Too early to call on ‘super ministry’

AGENCIES responsible for three of the small business sector’s bugbears – Award rates, workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety – have been combined into one super department.

But whether it will cure one of the sector’s biggest concerns, uncon-scionable conduct, remains to be seen.

WorkCover WA, WorkSafe and the Department of Labour Relations have been combined with the Ministry of Fair Trading to create the Department of Employment and Consumer Protection.

The Department will report to Labour Relations, Consumer Affairs, Employment and Training Minister John Kobelke.

DOPLAR handles WA Awards, WorkCover handles workers’ compensation and WorkSafe handles occupational health and safety.

The combination of the agencies is part of a Gallop Government push to halve the number of Government departments from 46 to 23.

Some small business groups called for a super ministry involving Fair Trading because they wanted Fair Trading to be able to take representative actions on their behalf in cases of unconscionable conduct.

Unconscionable conduct occurs where a larger party uses its marketplace size and strength to put a smaller party at a disadvantage.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission can take representative actions on behalf of small businesses falling victim to unconscionable conduct through powers it was given in 1997.

The cost for a small business to get an action to this stage, however, is prohibitive.

A Green Bill was put into WA Parliament last year that proposed mirroring the Federal Legislation and inserting it into the Fair Trading Act.

WA Retailers Association chief executive officer Martin Dempsey said his organisation wanted the Ministry of Fair Trading to be able to take representative actions on behalf of small businesses. Currently the Ministry can only act for consumers.

Mr Dempsey believes the merger will prevent Fair Trading from acting for unfairly treated small businesses.

Some small businesses have turned to taking action through the Commercial Tribunal, which has less formal procedures and is less costly. However, the tribunal can prove a frustrating process. In some cases the larger party’s agents have no authority to settle the matter and it can often be left in limbo.

Parties also have the right to appeal, so a small business can win in the tribunal and still end up having to fight its case in a higher court.

WA Small Business and Enterprise Association executive director Philip Achurch does not believe the merger will stifle Fair Trading’s ability to act on the behalf of small businesses.

“The question is how the pecking order works,” Mr Achurch said.

“If the minister is a good minister and the top bureaucrats are good, I don’t think there will be any stifling of moves to get some remedies for unconscionable conduct.”

A spokeswoman for Small Business Minister Clive Brown said bringing unconscionable conduct legislation to WA was still on the minister’s agenda.

“Mr Brown has been working with his Cabinet colleague John Kobelke on a number of issues affecting small business, including unconscionable conduct,” she said.

Fair Trading Commissioner Patrick Walker said the merger of Fair Trading with DOPLAR, Work-Safe and WorkCover was not expected to have an impact on the Fair Trading Act to give greater protection to small businesses.

“It is expected the amendments foreshadowed in the Green Bill tabled in State Parliament last year will proceed,” Mr Walker said.

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