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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
23/10/2019
Estimates
EMPLOYMENT, SKILLS, SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS
Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman

[11:56]

CHAIR: I welcome Ms Carnell AO, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. Ms Carnell, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Carnell : Thank you very much. It will be short in the interests of—

CHAIR: Very short would be great.

Ms Carnell : It will be very short in fact. The last quarter has been another very busy quarter for my office. During that time, the major issue, or one of the major issues we were addressing, was access to capital for small businesses. As we know, small to medium businesses traditionally got their access to finance from the big four banks—in fact, 85 per cent of funding has come from the big four banks. But since the royal commission into banking, it has become increasingly difficult for small businesses that don't have significant equity in bricks and mortar. With that in mind, and knowing that there is a large number of new products hitting the market—particularly in the fintech space but also in invoice, financing and other areas—we produced a document aimed first at accountants and other support people to help them understand what sort of funding is available outside the major banks. It runs through scenarios: the sort of thing you might be looking for funding for and what is the most appropriate form of funding for those sorts of issues.

There is also a secondary document—I've got some copies for anyone who is particularly interested and it's also on our website—for small businesses to help them to become finance ready; the sorts of things that they should be doing to give them the best possible chance of being able to pick up the funding that they need.

In August we also completed a comprehensive review of the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code introduced as part of the Fair Work Act by the Gillard government. We had a good look at it because there were some issues with how it was actually working, and we've produced a comprehensive document that we believe, if implemented, would help small businesses ensure that if they were dismissing somebody they were doing it in a fair and appropriate manner. We've updated our Small Business Counts document, which is a very comprehensive look at statistics in the small to medium business space. We've implemented the ATO concierge service and also done quite significant work in the franchising code space. I could keep going, but I think that would be a bit of a run over the target. Our assistance team has seen about 1,600 contacts. That's in the area of the codes that we administer—that's the franchising code, the oil code and the horticulture code—as well as our standard assistance functions. Obviously, not all of those progress to be fully-fledged cases.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Carnell. Senator Pratt.

Senator PRATT: I understand the ombudsman's office is running at a surplus. Why is that, Ms Carnell?

Ms Carnell : It's one of those balls-in-the-air issues. We are by our legislation required to take on board inquiries given to us or referred to us by the minister, who is sitting beside me. And so, with that in mind, we keep an amount of money available so that we can do an inquiry if requested by the government. We did a piece of work for the minister late last year on the second phase of our payment times inquiry, but that's the only request we've had, so we ended up with a surplus at the end of the year.

Senator PRATT: Okay. So there are no other inquiries that have been generated by the government?

Ms Carnell : That's true. That's right.

Senator PRATT: But I'm sure you've suggested some. I'm just trying to come to grips with the minister's interest in small business given—

Senator Cash: Chair, I'm more than happy to respond to that question but I think it might take some time.

Senator PRATT: there have not been any inquiries requested. Surely there's work that you would like to give the ombudsman's office to do.

Senator Cash: There is work that's been undertaken. Again, I'm happy to take you through all of the government's commitments in relation to the small business portfolio.

Senator PRATT: No, no. I'm trying to come to grips with why you're not maximising the use of resources that the ombudsman's office should have.

Senator Cash: We do maximise the use of resources with the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman undertook a comprehensive inquiry in relation to payment times, of which the government is putting in place a substantial body of work. We have a number of election commitments and commitments made over the course of the last 12 months which we are now looking to implement. The ombudsman and I have had regular conversations on what the Ombudsman talked about in her opening statement: access to finance, our $2 billion securitisation fund and our growth fund. So there has actually been a substantial body of work done not just by the Ombudsman but across government. The government is now in implementation phase. This is all about ensuring that we are implementing the policies that small business had told us they need. That is what we are doing.

Senator PRATT: In terms of the generation of inquiries for the small-business ombudsman—that is, Ms Kate Carnell's office—to undertake, Ms Carnell, you would be aware of broad range of emerging issues that would be worthwhile to pursue.

Ms Carnell : If the minister doesn't refer formally to us, we do self-generated inquiries. We just recently announced one into insolvency practitioners because it's really interesting that in the royal commission into banking the one area that was really left out was insolvency practitioners. We have ended up with lots of issues in that space. We've also nearly finished an internal piece of work into the workings of the R&D tax incentive because we've also had a number of small businesses that have had significant issues in that space. So we can self-refer and we do.

Senator PRATT: So you've had one inquiry generated by government. Are you able to tell me how many you've self-initiated?

Ms Carnell : The government asked us to do an inquiry into small-business banking. That was a government-initiated inquiry, as was the payment times one. The other inquiries that we've done have been self-generated.

Senator PRATT: How many of those are there? Can you take on notice the topics.

Ms Carnell : I'll take it on notice because I'm sure to forget. The government also asked us to do the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal one, so there are three the government has asked us to do.

Dr Latham : I think I remember that.

Senator Cash: That's another estimates!

Ms Carnell : So over the three years we've existed we've done three direct ones and quite a number of others.

Senator Cash: I have to say that, as a result not just of those inquiries but of the substantial body of work, the government has obviously announced policies. They're incredibly substantial policies in terms of, you know, reforming payment times, in particular with the government leading by example. When I came into the portfolio, access to finance was one of the key issues that was being raised by small business. They weren't getting that access to finance. So obviously it's through the Treasury portfolio and the Treasurer, but certainly the $2 billion securitisation fund was announced and is now being progressively worked through to rollout. Again, that is a big structural reform for small business to enable them to get that access that they need.

Senator PRATT: Senator Sheldon's going to pick up our time now.

Senator SHELDON: I have some questions to Ms Carnell. I want to be clear that this is when you'll be giving evidence? You won't be available this afternoon if required?

Ms Carnell : I wasn't asked for this afternoon. I was just asked for now.

Senator Cash: It would normally be in this period.

Senator SHELDON: Could you give me an outline? Obviously, the ombudsman role requires impartiality, consideration for matters and independence. Last year you tweeted and you advocated by using social media against Labor policies, specifically in relation to Labor's proposal to increase the minimum wage. Does it go to the heart of impartiality if you're tweeting those sorts of comments?

Ms Carnell : Our job really clearly under our act is to act and advocate for policies in the interests of small businesses. The legislation defines small business as under 100 employees or under $5 million. You would be acutely aware that the dilemma for small businesses with regard to increases in the minimum wage above CPI is that a very large percentage of the award-dependent people in Australia are employed in the small business space. You will find, if you look at all of our tweets and all of our media releases—and I do actually have all of them here if you'd like—that we will be similarly negative to approaches that are taken by either side. The reality is, though, that the minimum wage is not set by Labor or Liberal. It's set by an independent entity, and we totally support that independence. But we will certainly make comments when we believe that it's not in the best interests of small business.

Senator SHELDON: I did note that you also were on the ABC on 21 October in 2019, commenting about details of the Liberal Party and its alternative government operations in Canberra and giving them advice about how they should better operate.

Ms Carnell : Oh, okay. In that particular scenario, it was quite a long interview that was done by me as a previous Chief Minister of the ACT on the issues that I thought needed to be addressed. It wasn't just by the current opposition; it was more broadly in terms it of what needs to be addressed for the ACT going forward. It is not terribly surprising for an ex-head of government to have a long-form interview of those sorts.

Senator SHELDON: So you believe that a person who is in public trust and should be seen as acting impartially can make comments about Labor Party policy by tweets and running commentary on the Liberal Party.

Ms Carnell : Sorry; I make comments about Liberal Party policy too if it's not in the best interests of small business. It is really clear under the act that my role is statutory. My role is to advocate on behalf of small businesses to ensure that legislation, regulation and policy are small business friendly. Senator, I will do that aggressively and enthusiastically, whoever makes the comments. If you look through all the work we do, you will find similar comments made against Liberal Party policy as well where it is not in the best interests of small business.

Senator SHELDON: You say that these are matters that are within your remit. I put to you that that impartiality is seen through a different lens. We have different views about that. You responded by saying that you have made comments on various political parties.

Ms Carnell : Very few.

Senator SHELDON: I want to go back to the specific quote I mentioned before from 21 October. That article states:

If Canberrans believe the Liberal Party are an alternate government, if they believe they're a centrist government that isn't going to be too right wing, and that they've got the skill sets needed to run the city properly, they're in with a show.

I don't know what that has to do with your role as an Ombudsman and impartiality.

Ms Carnell : The interview was 12 months out from the election. The interview was with me as a previous Chief Minister. The question was—and there were a lot of them because it was a long interview—what do you think that the coalition would have to do to be elected? That was the answer to that particular question. I'm sure that the ABC will give you a copy of the long form of that interview if you ask for it. In fact, I'm happy to ask for it and give it to you.

Senator SHELDON: I'm happy to move on to some further questions. There's a question about small business. Small business is also the people who work in those small businesses.

Ms Carnell : Absolutely.

Senator SHELDON: They generate an income. We have all seen comments from the Reserve Bank and from the IMF regarding the wages in this country and the need for them to expand. You've also openly supported decisions to cut weekend penalty rates.

Ms Carnell : Absolutely, because that's what small businesses tell us that they need. This is a chunk of work we did in the past, so it's not in this estimates exactly, but I'm very happy to answer your question. We consult all the time with small businesses and people. We don't make up our policy or the things that come out of our office. We have 29 industry associations that represent small businesses that are part of our policy group. We consult with them on the issues that matter to them, and industrial relations is obvious a major one.

One issue that continues to come up for small businesses in retail and hospitality—restaurants, catering and so on—is penalty rates on weekends. For small businesses, who are increasingly having to operate seven days a week, penalty rates are a major issue. We have voiced their views and will continue to do so. We've also suggested that loaded rates are not a bad idea, in line with Iain Ross's views on this. We're not looking for lower wages at all in this space; we're looking for a scenario that makes it easier for small businesses to be able to trade seven days a week and reasonably long hours and to do that in a way that is fair to their employees and also allows the businesses to continue.

You'd be aware, Senator, that we haven't supported getting rid of penalty rates. We supported the independent umpire's decision—and you wouldn't put President Iain Ross as some sort of partisan person; he's probably more on your side of politics than others. The decision came from the independent umpire. We supported that decision because we really strongly believe that, if you're going to have a Fair Work Commission that looks at things like minimum wages—and it did a two-year investigation of penalty rates; had 30-something sitting days, from memory; and took a very large number of submissions—

Senator SHELDON: I'm happy to hear them all—

Ms Carnell : No, no—it was just asked. So it wasn't—

Senator SHELDON: That's fine. You've explained—

Ms Carnell : So our position was: we supported the Fair Work Commission's decision.

Senator SHELDON: I have a disagreement about how that was presented. Since 2017, how many jobs have been created in small business as a result of the penalty rates cut, and what research would you rely on?

Ms Carnell : Look, quite seriously, I have an office of 20-something employees, so to do that sort of work is way outside of our capacity. It's also incredibly hard, isn't it, to determine what would've happened if it hadn't happened. It's a hard thing to determine. There are certainly more jobs in small business now than there were then, but what the reason is I couldn't say, really.

Senator HANSON: Firstly, I'd like to congratulate you on your announcement on 10 October that the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman had launched:

… an inquiry into the insolvency system, to investigate if current insolvency practices achieve the best possible outcome for small and family businesses in financial trouble—

as well as the appointment of the former senator John Williams as the chair. Can you advise: is it the intent of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman to extend that inquiry to include valuers, who work so closely with both the receivers and the managers?

Ms Carnell : Yes, very much so. The inquiry was meant to be into insolvency practices rather than just practitioners, and that includes, of course, the valuation issue, because a range of the problems that we've seen have run off the back of valuations that have happened as a result of practices in the insolvency space.

Senator HANSON: Yes.

Ms Carnell : I am absolutely on your side on that. So the answer is yes.

Senator HANSON: Are you aware of the US firm FTI Consulting?

Ms Carnell : Yes.

Senator HANSON: And that they're coming out here to Australia and buying up liquidators' and receivers' companies, businesses, around the country?

Ms Carnell : It is one of the areas that I'm sure we will be looking at in this inquiry, but, yes, we are aware.

Senator HANSON: To name one case, they bought up a liquidator, and it was before a mediation, and then, in that mediation, claimed no responsibility to the former liquidator. So they bought up the business, they then went into mediation, and then they said, 'Sorry, it's not our responsibility.' Where do you draw the line with this? Will your inquiry investigate this behaviour of multinational companies coming out here, buying up liquidators and these firms, and then claiming no responsibility? I'll let you answer that.

Ms Carnell : We will certainly have a look at that, because it is normal practice, when you buy a business, that you do take on board the obligations of the previous business. We will certainly be looking at what the contractual arrangements were, but it certainly doesn't seem reasonable for a company to buy a business and then leave those who might be having a dispute with the previous entity in limbo.

Senator HANSON: Yes. I don't know if you are aware of the case that I'm talking about. In that mediation, it took two years for the investigation that happened to find that the person was badly done by, by the liquidators and by the banks, to the tune of losing around $17 million. Then FTI Consulting, in that mediation offered, initially, $25,000; they then increased it to $50,000, and then came back to another. This has been a huge problem—which we've been looking into; we've been trying to work with people that've been done over by liquidators, administrators and receivers—which needs to be fully investigated. Do you believe that this should have been included in the banking royal commission inquiry?

Ms Carnell : Yes, and we said so at the time. So, yes, it is our view that it should have been. We also have said quite publicly that we would have liked the royal commission—and remember royal commissions have lives of their own once they get up and running—to have looked at more small business cases.

Senator HANSON: What do you think the answer is now? Should it go through another inquiry, a Senate inquiry? I don't think it's been properly dealt with.

Ms Carnell : That's why we announced the self-referral—to have a look not necessarily at individual cases, although in that particular case, I can promise you our office would have spent—

Dr Latham : Many hundreds of hours—

Ms Carnell : many hundreds of hours on that particular case, including getting an independent review done of that particular case. But what we need to do is have a look at what the practices are in this space, how expensive they are, how transparent they are—at the moment we'd suggest not very transparent for small businesses, for farmers, for people on properties and so on. In our view, we would want to make some recommendations with regard to how we make this process much fairer going forward.

Senator HANSON: You can actually refer this to ASIC, can't you? They've got greater powers and resources to deal with this.

Ms Carnell : In that particular case, we—

Senator HANSON: Have you referred it?

Ms Carnell : Yes. So it's a matter for ASIC to answer. I don't suppose we should. I don't—

Senator HANSON: Can you name any other number of cases that you've referred to ASIC in regard to that?

Dr Latham : Yes. Wherever there's a financial matter that's appropriate to go to ASIC, yes, we do refer them through. I could take on notice exactly how many of those there are. It's quite a significant proportion of the cases.

Senator HANSON: And they'll keep in touch with you? So it won't just be sidelined; ASIC are obligated to investigate it? Is that right?

Dr Latham : No.

Senator HANSON: You don't give me confidence there whatsoever.

Ms Carnell : Sorry, no, I don't think ASIC are obligated to investigate. I think they would look at a case and determine whether it were appropriate to investigate. But I'd prefer ASIC to answer for themselves.

Senator HANSON: Okay. I'll ask them.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson, do you have one more question?

Senator HANSON: No, I'm fine. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: I'll hand back to Labor to take us through to 12.30.

Senator PRATT: Minister Cash, as Ms Carnell has outlined, the small business ombudsman released the advisory report on payment terms, times and practices in March this year. Can I ask if the government has yet responded to that report?

Senator Cash: There's a substantial body of work that has been done on payment times that was actually—

Senator PRATT: No. It's in terms of a written response to—

Senator Cash: No, no. We've actually responded by way of policy and I think that's what we need to articulate for you.

Senator PRATT: Okay. But the issue is that we would like to see a public response to that.

Senator Cash: The public response is the policy that the government is implementing, and I'm happy to take you through what that is, because it is a substantial policy change that will have a very positive impact on small businesses.

Senator PRATT: No. I don't need to have you take me through the new policies. What I need to be able to do is compare those government policies to what Ms Carnell has raised in her report.

Senator Cash: The process you'd normally go through as a government in responding to a report is that, obviously, there will be other departments that are providing a response to that report, so the report is currently with the other departments for response. But, again, the body of work that was done largely complements what the government is doing in terms of actually now implementing policy on payment times.

Senator PRATT: Okay. I do understand that.

Senator Cash: And a lot of it is actually the Treasury department that would be responsible for the issues raised in the report.

Senator PRATT: Recommendation No. 5 of your report, Ms Carnell, was that your office should review the impact of supply chain finance strategies. Is that still your intention, and do you require government approval for such a review?

Ms Carnell : No, we don't need government approval to do it, but—

Senator Cash: They can self-initiate.

Ms Carnell : obviously, we're always happy to have an official request in that space. So, when the minister asks us to do an inquiry, it gives us some extra power in the space. But it is one of the issues on our work plan. You would've seen the media in the last little while on some of the issues surrounding CIMIC and its subsidiaries going to 60 days end of month, with supply chain financing being part of that deal. We've also been on the public record with regard to the Gupta Group doing the same thing. There are some real issues in this space.

Senator PRATT: Ms Carnell, can you give us a quick overview of the key issues in that report around large companies extending payment times while also offering third-party supply chain financing? I understand that is reverse factoring. How is that being responded to?

Ms Carnell : At this point, what they're doing is absolutely legal. They can do it. But we believe that it's really inappropriate, which is the reason we made the recommendation that there needs to be an inquiry into its use. At the moment, it's more of a little bit of public outing in this space.

Senator Cash: Absolutely.

Ms Carnell : Because I don't think anybody thinks it's reasonable to extend payment times and then say, 'But you can get paid quicker if you use this product, which, by the way, is going to cost you X amount of dollars.' The usage of this approach seems to be a bit broader than was the case six months ago.

Senator Cash: Just on that, Senator Pratt, it goes to the policy work that the government is doing in this regard, whilst at the same time getting the interdepartmental response to the Ombudsman report that you are referring to. One of the announcements that the government made, which was made by the Prime Minister, was in relation to implementing a reporting framework for this exact reason, so that small businesses have full knowledge of big companies and how long it is taking them to pay an invoice, so you do have that transparency. Then the small business will be able to actively make a choice as to whether or not they do business with that particular larger business.

Senator PRATT: Senator Cash, will you let us know when that register will be up and running? What's the time line for that?

Senator Cash: The register?

Senator PRATT: Yes. What you've just disclosed—the announcement that the Prime Minister made.

Senator Cash: Yes, and I certainly would look forward to Labor's support on it because I think it is something that the sooner we can stand up, the better.

Senator PRATT: What's the date for that commencing?

Ms Hartland : Where we're at at the moment is that we've had a round of stakeholder consultation on the design of that reporting framework. It's actually quite a complex issue, and stakeholders want to have a lot of say in the design of that. Further consultation is now scheduled for later this month and for next month, looking at the options to assist in particular large businesses to be able to identify and report on their small business suppliers. Some of this—and Ms Carnell and I have spoken about this many times—goes to how you actually define this. Once those consultations have been completed, we'll go back to government. So—

Senator PRATT: So what's the date for implementation?

Ms Hartland : We're looking at later in the year. I don't have an exact date for you.

Senator PRATT: Are you expecting it before Christmas?

Ms Hartland : I'd expect to go back to government before the end of the year, yes.

Senator PRATT: Go back to government, as in—

Senator Cash: With advice as to how the reporting framework will work.

Ms Hartland : With advice on how to establish that.

Senator PRATT: No, no, I asked you when the system will be up and running, not how the reporting framework will work.

Senator Cash: The secretary's taking through the process of how you get to—

Senator PRATT: So there's no prospect of this so-called register being up and running—it doesn't sound like it's going to happen in the next 12 months, given what you've told us.

Senator Cash: The aim of the government is to get it right. It is an incredibly complex process to go through. We've undertaken initial rounds—

Senator PRATT: Surely you're better off just getting something started rather than—

Senator Cash: No, and that's the whole point. You can't just implement a policy because people say, let's implement it. That then sets people up for failure.

Senator PRATT: Okay.

Senator Cash: We want to get this right. The government is committed to it. The Prime Minister is committed to it. That's the consultation process that has been actively undertaken at the moment to ensure that the framework that is implemented is the right framework and achieves the outcomes we need it to achieve.

Senator PRATT: Ms Carnell, when did you complete that report on that payment system?

Dr Latham : I think it was 2018.

Ms Carnell : Yes, it was late 2018.

Senator PRATT: I wanted to ask whether the register would include reverse factoring arrangements and how they would be worked into the register. I'd be interested in Ms Carnell's views on that. And Senator Cash, the government committed that small and family business would receive payment for government contracts under $1 million in 20 days.

Senator Cash: Yes.

Senator PRATT: Is the 20-day commitment for the full invoice to be paid by that supplier? And it doesn't include reverse factoring arrangements?

Ms Hartland : Sorry—what was your question again? Whether it includes—

Senator PRATT: The government's made a commitment to—

Ms Hartland : To the 20 days, yes.

Senator Cash: To 20 days on 1 July.

Senator PRATT: Does that commitment include the exclusion of reverse factoring arrangements?

Ms Hartland : I might have to come back to you on that, sorry. The people who are involved in this aren't at the table.

Senator PRATT: Ms Carnell, do you have anything to add in that regard?

Ms Carnell : What needs to be in the register is what's in the contract. If the contract says 60 days end of month, then that's what should be there. Reverse factoring should not be and cannot be used to somehow artificially produce a shorter period of time. The register wouldn't work unless it was what the contract said was the payment time.

Ms Hartland : My colleagues have just confirmed that we don't use that mechanism. It's just a payment in full, so it doesn't apply. So the answer to your question is no.

Senator Cash: So, within 20 days, that's it. But obviously then—and we don't have time to go through this now—it takes you to the next phase of work, or the work on e-invoicing, and the ability to actually pay. Certainly this was put onto the COAG agenda—businesses that contract with the government within five days because of e-invoicing. Certainly the focus of the government is very much on reducing payment times to small business, and e-invoicing will enable us to take it even further.

Senator PRATT: Will the government formally pass an inquiry on this reverse factoring issue to the Small Business Ombudsman? Clearly they already take it seriously. It would demonstrate that the government takes it seriously if you were to commission that work.

Senator Cash: Well, I think the government also takes it very seriously, and I think the comments I have made in relation to my opinion of businesses that do not pay within 30 days is that, quite frankly, it is unacceptable. If the government is able to utilise a 20-day-or-less time framework, if e-invoicing is able to provide us with the ability to pay invoices—as long as the systems talk to one another—within five days, then the government, from the Prime Minister down, have been very clear: it is unacceptable for big businesses to do otherwise. Hence the policy work in relation to the reporting framework. But going back to where we started: it's a comprehensive report, it is a cross-departmental response with a lot of the work being undertaken by Treasury, and certainly the response will be provided in due course.

Senator PRATT: Ms Carnell, can I ask you what difference it would make in terms of accountability if you were to receive a commission from the government on this question?

Senator Cash: Again—

Senator PRATT: My question was to Ms Carnell.

Senator Cash: But there is a government process that is currently underway—

Senator PRATT: My question was to Ms Carnell.

CHAIR: But the minister can answer it.

Ms Carnell : We can tell you the difference in powers.

Dr Latham : What we can do is require the production of information—of actual payment times—to be able to audit any views that are put forward by a business to check that they're right.

Senator PRATT: Is there a difference in your powers according to whether you do that by self-referral or the government gives it to you?

Ms Carnell : The difference between if the minister asks us to do something or if we are—

Senator Cash: And self-initiation.

Dr Latham : Sorry, yes. If the minister refers us an inquiry, the minister can direct us to actually hold hearings and take evidence at the hearings.

Ms Carnell : We can require people to turn up and give evidence.

Senator PRATT: Right. Will the government give Ms Carnell and the small business ombudsman a referral on these reversed payments so that they can hold such hearings?

Senator Cash: Again, there is major consultation with other departments going on—

Senator PRATT: That was not my question.

Senator Cash: No, but you are pre-empting something. There will be a government response in due course.

Senator PRATT: Is the answer no, Senator Cash?

Senator Cash: Absolutely not. The answer is that there is a major body of work being done to get a response to the report, and that—

Senator PRATT: 'Absolutely not', you won't give Ms Carnell a referral on that question?

Senator Cash: That's the exact opposite of what I just said.

Senator PRATT: So you will give her a referral?

Senator Cash: Again, Senator Pratt, there is a major body of work being undertaken at this point in time in relation to the response. But I think both the Prime Minister and I have made it very, very clear that cash flow is king. Small businesses should be paid on time—

Senator PRATT: Would it not be a good exercise in holding the government to account on these questions about the implementation if you gave the small business ombudsman's office an active and ongoing capacity to hold hearings, in which case you would be able to have some scrutiny of the government's implementation of these programs. Is that not correct, Ms Carnell?

Senator Cash: The legislation is very clear. Are you suggesting changing the legislation?

Senator PRATT: No, I'm suggesting you give Ms Carnell a referral on these questions.

Senator Cash: I think I've answered your question on a number of occasions. The government already have a major policy implementation phase that we are going through in relation to part-timers—

Senator PRATT: . I understand that.

Senator Cash: We lead by example in terms of contracts up to $1 million being paid within 20 days, preferably fewer. There is the ability—

Senator PRATT: But you're not open to independent advice and independent scrutiny—

Senator Cash: The ability—

Senator PRATT: as those—

CHAIR: Senator Pratt, please let the minister answer the question.

Senator Cash: There is e-invoicing to provide all governments, regardless of who you are, the ability to pay an invoice within five days. We have the report from the ombudsman. It is a substantial body of work. We are undertaking consultation. A large body of the response does actually come from Treasury. But the government's response will be provided—

Senator PRATT: I was seeking an answer from Ms Carnell—

Senator Cash: will be provided in due course.

Senator PRATT: not from the minister.

CHAIR: All right. Everybody, thank you very much for coming along today. Looking at the time, that concludes questions to the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. Thank you, Ms Carnell and Dr Latham; run while you can! I understand that Senator O'Sullivan and Senator Davey had questions for you; they're going to put them on notice. I appreciate you doing that, senators, to facilitate a timely program.