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Minister Brown seeks fairness

CLIVE Brown’s appointment as Small Business Minister has drawn mixed reactions from the small business community.

But do small business owners really know him?

Mr Brown is one of Labor’s legion of unknown front benchers. Besides Geoff Gallop, Jim McGinty and Norm Marlborough, it is hard to think of any Labor MPs that have have been in Parliament since the party was last in Government.

Indeed, he was first elected in the year Labor lost power to the Richard Court-led coalition.

Some lobby groups believe Mr Brown’s role as Trades and Labour Council secretary means he will bow too easily to union demands.

They are also against Labor’s plans to abolish Workplace Agreements and replace them with their form of individual contracts underpinned by awards, claiming it will destroy many small businesses.

Others feel Mr Brown has a good understanding of the small business environment – even though he has never run a small business himself.

They are happy with much of Labor’s small business policy, including beefing up commercial tenancy laws and keeping the retail trading hours status quo.

But they are disappointed that Mr Brown has more than just small business on his plate.

He also has responsibility for Tourism, the Goldfields Esperance region and State Development, which includes overview of the Department of Commerce and Trade, Resources Development and Minerals and Energy.

Admittedly his workload is not dissimilar to that faced by former Small Business Minister Hendy Cowan, who was also Deputy Premier.

Mr Brown said Labor’s promise to reduce the number of cabinet ministers made his workload inevitable.

He said implementing Labor’s small business policy was a priority, but he would be moving slowly.

“My way of operating will be to move to implement Labor’s small business policy but I’ll be moving carefully,” Mr Brown said.

“I’ll be talking to small business, business groups that might have a different view and taking advice from government agencies.

“It means we’ll move slower than some people might like but I believe in a consultative approach to Government.”

Mr Brown is unrepentant about plans to abolish workplace agreements, which many small businesses have lauded.

Some business groups believe Labor’s plan to repeal the Workplace Agreements Act and replace it with legislation allowing Employee-Employer Agreements underpinned by Awards will lead to compulsory unionism.

Small businesses do not like the Awards because they have no say in them. Awards are usually struck between unions and big business lobby groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

But Mr Brown says Labor’s move will bring fairness to employer-employee relations.

“In 1992 the Coalition said in effect three things – workplace agreements would provide greater flexibility, employees would be given a choice and employees would not be worse off,” he said.

“The agreements were introduced in 1993 after they won the election. The agreements certainly met the flexibility principle but did not meet the other two principles.

“We have a policy that will introduce agreements between employers and employees that can be different to an award or an enterprise agreement.

“These will provide flexibility, but will also offer choice to employees and make sure they are not worse off than they would be if they were on award conditions.

“The terms and conditions of these EEAs may be completely different to the award, but the employee should be no worse off on balance.”

Mr Brown said he was pursuing a way to give small businesses protection from unconscionable conduct.

One proposal he is considering is copying the unconscionable conduct legislation in the Trade Practices Act into State law.

Unfortunately, pursuing actions under the Trade Practices Act are costly.

“Can a small business person afford $750,000 for a legal case? Of course they can’t, so they lose,” Mr Brown said.

“We are concerned about fairness between unequal partners.

“I want to pursue it in a way that has a minimum effect on red tape.”

Mr Brown said his involvement with unions would have no bearing on his role as a Government minister.

“My background is to fight very hard for the interest groups I represent,” he said.

Perhaps unusually for a Labor Party minister these days, Mr Brown started out on the shop floor, although he left his optical technician’s trade about 30 years ago.

“There’s an old joke in that industry. Stay in too long and you make a spectacle of yourself,” he said.

Mr Brown has also been a director of superannuation fund WestScheme and sat on various company boards.

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