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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31651

Mr FITZGIBBON (12:36 PM) —Mr Speaker, you probably have worked out that this opportunity for me to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting Small Business Employment) Bill 2004 is unexpected, but I am happy to fill the void. I more than welcome the opportunity, particularly given some of the pronouncements just made by the member for Deakin. I find it interesting that day in, day out those who sit opposite dwell so often on the fact that they have more people who have worked in small business or who have had small business experience than we have on this side. Some might see a point in that. I have some difficulty with this concept that to understand properly small business policy you had to work at some time in the small business sector. I note that yesterday during question time the Minister for Small Business and Tourism devoted a fair bit of his time to making this spurious point himself yet he was unwilling to share with the House his own small business experience. I am not aware that the minister for small business has had any direct experience in the small business sector. If that is not true, I invite him to come into the House and share his experiences with us.

I will put aside for the moment whether that is a valid argument. The fact is that I have had experience in small business. I ran my own small business for around 12 years. My wife continues to run a small business and has done so for, I think, more than 20 years now. Not a day goes by when, in discussion over the dinner table—or, more likely, over the telephone given the nature of our employment—we do not discuss some aspect of her small business; the challenges she is currently facing, the constant hurdles she is required to leap over to maintain the profitability of that business—and it is really tough. There are many things that play on her mind and play on the minds of every Australian small businessperson. They cover things such as uncertainty about tax obligations—whether the bill at the end of the year is going to end up bigger than expected; they worry about time consuming red tape.

Most people in what I would call the old small business sector—the basic retailing and services sector, as compared with the high growth, exporting dynamic type small business that we have seen emerging in later years—have a background in the skill in which they apply their business. They might be a plumber who was an apprentice, who worked for someone and went on to start their own small business. They might have had retailing experience in menswear and after some extensive experience, and having enjoyed that work, went on to buy their own retailing business et cetera. So they generally enjoy their work. They have chosen a vocation and they like the work per se, but they do not like the paperwork that comes with being in business. One of the biggest challenges for government is to keep that paperwork down, keep that red tape down, so people can concentrate on what they enjoy most—that is, their business, the actual work they do, whether it be selling goods or maintaining or repairing someone's house. That is what they want to be out there doing, not being bogged down by red tape.

I have never had my wife or any other small businessperson in my electorate express concern to me about the Industrial Relations Commission's determination on redundancy; that may come. I have said in the House before, and I am happy to acknowledge it, that I am aware that for some small business people unfair dismissal plays on their mind. They have all heard a horror story or two about someone having great difficulty in discharging a staff member who has done something which is quite deserving of dismissal, but because of all these hurdles they have had some difficulty dismissing that person. However, I do not see it as being the priority in small business that the government does. My experience is that most of these horror stories emanate out of a period prior to 1996, when I think the hurdle was raised too high for small business. That was addressed in the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. I remember very vividly the minister for small business at the time, the Hon. Peter Reith, describing the changes to the unfair dismissal laws as representing a fair deal all round. In other words, having made the changes, Minister Reith declared that at that point we had the balance pretty much right—and these things are a balance. If I get back to my electorate this weekend at some point and someone asks me about the move on redundancy, I will give a balanced response. I will say that I understand some people might be concerned about these matters and it is a constant challenge for the legislature to get that balance right.

When I look to what is the correct balance in this case, I do look to the independent umpire. The member for Deakin was talking about the people who make up this place and the place across the way. That causes me to reflect on who makes up the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Of course, after 8½ years in government the Howard-led government has had some opportunity to have an impact and influence on the appointments to that commission. No-one in this place could surely suggest that it was a commission that had some form of bias towards the employee as opposed to the employer. So in this case I look to the Industrial Relations Commission: a learned body which has taken a range of submissions on this case and determined that it was time that small business employees had the same opportunities to secure redundancy as those who have a greater number of work mates.

It is a considered decision and, while I think it is entirely appropriate for the legislature to set direction and change legislation in order to determine policy, I do not believe that in this case it is being done for the right reasons. I really think this is another attempt by the government to create an election issue. They have been running on unfair dismissals now for 8½ years, having said originally that they had fixed the problem. This is just the next step: let us create this scare campaign in the broader Australian community about this redundancy thing; let us bring a bill in to override the independent umpire's decision; and let us run all the way to election day on this issue. That is what I think this bill is about. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has made a considered decision. As a society, as a community and as a legislature we should allow some time for that decision to flow through and see what impact that is having on the Australian community. If it is not having the desired outcome that the commission was looking for, or if indeed the legislature decides it is not the desired outcome, well, let us come back and have a look at it. But let us not jump on it immediately like this as a means of creating an election issue.

I have got to say that whether you have worked in small business or not, small business is complex. It is a funny and changing beast and we do rely on research to better understand where small business has been, what it is doing now and where it is going. That is why the small business longitudinal study was so important. It was a five-year program established late in the days of the Keating government to study small business over a considered period of time—five years in this case—to get a better understanding of its needs and ambitions.

I was just amazed when this government cut that program after, I think, four years—and I think it had one year to run. I do not remember what the savings were in cutting funding to that study for the last year, but they would not have been much. There were academics right around this nation relying on that longitudinal study and that final year in particular for their PhDs and research papers, and it was just cut. I think that is an absolute tragedy. If the government wants to claim small business credentials, it cannot do so while at the same time running around and making very small savings on a matter that is so important to the small business sector.

The SPEAKER —I am grateful to the member for Hunter, who has in fact allowed the debate to continue, as he conceded, and he has had little time for preparation, but it might be helpful if he were to relate the longitudinal study to the bill in order for the relevance clause to stand.

Mr FITZGIBBON —I am happy to, Mr Speaker. The point is that none of these decisions, whether they be the redundancies or unfair dismissals, can be made in isolation. Every item affects another and you cannot hope to put these things into effect correctly if you do not understand where small business has been and where it is going, and that is what the longitudinal study was all about.

The other problem for the government in terms of credibility on these small business matters is that the biggest issue of all for small business—the biggest issue that goes to the survival of the small business sector in this country as we know it—is, of course, the threat from bigger business. This, in my considered view, is what plays on the mind of the small business sector most. It is interesting that, in recent years, the High Court brought down a few rulings that are of particular concern to small business—rulings that question the capacity of the Trade Practices Act to give small business the protection it needs from the potentially aggressive tactics of larger businesses which might be seeking to increase their market share.

Of course, the government has recognised this and, in doing so, commissioned the Dawson report into the effectiveness of the Trade Practices Act, and the Senate Economics References Committee has since extensively inquired into Dawson and those same trade practices issues. A range of recommendations were made that the small business sector has been requesting for a long time. Yet, despite introducing a bill earlier this week with a package of changes to the Trade Practices Act, the Treasurer still has not addressed the main issue flowing out of both Dawson and the Senate committee—namely, section 46 and, in particular, the misuse of market power provisions.

So you cannot come in here and talk about unfair dismissals and the Industrial Relations Commission's determination on redundancies and feign this great eagerness to support on every occasion the small business sector when, at the same time, you are denying the small business sector what it requires most—that is, those changes to the Trade Practices Act. The inherent problem for the conservative parties is that they like to rant about their commitment to small business but the reality is they are a big-business party. The Liberal Party, in particular, is a big-business party. They like to talk about us sourcing funds from unions—yes, we do: we source money from unions. But most of their money comes from the big business sector, and we all know that the largest business moguls in this country have a hotline to the Prime Minister's desk—that is no secret. So this is the inherent difficulty for the government when dealing with these issues: how do you continue to represent yourself as the natural party of small business and at the same time keep happy those big business leaders on whom you rely most for your oxygen?

The SPEAKER —Once again I remind the member for Hunter to come back to the question of employment in small business. I know it is relative to big business and the act has a different arrangement for employment for larger and smaller businesses, but there would be a helpful link to be made there.

Mr FITZGIBBON —Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was most surprised that, in the week we are debating this bill that addresses redundancies in small business, the Treasurer should come into this place and introduce a bill to amend the Trade Practices Act that does not pick up the key issues of concern for the small business community. He says that there is another package of bills coming somewhere down the track—I welcome that fact. I have to say that I hope they reflect more of Labor's view about what is required in terms of amendments to the Trade Practices Act—in particular, issues going to predatory pricing, cease and desist orders, and jail terms for corporates who do the wrong thing—but I fear they will not. It just intrigues me that we have to examine the redundancy bill in this place today—we have to get this all fixed up before the election—but we potentially have to wait till after the election for the government to address the key issues in trade practices, which are key issues of concern for the small business sector. I think there are some pretty blatant and obvious inconsistencies in that approach.