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Wednesday, 11 November 2015
Page: 8380


Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (19:40): Tonight I wish to talk about small business and how the Greens have led the way on small business policy during this parliament. I am proud to have been part of the Greens team that took a comprehensive small business package to the last election and I am proud to talk about the success that we have had in the last two years. I have now handed over the small business portfolio to Senator Nick McKim, who I am certain will do a fine job in the role. As we have had changes in the party room we have had changes to our portfolio responsibilities. This happened nearly two months ago but I have not had a chance, until now, to give this speech.

The Greens understand small business. We understand the role it plays in our economy and we understand the importance of making sure that government does not unfairly burden small business. The Greens went to the last election backing a tax cut for small business. The government has introduced a tax cut for small business, supported by the Greens. The Greens went to the last election backing an increase in the instant asset write-off threshold. The government has increased the instant asset write-off threshold, with the support of the Greens. The Greens went to the last election backing increased powers for the Small Business Commissioner. The government has increased powers to the commissioner or, as it is soon to be known, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. The Greens went to the last election backing the introduction of an effects test to better protect small business from misuse of market power by big corporations. The government is yet to introduce an effects test, but I note that issue remains on the agenda of cabinet. I wish the National Party every success in their efforts to extract a win for small business and farmers, in this respect.

Finally, the Greens recently secured changes to the bill introducing protections against unfair contract terms extended to small business for their business-to-business relations with big business. This is something we have campaigned on for years. We secured support from the government for our amendments to fundamentally increase the threshold for contracts covered under the bill—from $100,000 to $300,000 for contracts up to 12 months in length and from $250,000 to $1 million for contracts over 12 months in length.

I really enjoyed my time as the small business spokesperson for the Greens. I stood with and up for cattle producers who were being screwed over by supermarkets in the levy system. I worked with the beef producers on King Island to try to help them get money back, to restart their own abattoir and take control of their destiny. I took on the government over the construction of the ASIO building, in Canberra, when the government was not paying the 100 or more contractors on time. In fact, many small contractors here in Canberra were thrown out, onto the ditch, without any money, after spending years working on that building. In the entire FoFA debate I actively listened to the good financial advisers who were being unfairly tarnished by the actions of the big banks.

I have participated in a broad range of inquiries that were directly related to small business, from honey production—working with Tassie honey producers—to wine production. I instigated inquiries on salmon production, where there were concerns, among smaller mussel growers and abalone businesses, around those impacts produced by the salmon farms. I brought on an inquiry into the Northern Territory container deposit scheme that was creating recycling jobs in the Northern Territory, and I have worked with recyclers of South Australia on this issue. My country-of-origin bill for seafood labelling would be a massive win not just for consumers but also for Tasmanian seafood producers, the Tasmanian fishing industry and many of the small businesses in those industries—not to mention the restaurants that sell the fish and chips. I am not going to give up on that one. You will hear more on that, Mr President.

I cannot finish this adjournment on small business without talking about the social contract of penalty rates. In the lead-up to the 2010 election, just weeks from the election, an article was published in The Australian on the back of a two-hour long interview around my first 12 months in the Senate, only a small part of which included a discussion on the issue of Greens policy and Sunday penalty rates. Quotes from this story have given some the impression that I was in favour of cutting workers' penalty rates. I want to state clearly tonight that this is not the case. Contrary to a political smear campaign being run by some, I have never said, 'I do not support workers,' that I do not support penalty rates being paid or that I would support them being cut or taken away. This is not what was said at all in the article. I am a pretty measured individual on most things, and raising this issue a few weeks before a federal election would be a pretty stupid thing to do and would directly contravene Greens policy. Many of my collegues, like Adam Bandt, Lee Rhiannon, Janet Rice and Robert Simms, have campaigned very hard on this issue of protecting workers' penalty rates. I put out a media statement that day clarifying that I did not support cutting penalty rates, and I attended a press conference. The issue did not even come up—not one question—nor was it picked up by any other media outlets.

If you read the article carefully, it does state clearly that I said the Greens would not be supporting cuts to penalty rates and I was also quoted as saying that removing hard-fought and -won workers' rights was a 'slippery slope' to go down. The statement most quoted by some on social media—and, I must say, by Senator Bullock in this chamber during question time—was that penalty rates were part of a 'white Anglo-Saxon cultural inheritance no longer relevant for many workers'. This is a statement of fact; it is not a value judgement. I never said that weekends needs to change or that penalty rates should change likewise. It is a statement of fact that for some people weekends are not special, but for many they are. They are the time when people get to spend time with each other in their leisure.

An additional statement that is sometimes quoted on social media is:

No one seems to want to take on the issues of industrial relations—Tony Abbott, I was quite surprised in the national debate, put on record that they are not going to go near penalty rates if they are elected.

This was a statement of fact too. Everybody thought Tony Abbott would go after industrial relations policy, and that is what I was hearing directly from business groups and small-business organisations. However, it is being framed as another potential Work Choices election. I, like everyone else, thought Abbott would take on industrial relations, but instead he took on the unions directly and largely left industrial relations alone. My statement was in no way encouraging the Liberals to take on industrial relations reform. Senator Bushby, who is in the chamber, and I have had discussions in estimates about exactly this issue. It is not my opinion or my view or that of my party.

Lastly, I said in the article:

I think we need a bigger discussion nationally about weekends versus weekday and that lot of people are happy to work weekends and not work during the week.

I do back a bigger national discussion about penalty rates, but, as I have said here in this building, including to Senator Bushby, at forums and to the business community, I think the big issue is not that penalty rates should be paid—they should, but by whom? Effectively, I do not think small businesses should be the ones paying; rather, consumers should be paying for them. Penalty rates are part of an important social contract between the Australian people and workers. If Aussies want to eat out on a Sunday and expect to be served at cafes, bars and restaurants, they should expect to pay a surcharge. Not all businesses realise—and this often disappoints me when I speak to restaurants in my own home state—that laws have changed now to make it easy to put an itemised weekend surcharge on the bottom of the bill. You cannot spend a Sunday morning in a cafe enjoying your communal leisure time with your friends and family and then not expect to pay more for someone sacrificing their communal leisure time to serve you. It is fundamentally unfair. Consumers need to drop any angst about weekend surcharges and small businesses need to stop their penalty rates complaints when they are not passing on the costs to consumers. This is how I think an efficient market should work.

It is disappointing that this issue is not going to be looked at by the Productivity Commission. They are not even taking it into account as a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in this national debate. They recently, at Senate estimates, made it very clear that they were not going to be factoring this into their study.

Lastly, Labor politicians have been making mischief with this Australian article—this two-year-old Murdoch press article—and implying that I support cutting workers' penalty rates. I am looking forward to soon highlighting the emerging links between Labor and actual cuts to workers' penalty rates that have been occurring and that we have been hearing a lot about in question time here in the Senate. Really, it is a bit rich.