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Friday, 1 September 1989
Page: 825

Senator McLEAN(2.40) —I rise on behalf of the Australian Democrats to support the essential proposition before the chamber-namely, that it is indeed a tragedy that small business in this country has been decimated by governments. That is the situation in Australia today. I do not think, however, that the Australian Democrats are prepared to accept the precise wording of the matter of public importance that has been brought before the chamber by Senator Boswell-namely:

The damage caused to Australian small business by the anti-business policies of the Hawke Government.

In reality the tragedy has been the damage caused to Australian small business by the big business policies of successive governments. It is not only the Hawke Government that has let down small business. Small business has been let down over decades in this nation by successive governments, and in the letting down of small business big business has been sustained.

Some businesses have thrived in Australia in recent times. We all know of the giants that have emerged, the people who have come to this country and have thrived, presumably through a stage of small business, into the stage of big business where they have been favoured and lived in a climate that has sustained, savoured, spoilt and nurtured them to the point where they have become greedy. Some of them are now beginning to collapse and are moving into a stage of demise. When this proposition was tabled here today and we were advised of it my colleague Senator Macklin was prompted to say that it is possible to be successful in small business in Australia today. The successful small businesses are those that have been big and in their period of demise, if they are shrewd enough, can hang in for a short period when they are successful before finally being sent packing by a palling government.

Senator Boswell —That is exactly what I said.

Senator McLEAN —I am agreeing with Senator Boswell that there is a tragic situation in Australia today. We acknowledge what he has already cited, that small business is an area that has been too long neglected by successive Federal and State governments. We acknowledge the fact that more than half of our private sector is made up of businesses which employ fewer than 100 people. This is obviously an immensely important group of people but they have been, and probably still are, largely uncoordinated. They do not pull their power together as an effective lobby in this country. Despite the genuine attempts of the Australian Small Business Association (ASBA) and the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA), small business has not become the potent lobby that it should be in this country. We call ourselves a free enterprise economy, a free enterprise nation, which the Australian Democrats endorse as the fundamental posture and structure of our economy. The essence of such a free enterprise economy is effective small business, yet successive government after government has decimated that essential ingredient of the free enterprise economy.

If all small businesses, including farmers, could gather under one umbrella organisation they would make the most powerful lobby in the nation, but for some reason or other they have not been able to get their act together. The reason is probably that most of them work for 70 or 80 hours a week and barely manage to get a substantial living together. They simply do not have the time to assemble the clout to render effective what should be one of the most powerful lobbies in the nation. The current Labor Government has not seen small business as particularly high on its list of priorities. Neither did the Fraser Government, for that matter. The coalition supports big business. The Australian Labor Party supposedly is the party of trade unions, although lately it has been more the party of big businesses as well. Neither has done a great deal to sustain the small business sector in this country over the last two or three decades.

In the light of this, it is sad to reflect that several of the small business umbrella organisations appear to have been hijacked by the New Right. It is a move which has brought them no advantage whatsoever. In the discussion of the Australian Democrats with small businesses, they have said that if they are going to have political muscle they have got to be prepared to move their vote around. In fact, they have stayed in a constant allegiance to the right in politics, and that has delivered to them very little indeed.

Small business is the key to decentralising economic power. For this reason, the Australian Democrats believe that they should be supported as much as possible. That will probably not be a popular view among those who believe in cronyism and the beneficent power of monopolies. We emphasise that small businesses are the key to the decentralisation of power in this nation, power which is concentrated increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer enterprises. High interest rates, which appear currently to be the only economic tool being used by the Government, are putting immense pressure on small business. They are decimating small business.

In an article in the most recent edition of the news bulletin of the Australian Small Business Association, ASBA News, Brian Buckley suggested that the Treasurer should be replaced by the Minister for Finance and their two departments merged. The most interesting thing about the suggestion is the reasons he gives for it. He sees some qualities in the Finance Minister which, presumably, would be advantageous to small business. He says:

Walsh is as tough as Keating, fights even dirtier, is extremely sceptical of official advice, understands the broad economic issues, has no special mates in the union movement and is a wheat farmer (i.e. an exporter).

The Labor, Liberal and National parties all agree that deregulation is an excellent thing and that the sooner it is done the better, but none of them has supported my private members Bill which focuses specifically on the challenges of deregulating in order to free up the climate in which small businesses attempt to operate. On the issue of sales tax, in 1981 my predecessor as Australian Democrat senator for New South Wales, Colin Mason, gave notice of the following motion:

That the Senate is of the opinion that the Government should extend the prescribed period of time currently allowed to pay sales tax from 21 days to 60 days . . .

The notice of motion elaborated on that, yet it has not received the support of the Opposition and, therefore, has never been successfully brought forward. Nothing has changed. Small businesses and their umbrella organisations are still crying out for this basic relief, and for the same reasons. The Liberal-National Party Government refused to listen when it was in power and had the power to do something about it, and the Labor Government has refused to listen ever since.

Before the last Federal election, COSBOA produced a matrix in which it cited what it believed to be the 13 critical factors which were bringing down small business in this nation, and it sought the response of the political parties before the election. On its matrix, under the heading of `The Government', is simply written `Polite refusal'. In other words, the Government refused to respond to a questionnaire about the 13 most critical factors relating to small business. It is interesting that it adjudged the policies of the Australian Democrats to be the most generous in terms of the requirements of people in small business.

One field which should be of particular use to small business is that of research and development, which has been grossly neglected for decades in this country. Governments and businesses of all sizes should be required to put far more resources into this vital field. We must encourage scientific research, product and service development and scholarship.

I have devoted a great deal of attention to banks. Banks are devastating small business in this country. That process of devastation was brought into effect in 1984 when the present Government deregulated the banking system. Traditionally, small business people have looked to banks as being their primary ally but today, in the context of deregulation, banks are literally devastating small business people. Irrespective of whether they are small farmers or your typical small business in an urban area, their traditional ally has left them high and dry in the interests of what it describes as super profits. Six months ago I suggested that this country's banking system be placed before the appropriate Senate committee for inquiry, but my proposition was defeated by the combined vote of the Government and the Opposition.

Senator Stone —It was a ludicrous proposal.

Senator McLEAN —It was not a ludicrous proposal. If Senator Stone asked the community now what it thinks about a proposal to refer banking to a Senate committee for inquiry, I would defy him to bring back a legitimate answer that it thinks it is a ludicrous proposal. The community thinks that such an inquiry is absolutely essential. Banking is likely to become the issue of the decade: it is on the rise. The proposition that banking be referred to a Senate committee will come before the Senate again in a few weeks time because I will bring it back. The climate in the community has changed dramatically and I believe that the political climate has changed sufficiently for both the Government and the Opposition to be forced to seriously reconsider the issue.

Senator Stone —Why don't you stop playing politics on this issue and stop giving people false hopes?

Senator McLEAN —When the issue was brought before the chamber last time we analysed, as the business community did, Senator Stone's responses. I am aware of some of the reactions because they have been communicated to me in terms just as strong as those communicated to Senator Stone. They were rejected out of hand. The proposition of a Senate inquiry into banking falls very well with the business community and the community at large.

On four occasions this week we have considered the pilots dispute. That dispute has been cited as having a devastating impact on the business community. In a question to Senator Richardson today I implied-and I think that he accepted the fact-that it has the potential to have a devastating effect on the morale of pilots in the defence forces. Small business people are vulnerable in numerous ways. They are particularly vulnerable to government policies which are designed essentially to favour big business.

In 1984 we cited a predatory situation in which big business picks off small businesses one after the other, often with the assistance of bankers. The big business predators, in conjunction with the banks, go around like devastated animals and live off small business. When we attempted, with the support of COSBOA and ASBA, to introduce a private member's Bill to rectify that predatory situation, the Bill was defeated by the combined vote of the Government and the Opposition. Sadly, over and over again, legislation or amendment to legislation in favour of small business is defeated by the combined vote of both Government and Opposition. We support the proposition before the chamber that it is a matter of public importance that small business has been devastated, but we argue that it has been devastated by successive Federal and State governments. It is certainly worthy of this chamber's attention and it will, hopefully, begin to acknowledge the extraordinary place of small business in the community.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bjelke-Petersen) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.