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Ken Phillips is co-founder and Executive Director of Independent Contractors of Australia. He is a published authority on independent contractor issues and directs research on related commercial and trade practices issues. Through his numerous articles in newspapers and think-tank and academic journals, Ken is known for approaching issues from outside normal perspectives and is frequently sought out for media comment.

Abbott’s competition review will weigh on big business

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

There’s concern from large business interests that in the competition review being organised by the Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, big business is going to be unfairly targeted, perhaps even clobbered.

Reflecting this view, Stephen Bartholomeusz last week expressed relief that the review panel is a “surprisingly balanced one" (Muscle and might: A panel to protect Australian competition, March 27). Further, that “the review won’t be loaded against competitors purely because of their size.”

I’ve heard these sorts of concerns many times. Typically the argument is that small businesses shouldn’t be given special advantage in their dealings with big business.    

As a persistent advocate for small business people I, along with my colleagues at Independent Contractors Australia and others, will be heavily inputting into the competition review process.

The reality is that for decades, small business people have been patted on the head and told we’re the salt of the earth! But when it comes to hard-nosed policy outcomes, we’ve have been consistently dudded.

It comes down to a simple equation: Small business people are so busy earning an income that we rarely have the time to sustain strong lobbying. In comparison members of the big business sector throw endless resources at pushing their causes.

Good luck to them. I know big business lobbyists on packages of $400,000 plus with substantial staffs and travel and accommodation budgets. They spend their time duchessing politicians and bureaucrats in the halls of Australia’s parliaments and corridors of power.

In comparison, small business ‘barrow pushers’ more often struggle to cover airfare and motel costs. This is not a complaint, just a reality. But this time we want to make it different.

Over many years we’ve put a big effort into Tony Abbott, Bruce Billson, Eric Abetz and the Abbott Coalition team while they were in opposition. We’ve had one political message for them: The Coalition’s political survival is tied to the 7.5 million people who own, run and work in small business (and their families).

Further to this, we say that big business will sleep with whichever political operatives suit their self-interest at any time. That’s natural! What assisted our messaging is that during the Rudd/Gillard period big business kept proving that point to the Coalition. Big business only ‘discovered’ the Abbott team when the Coalition’s election win looked inevitable!

As Opposition leader, Tony Abbott adopted the small business political message strongly. This was reflected in the high position he gave to Bruce Billson as Shadow Minister for Small Business. In addition, those politics were given substance in the Coalition’s policy commitments. Billson made this clear in a presentation he gave to an Independent Contractors Australia policy forum in August last year. Our YouTube record of Billson’s presentation explains much of the Coalition’s policy detail, with more outlined in the Coalition’s pre-election policy documentation.

Looking at this record of commitment, I can understand why big business lobbyists are worried. Have no doubt the Abbott team’s commitment is to a major recalibration of how business is done in Australia. Significant steps have occurred.

They’ve thrown out the corporate welfare deals cooked up by big business in bed with big unions to extract money and favours from big government. Abbott’s approach to Holden, Toyota, Qantas and Coca Cola’s subsidiary SPC has upset much of the big business lobbyists’ business model. A good thing I say.

The competition review indicates there’s more to come. On reading the political wind, Coles and Woolworths have entered a voluntary code regulating ‘fair’ dealings with their small business suppliers. Now the big two are desperate to pull the smaller competitors such as Aldi into a compulsory code. It’s amazing how competition works!

The supermarkets’ behaviour has long been a campaign item for Billson. Not formally involved in the code, he’s perhaps watching developments with keen interest and a wry smile.

Billson has also made it clear that he’ll be moving to apply the consumer fair contract laws to small business people, whatever the outcome of the competition review.

However, those of us involved in small business advocacy are realists. The Abbott team has made commitments in Opposition. But when political parties secure government big business focuses and often has the resources and skills to neuter those commitments.

In explaining some of the politics around this competition ‘recalibration’ I need also to explain the policy issues. I’ll do this in subsequent Business Spectator articles along with more on politics. I’d invite debate.

In his book Battlelines, Tony Abbott stated that good politics comes from good policy. Under the Abbott government the policy and politics of competition is moving to transform business in Australia.  

[First published in Business Spectator, April 2014]

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