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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1499

Mr BILLSON (12:31 PM) —I want to reflect on what happened in the House of Representatives this morning. We had an opportunity as a parliament to do something sensible, something helpful, for the small business community but, sadly, government members and some of the crossbenchers chose to leave in place a completely unjustified and unnecessary regulatory burden on business. I refer to the passing on to small business of the payments under the government’s paid parental leave scheme. After the government decides who is eligible and the government agency, the Family Assistance Office, sorts out at what level that eligibility applies, the paperwork is then processed by the Commonwealth. Rather than simply paying eligible persons direct, the government is insisting that after 1 July those funds be transferred to the employer for on-forwarding. The problem is that that is not a simple transaction, and it is not a light impost on small businesses, particularly those that are cash strapped and time poor.

The government have a complete blind spot when it comes to small business because they are so far removed from the challenges that small-business people face every day—trying to maintain the employment opportunities they provide, their own business viability, and the crucial contribution that their small businesses make to so many communities. The government boast about employment figures since their election, but you never hear them talk about the most damning employment figure during their period of government: since the Rudd-Gillard government was elected, 300,000 jobs have been lost in small businesses right across Australia. If you are sitting in a major capital city or if you happen to be sitting in a mining town, you might not be too bothered about that. But for the vast number of other communities right across our continent, small business provides the engine room for the economies of those areas. It provides opportunities for meaningful livelihoods and a chance to contribute and nurture the economic fabric of those areas. So 300,000 jobs have been lost in that sector of the economy that is so crucial to so many communities. That should be of concern to this government—but it is not.

We saw in the lead-up to the election a comprehensive microeconomic reform package from the coalition to put the business back into small business—to breathe life, energy and optimism back into this sector of our economy that has sat back and felt as though it was being beaten around every other day, burdened with new unnecessary regulation, red tape and imposts, and completely ignored when it comes to issues of the design of government programs. As changes in our economy have played out and as the government has sought to respond to them, we have never seen the small business interests advocated at all.

We saw it with the carbon tax. Everyone was out there with their hands out to be compensated. What was small business told to do? ‘Suck it up, men and women of the small business community, and pass it on to consumers.’ We know at this time, when so many household budgets are under great pressure, that there is a cost consciousness amongst consumers. Consumers are wary and uncertain about their own financial security. They too are experiencing cost increase upon cost increase, the cost of living going through the roof and energy prices screaming through the roof. But did the government respond to that challenge? No. In responding to the global financial crisis, were small business interests taken into account? No. Even some of the guarantee and design arrangements of the government’s package knowingly conspired against the interests of small business. Even today we see Joseph Healy, a senior executive with the National Australia Bank, echoing my call for decisive action to make sure that finance is available for small business—that the oxygen of those enterprises for the wealth that they create and the opportunities that they provide is made available. It is not being made available at the moment, and the government seems incapable of or uninterested in doing anything about it.

We saw another episode this morning: a chance to do something quite commonsense and practical to relieve the burden of red tape. It is understandable that the Australian Retailers Association, as just one of a number of industry organisations, has already come out saying how outraged it is by the denial of the logical changes to the paid parental leave payment arrangements that the coalition proposed. It talked about the prospect today for a bipartisan approach, to recognise that paid parental leave is welcomed widely throughout the community but that there is no good reason to burden small businesses with the pay clerk responsibilities of administering it. This is a grim day.

I sought to highlight the serious concerns to the crossbenchers about this issue in their communities. I am not sure what they took into account, but they certainly did not take into account the small businesses in those communities. Seeing the crossbenchers sitting with Greg Combet between them just reinforced the very point that this is all about fitting up small businesses with the machinery so that they can be touched up to top up these deficient paid parental leave payments that the government has introduced. This is a damning day for this government. Indifference is turning the damage to the small business community—(Time expired)