OPINION: Party for small firms could make impact

THERE are some recurrent policy areas seen by our politicians as “vote winners” on a day-to-day basis.

Things like boat people, reducing carbon emissions, education and health naturally dominate the political landscape. 

While these issues are obviously important, the emphasis placed upon them means other equally as important issues are largely ignored by the major parties. 

One of these is the small business sector.

Small businesses are vital to the Australian economy.

But the attention given to them by the Labor Party, Liberal Party and the Greens fails to reflect this importance.

To put the small business sector into an economic context, according to the most recent ABS data, small businesses (those with fewer than 20employees) account for 2,045,335 of Australia’s 2,132,412 actively trading businesses, or about 96per cent. 

Small businesses employed about 4.8million people in 2010-11.

That equates to about 46per cent of private sector employment.

Considering just these basic statistics, you would think the major parties would at least have a clear and comprehensive suite of small business policies.

A search of the Labor Party’s website for ‘small business policy’ returns the top result as a news item from June 2010. 

Their ‘agenda’ page contains their positions in regard to their “election winners”. 

While there is no question the policies they have are important, such as “school reform” and “better health and hospitals”, there is nothing even close to a small business policy. 

Small business does get a mention under the budget 2012-13 sub-heading ‘helping businesses’.

While this contains some positives, the tax breaks outlined could hardly be described as a strong small business focus.

The Greens also lack a clear small business policy. 

Small business does get a mention in their economic justice-employment and workplace relations policy.

The policy calls for greater protection of “casual, fixed term and probationary workers, and employees of small businesses, including full rights to challenge termination of employment where it is unfair, with reinstatement to be the remedy except in exceptional circumstances.”

While this might win a few votes with those employed by small businesses, firm owners and the businesses they run are severely constrained from such ad hoc approaches to policy.

The Greens’ Senator Peter Whish-Wilson also has the party’s portfolio on “competition policy and small business”, which contains one sentence about supporting small business tax cuts instead of big business tax reductions.

Lastly, the Liberal Party offers at least some indication they appreciate the contribution of small business, through the existence of a separate small business policy.

 Although the downloadable policy document was prepared for the last federal election, there are a number of updates on their small business policy in  news items on the page. 

It at least recognises the need for targeted policy.

However it lacks the necessary integration across the range of issues impacting on the operations and growth of the small firm sector.

Going back to the small business statistics previously mentioned, especially the 4.8million employees, there is a great deal of potential power if these were united in a political sense. 

When you consider there was 12, 402, 364 valid votes cast at the last federal election, a party representing the interests of a portion of the voting population of this size would quickly make the major parties take note.

If the ‘Australian Small Business Party’ was formed to represent the interests of these firms and their owners and employees, it could be the catalyst for political change in favour of small businesses. 

Tax cuts, compliance costs and the abundance of other issues that are too often ignored at election time by the major parties would suddenly become election winners.

Here in the Hunter there are more than 38,000 small firms employing almost 90,000 people. A political party approach would give attention to local issues, such as recruiting and retaining skilled labour.

Interestingly, the member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon is one of the few advocates for small business policy reform. This was outlined in his recent article in The Australian newspaper – ‘‘Labor Must Remember to Reach Out to Aspirational Voters’’. 

Fitzgibbon owned and operated a small business for many years and  was shadow minister for small business and his recent stint as Chief Whip in a minority government has shown him to be a senior player. Given all this, perhaps he would be the first person to approach to lead the Australian Small Business Party.

Now there is a thought for the Chief Whip in an election year.

Scott Holmes is pro vice-chancellor, research, and dean of graduate studies at the University of Newcastle. In lieu of payment for this fortnightly column, the Herald will make a donation to the Heal For Life Foundation.

Sam Bright is a research officer at the University of Newcastle. 

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