01/02/2005 - 21:00

Small business brings new dynamic

01/02/2005 - 21:00


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Just a few weeks before going into hospital and, as it turns out, sealing his fate as Federal Opposition leader, Mark Latham was in Perth seeking answers to one of Labor’s great challenges – how to win over the small business vote.

Just a few weeks before going into hospital and, as it turns out, sealing his fate as Federal Opposition leader, Mark Latham was in Perth seeking answers to one of Labor’s great challenges – how to win over the small business vote.

Mr Latham was in Western Australia as part of a national tour, during which he conferred with small business people all over the land, and mentioned that there were some issues that kept coming up.

Beefing up the Trade Practices Act and revising government procurement practices were some of the policies he had been considering.

It was also clear that he was picking up a protectionist vibe from small business, or at least from those who purported to represent this sector.

Mr Latham might be gone but there is no doubt that leaders of all political persuasions have sought out small business, and I fear they may have been fed a similar line.

For those seeking a response to the economic rationalism that has dominated the political agenda for the past decade, having business provide some so-called solutions must be very appealing.

But are traditional representatives of small business representative of the great rump of this growing sector?

I would argue that they’re not.

Many industry or trade group leaders represent very limited elements of small business, often traditional fields that have closed ranks to provide protection from threats such as deregulation.

Often they have a vested interest in the status quo or, more worryingly in many cases, furthering legislated protection of their businesses.

Yet this may well be the opposite of what much of the new wave of small business throughout the country wants.

The growth in home-based business, consulting and contract employment means that many newcomers to the so-called ‘small business’ sector are quite different from their more traditional colleagues in retail, professional services or small-time manufacturing.

While they share many of the burdens of business – tax, red tape, industrial relations, marketing, long hours – they are also consumers.

Many of these new entrants to the business game have left full-time employment.

Whether that was by choice or not, they have had to make their own way in the tough and initially alien world of business.

It has often been of rite of passage, regularly pioneering markets that didn’t previously exist, that leaves them with little sympathy for more traditional businesses that want to be protected from competition – no matter how good their arguments might be.

This is what politicians have to grapple with if they wish to understand small business and the vast electorate it represents.

Arguably, John Howard has already done this with his appeal to this vague idea of the ‘battlers’.

They used to be Labor voters but now they are consumers who work for themselves.

They have financed their new work life with their mortgages and fear anything that will make life harder than it is or takes away the prospect of real reward for their labours.

Hence the growing debate that tax reform needs to bring company tax in line with personal income tax.

The lines have blurred so much there is virtually no difference between employees and self-employed – and our leaders have to start realising that.

Free to air sticks to its own schedule

I FIND it ironic that, just as there is so much campaigning going on to maintain the Ashes test cricket series as a free-to-air broadcast, we have seen recriminations over the airing of the Australian Open tennis championships.

The scenario being played out right now is the free-to-air oligopoly is campaigning to keep pay TV out of key sporting broadcasts as a matter of public interest, while one of its number delays the telecast of the tennis to keep its scheduling in order.

Live coverage of the Ashes is a matter of public interest, the Aussie Open isn’t, apparently.

I am the first to be disappointed by losing access to the cricket but I am tired of the protection all these cosy little regulations give to keep a few media companies more profitable than they would be if they were faced with full-scale competition.

If people desperately want the cricket they will pay for it. If the cricket desperately wants to reach the biggest audience, it will pay the price too.

But the free-to-air stations have lost the argument about how they offer some sort of cultural protection.

They have, one-by-one, given up the fight for Australian content. While I am sure it is statistically there if you check the content hour for hour, there is a dwindling level of Australian made product in prime time and the most recent big locally made shows were simply off-the-shelf remakes of offshore reality TV ideas.

Let’s face the fact that TV is about ratings. Audiences aren’t parochial so why should our laws be?

Let pay TV or any other media company with a workable distribution method broadcast what they want to whom they want – within the boundaries of common sense and decency of course.


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