Fairness for small business helps everyone

OpEd, The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2017

With some fanfare last week, Labor’s economic team rushed to gush about the importance of small business.

One by one they said how the sector creates jobs, how the sector deserves a fairer deal and how Labor understands the contribution it makes to our economy.

The Senate also considered a Bill to give small businesses access to the justice system. And like so many of Labor’s ideas, it sounded good in theory but lacked actual policy or practical understanding.

Before we consider how the courts should help small businesses which are taken advantage of, we need to change the law itself to make competition in the market fairer and prevent anti-competitive conduct.

That’s why I invited the Labor Party to work with me — and the government — when the very amendment to prevent the misuse of market power, which was a key recommendation of the Harper Review, came to a vote in Parliament.

I knew we had to work together because this is an issue raised with me from across the small business sector, that the misuse of market power law was not reliably enforceable, nor did it deter anti-competitive behaviour from the dominant market participants.

There’s the Council of Small Businesses of Australia whose CEO Peter Strong tells me they have “been fighting for fairness in competition for 30 years and feel that for the first time we are making headway”.

There’s the National Farmers’ Federation, which says, “this shift towards examining the effects of behaviour will mean a more objective measure to assess the impacts of misuse of market power and anti-competitive behaviour within the supply chain.”

There are independent retailers, represented by Master Grocers of Australia CEO Jos de Bruin, who called our fairer laws “a great triumph for our independent retailers who have struggled for years against stifling unfair competition laws”.

Likewise, champions of the sector have praised the changes.

Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell warned consumers that, “when one or two enterprises dominate the market, there’s no incentive to keep prices competitive which can impact consumers and drive household budgets up”.

The message from Australia’s small business sector is clear — the law needed fixing. And so the government worked with the Greens and the crossbench and everyone agreed small business deserved to compete on a more level playing field.

Everyone, that is, except Labor.

Fast forward four days from Labor’s poorly thought through Bill in the Senate and gone are the headlines and press conferences. Gone is the feigned indignation and the faux small business support.

When Labor had the choice between union-backed big business or Australia’s 3.2 million small businesses, it spared not a second thought.

Labor’s small business support couldn’t last a week.

Labor voted to subject small business to continued anti-competitive conduct and against levelling the playing field.

But thanks to the hard work of Australia’s small businesspeople, the Liberals and Nationals in government and from small business’s advocates, fairer competition for small business is now law.

We will choose small business support, even when there’s not a headline.

Michael McCormack is Australia’s Small Business Minister and The Nationals’ MP for Riverina.

Dom Hopkinson