unemployment in the Riverina is the lowest it has ever been, yet we have the worst drought in history. I have to congratulate—and every time the employment figures come out I congratulate again—those farmers, small business operators, small to medium enterprises and large businesses that, through adversity and through these very difficult times, continue to keep those people employed in order to ensure that their communities remain strong and viable. There is no doubt that the last few years have been extremely difficult for rural and regional communities that have been affected by the drought, but it is the government's strong economic management that has seen our economy continue to grow and has given our small businesses the knowledge that they need in order for us to continue to support them into the future.

I recently had the pleasure of attending and speaking at a local chamber of commerce function which was attended by chambers throughout my electorate. The message that was given to me by small businesses was that there is a need for less red tape for small business—and the issue of compliance costs also came up. I recognise that, and I recognise there are many ways in which the tax system can be simplified in order to ensure small business owners and operators have quality of life, rather than just quality of business. It takes a lot of what would otherwise be quality of life hours for small business operators to comply with many of the conditions that are put upon them by the tax system and many other systems.

Small businesses also spoke about issues of payroll tax. One thing they said was: `Where is the abolition of payroll tax—a tax on employment? If you would abolish payroll tax, we would be able to employ more people.' The federal government, of course, does not have a payroll tax. It does not tax people on employment; the state governments are taxing people on employment. I think it is time that some of these issues were confronted in the state government arena as well.

This bill, which proposes to amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to maintain the exemption for small business from redundancy pay by overturning the decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which did not take into account the many burdens that small business must already deal with, is the right bill. It is the proper thing to do for small business. As I said, I would like it to include those businesses with 20 employees or less. The purpose of the bill is to protect small business employers from redundancy payments that would otherwise adversely impact on their capacity to provide employment. Seriously, there cannot be any argument with that.

As many people in the House know, I have a small business background. My family is in small business. My youngest son now owns and operates a significantly large small business. It is obviously a large one, because he does not come into this realm of having fewer than 15 employees. His business is certainly over and above that. Both he and my eldest son have experience—at 23 years of age—of owning and operating businesses employing in excess of 25 people. They have been able to do that because they have been encouraged to go and get a trade. That is another thing that happens in the House. We get this constant moaning and whingeing about HECS and university places—looking at academic performances and outcomes et cetera—and I feel there is definite discrimination against those people who go into trades, becoming panel beaters, mechanics, electrical engineers, fitters or turners. It seems to be assumed that those people were not capable at school—that they were not academic performers. In fact, they were academic performers, but they chose this most difficult pathway—they chose to go out and be a price maker, instead of being a price taker for the rest of their life in academia. They chose to move out there and involve themselves and then to provide employment for other people. Both my sons, at 23 years of age, have owned and operated very large businesses, with the very strong issues that confront them every single day in the realm of business. They have been quite successful, but that has involved an absolute commitment to their staff.

Basically, I want to say that small businesses are committed to their staff. The owners work over, above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that staff have pay in their pay packets on the Wednesday or Thursday of every week. They have no security, because that is all tied up with banks. There is a commitment from small businesses to their employees, and this is one bill that can provide a commitment from government to small business. In supporting this bill, could I say that there is a very strong need to ensure that at some stage in the future the unfair dismissal legislation that impacts on occupations—and certainly on employment opportunities—in small business is also looked at and addressed. There is a very strong need that we in this House recognise that all small business operators are not rich and are not creaming off all of these profits and then perhaps not delivering back to the people that they employ. In fact many times they give very significantly of their own money, resources and security to ensure that they are providing their employees with an opportunity for a future in their jobs.

Obviously, those who will not support this bill at the end of this debate are very remiss. They do not understand the issues that redundancy can create for the majority of small businesses. Small businesses with fewer than 15 employees generally do not avoid making redundancy payments in order to grow stronger, bigger and brighter and to cream off more profits. Generally it is a question of survival. When they are looking to survive, small businesses cannot afford redundancy payments, and it would be to the benefit of all employers if this bill were to be moved through the House.