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Wednesday, 19 March 1980
Page: 785

Senator BUTTON (Victoria) -The Senate is debating a motion moved by Senator Puplick which refers to the need to secure adequate protection for the rights of small businessmen against boycotts or threats by companies or trade unions. The Opposition does not oppose the motion. However, we have some concern about some of the matters that have been raised by Senator Puplick. It might have been helpful if he had phrased his motion to use the term 'small businessman, Mr Leon Laidely' instead of using the term 'small businessmen'. At the beginning of his remarks Senator Puplick expressed a general concern. He said that it was useful for the Senate to debate the rights of small business and the rights of individuals in Australia. We share that view. It is useful to debate such matters. He went on then to indicate the size of the small business sector and its importance to the Australian economy.

The Opposition shares Senator Puplick 's concern about the situation of small business in Australia and it shares his concern about the growth of the corporate state which has been very rapid in this country in the last 30 years, 27' years of which we have had Federal Liberal government. If Senator Messner who is to follow me in this debate asked small businessmen in South Australia about their attitudes to the Tonkin Government he would find that they are concerned about the plight of small businesses under the policies announced by that Government.

Senator Lewis - You are not concerned about the trade union involvement.

Senator BUTTON - I am coming to that, Senator Lewis. The honourable senator should not worry. If Senator Lewis wants to debate industrial relations with me, he should move a motion about industrial relations and I will be happy to debate the subject with him. At the moment we are talking about the plight of small business. This was a matter about which the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) expressed the greatest concern in 1975. In his 1975 policy speech he said:

Small business and private companies in particular are in desperate straits. In our first Budget we will change the tax rules which operate unfairly against small business and private companies.

I would have thought that one of the chief concerns of small business in Australia was to survive. That is the prime right of any small businessman or any businessman for that matter. The Prime Minister seemed to recognise that in 1 975 when he referred to small business being in desperate straits.

Senator Lewis - Do you agree with it?

Senator BUTTON -The Prime Minister went on to say by way of a promise, Senator Lewis, that as a first stage in the implementation of the Mathews Committee recommendations on company taxation, a stock valuation adjustment would be introduced. We know the history of that; it was scrapped last year. The Prime Minister promised:

Shareholders in private companies will be given the option of being taxed as a partnership in order to minimise the double taxation of private company income.

That promise has never been implemented by the Fraser Government. In the Prime Minister's policy speech of 1 977, dealing again with small business, he said:

Private enterprise is the source of most of Australia's jobs, We will take further steps to assist business so that new jobs can be created. Times have been difficult for Australia 's thousands of small businessmen. We have helped all business with our tax concessions on trading stocks and so on and we will make more finance available to small business through the Commonwealth Development Bank and the AIDC.

Senator Messner - Which we have.

Senator BUTTON -I will come to that in a minute. Honourable senators opposite should not get excited. If they lead with their chins they have to cop it on their chins. We will deal with these matters as we come to them. The Prime Minister went on to say:

It will now take steps to make access to finance easier by an extension of the charter of the Commonwealth Development Bank to enable it to lend to all kinds of business, including equity finance for small businesses:

He also stated that finance would be easier to obtain by: an extension of the Australian Industry Development Corporation's activities in small businesses, including possibly joint ventures with States and private sector institutions, in the provisions of finance.

The Reserve Bank and major groups of financial institutions have been informed that it is Government policy for adequate finances to be available to small businesses without arbitrary limits.

Honourable senators should look at all these promises and expressions of concern about small businesses which have been made by this Government and by its Prime Minister. The first matter I want to deal with is the fact that the Government has extended the charter of the Commonwealth Development Bank but it has not placed the Bank in a position to permit overdraft financing of small business. There has been no extension of the AIDC's activities as promised. In relation to the promise about the Reserve Bank, the Senate will be familiar with the fact that in answers to questions on this matter the Treasurer, Mr Howard, has indicated quite recently that it was not the policy of the Government to discriminate against small business but acknowledged that these problems had arisen. One can go right through this material, this record of promises in relation to small businesses, and see a picture of total failure in respect of the small businessman's primary right which we would say is to survive in the context of the current economic situation.

Of course, Senator Puplick 's remarks went much wider than small business when he talked about the plight of individuals and small shareholders. What has this Government done about the plight of the small shareholder? Senator Lewis and his colleagues are always ready to interfere in relation to trade unions but they have not done much about the sort of comment made by Sir Cecil Looker on 13 December 1979 in relation to the transactions of Ansett Transport Industries Ltd. Sir Cecil Looker is an expert in these matters as a result of his associations with Associated Securities Ltd. When talking about the ATI transactions he said:

When Abeles and his merry men returned from the US with a deal which they put before Ansett to sign where was the concern for the small shareholders then? They were left out in the cold.

These are matters to which Senator Puplick could well address his attention in the context of his general remarks. I referred to the promises made by the Government in relation to small business. The most important promise made to small businessmen concerned interest rates. The rate of interest of overdrafts of less than $100,000 has recently risen by one half of a percent.

Senator Messner - Mr Deputy President,under Standing Order 419 1 ask you to rule on the relevancy of Senator Button's remarks.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT- There is no point of order.

Senator BUTTON - It is estimated that this rise in interest rates will cost small businessmen $50m. I can understand Senator Messner's passionate concern to prevent these facts being made known to the small businessmen of Australia, having launched himself on this exercise. But the important point is that this is what has happened under this Government.

Senator Teague - What about Laidely?

Senator BUTTON - We are not in government. It is the function of an Opposition to try to stimulate better government in this country. If Senator Teague does not like the process of being stimulated I suggest that he leave the Senate. I could go through all the promises that have been made by this Government but I refer to the promise about interest rates. The Government, by way of a seduction to small business in Australia, promised in 1977 that interest rates would be reduced by 2 per cent in the next 12 months. The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Anthony), always ready to open his mouth on these matters, said that if interest rates did not fall by 2 percentage points in the next 12 months he would eat his hat. I suggest that Senator Puplick commend that course to the Deputy Prime Minister of this country.

Senator Peter Baume - Aren't you going to say something about trade unions?

Senator BUTTON - Of course I will say something about trade unions. But I will summarise the matters to which I have referred. I make the point that under the Fraser Government small business which is the subject of the matter of public importance and the concern of Senator Puplick and others -

Senator Lewis - Adequate protection.

Senator BUTTON - If Senator Lewis would listen to me for a moment he would know that I made the point that the prime interest of small business is to survive. Bankruptcies in Australia under the Fraser Government have increased by 1 1 7 per cent in four years. Where is the concern about the fate of those small businessmen who went to the wall under the policies of this Government? No doubt somebody on the Government side who is passionately concerned about this issue will tell us about that. The most important concern which we have as a party for small business and the misplaced concern which Senator Puplick seems to have is that small businessmen should continue to survive. As Senator Puplick said, 90 per cent of the businesses of this country employ 40 per cent of the people of this country and produce 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the wealth of this country. Those are the things about which small business must be primarily concerned.

Let me turn now to the question which has concerned Government senators for very obvious reasons. I refer to the aspect of the matter of public importance which relates to boycotts. The Opposition has said right from the time of the introduction of the present Trade Practices Act into the Australian Parliament that it would not work in terms of industrial relations in this country. What did the Government do? Ever astute to produce a derivative society in this country, it borrowed from the United States a provision relating to secondary boycotts which exists in the United States legislation and incorporated that in the Trade Practices Act. Trade practices legislation relates basically to competition between businesses. Ever since the present Government has been in office it has watered down the provisions of the trade practices legislation which deal with basic questions of competition. It has been conceptually wrong on this one issue from the beginning. It has made Australia a derivative society, it has borrowed from the Americans and has incorporated in our legislation something which is totally alien to the institutions which have been developed in this country. The United States of America does not have a conciliation and arbitration system. It does not have a conciliation and arbitration Act. Industrial negotiation in the United States is basically carried out by collective bargaining. It is in the context of competition and restrictive trade practices that the question of secondary boycotts becomes very important.

Senator Lewis - We would have had difficulty borrowing the legislation from the Soviets, wouldn't we?

Senator BUTTON -Of course the Government would have had difficulty. It has borrowed the legislation from the United States, having not one whit of imagination of its own and not one whit of understanding of the nature of the industrial relations system in this country. That is the Achilles heel of conservative governments in this country. They do not understand the nature of the system which has been developed and which they support time and again. The Government says: 'Go back to the umpire'. But it says that only if a matter is being negotiated in a different way. When it comes to a basic industrial relationship with which the matter of public importance is presumably concerned, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act disappears.

Senator Messner - Will you deal with the question now?

Senator BUTTON - I have been saying to honourable senators opposite all along that if they want to protect small business in this country and if they are so concerned about it they should get off their plush red seats in this chamber and tell the Prime Minister of Australia that he should honour some of his promises to small business- about six in number- that he made in 1975 and 1977. They should get off their plush seats and tell Mr Anthony to eat his hat as a result of his promise about interest rates which vitally affect small businessmen in Australia. They should listen to the voices of Opposition senators who have been quite consistent on this issue. We do not solve what are essentially industrial disputes by chickening out of dealing with them within the system where they appropriately belong.

Senator Teague - What about Laidely?

Senator BUTTON -What about Mr Laidely? Mr Laidely is a man who entered into agreements with trade unions and broke them. If he is the man whom honourable senators opposite want to defend they should put it on the line about Mr Laidely. He is not a typical small businessman in Australia. The typical small businessman in Australia is the one who has been going broke under this Government. That is what we are concerned about. That is what the Government has to be concerned about.

Senator Messner - Tell us about the agreement.

Senator BUTTON -If the honourable senator will cease interjecting for a minute I will tell him all I can. The point which I seek to make is that we have consistently said that the provisions of section 45D of the Trade Practices Act do not settle these problems; they promote them. Only yesterday we moved in the House of Representatives for their deletion. If honourable senators look at the Gorman and Laidely cases, about which they are so concerned and as a result of which thousands of small businessmen and other members of the public have suffered, they will see that they were both settled by the intervention of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. That is a fact, unpalatable as it may be to honourable senators opposite. If the Government is concerned about Mr Laidely- a man who breaks his agreements with trade unions- as distinct from the thousands and thousands of small businessmen to whom Senator Puplick referred, it can stick to him.

There is also the question of public interest, which is of vital concern to all businessmen and citizens of this country. The important thing is to find the mechanisms which will best resolve disputes of the nature we have been talking about in connection with Senator Puplick 's proposition, the sorts of specifics of this subject of very general concern which he has raised about the plight of small businesses. Section 45D has done tremendous harm to the public interest. The Government has been consistently warned over the last four years that it would do tremendous harm. The Government has been warned about it not only by us but also by industrial relations experts. It has been warned of its inappropriateness to the Australian social and political scene. It has been warned about the dangers inherent in all of these potential disputes which can be inflamed by the intervention of lawyers advising a particular businessman. The people who suffer from those sorts of things are the members of the public of Australia. They include, as I have said, numerous small businessmen, thousands of whom have gone broke under the policies of the present Government.

I would suggest that Senator Puplick shows his concern in a very genuine way by going back and telling the Prime Minister that he ought to honour a few of his promises, that he ought to repeal this provision of the trade practices legislation and that he ought to take up the challenge which has been offered to him by the Premier of New South Wales to try to solve this problem in a fundamental way by supporting a referendum which would provide the Commonwealth Parliament with powers to make laws relating to all these matters.

Senator Lewis - But you would not want us to use them.

Senator BUTTON -Yes, we would. The Labor Party would support it. Half the troubles of this country are caused by conflict between State and Federal laws on this issue and conflict between State and Federal awards. If the Government is concerned about the public interest in these matters, those are some of the things that I advise it to do. We commend the concern behind this proposition and we do not oppose it, but the Government must at least smarten its footwork in the way it goes about the matter.

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

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