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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6373

Senator LUDWIG (2:27 PM) —My question is to Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Small Business and Tourism. Does the government accept the findings of the Financial Services Consumer Policy Centre that small business now pays more than $2.5 billion each year in bank fees? What is the government doing to alleviate this crippling burden on small business?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I congratulate the opposition for finally asking a question on small business. It looks as though I shamed them into it earlier this week. I welcome the first question from the Australian Labor Party on small business in over 12 months— since the re-election of the Howard government. Mr President, those of us that go around small businesses, and I know you do, in our home state of Tasmania know that small businesses are absolutely delighted by the fact that interest rates are now at a historic low level. Whilst there is, quite properly, concern about bank fees, the vast majority of small businesses look at the total package that they are confronted with. They say they have strong government, capable government, competent government; they are confident about the future; they enjoy low interest rates. But one of the greatest burdens facing small business is, of course, the unfair dismissal laws that Labor introduced and will not repeal. As I was able to tell the Senate the other day, 78 per cent of people responding to a Franchise Council questionnaire indicated unfair dismissal as the most important issue confronting them.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, I rise on a point of order: it seems that Senator Abetz has now strayed significantly from the question that I asked. I remind the Senate that the question I asked in relation to small business was: there are $2.5 billion each year in bank fees; what is the government doing to alleviate this crippling burden? That was the question I asked. Senator Abetz has now wandered off into industrial relations, but what we are talking about is bank fees crippling small business.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Abetz has 2½ minutes left—I am sure he was coming to answer that.

Senator ABETZ —Mr President, you are quite right. You cannot look at one particular item in isolation when you have a look at small business. I simply remind Senator Ludwig that the likes of Senator Faulkner, Senator Cook, Senator Ray and others had their feet under the cabinet table for over 13 years, and guess what? Never once did they move to regulate bank fees—not once—because they never thought it a priority. What they thought a priority was ensuring that small businesses could not employ people, by introducing the horrendous unfair dismissal laws that we have been trying to repeal since our election some six years ago. Now we have a situation where, as late as yesterday, the Australian Labor Party voted yet again to ensure that we as a government could not repeal unfair dismissal laws.

I happen to agree with Senator Ludwig that it would be great if we could reduce bank fees for small business. That would be great. But the real burden confronting small businesses, their families and their employees is the fact that they cannot employ another 50,000 fellow Australians because of the Labor Party's manic determination to keep the unfair dismissal laws in place. Whilst we can fiddle around the edges and talk about bank fees, there are real icon issues for the small business community, such as unfair dismissals. So can I suggest to Senator Ludwig that he not pretend and feign concern for small business when he deliberately votes, as late as yesterday, to stop the reform of unfair dismissal laws.

Senator LUDWIG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister realise that fees charged by banks to small business are rising at the staggering rate of 18 per cent per annum? Why then is the government opposing the call by the states for an ACCC investigation into bank fees?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —One thing I do know is that the small business community appreciate the fact that financial institutions duty, where they had to pay 6c in every $100 that came in, was abolished as part of our tax reform. The Australian Labor Party sought to stand in the way of that very important reform. What Senator Ludwig will not tell the Australian people is how much the small business community have in fact saved as a result of the abolition of the financial institutions duty. It was just one of the many taxes that we removed for business, including the wholesale sales tax, which I think the Labor Party have now finally abandoned as part of their roll-back position. Our record is very strong on small business. What is more, the small business community know that we are the only party that support them. We support them because they are the engine room of job creation. We ask the Labor Party to allow us to create another 50,000 jobs. (Time expired)