Article by Geoff Fader, diagnosis Chairman of the Tasmanian Small Business Council and Peter Strong CEO of COSBOA
We note a range of big business CEOs are calling for a Senate overhaul and demanding that the Senate gets its act together and makes some decisions (AFR 6 Jan 2014). We agree that the current senate deadlocks and arguments are not adding to business confidence and are inhibiting productivity. Small business people run on confidence and it is hard to write a business plan or purchase new equipment or employ new staff when you aren’t sure what the future holds.
But the electoral reform issue is a two edged sword. Yes we need the Senators along with all elected MPs to focus on the wider picture of what is best for the country, recipe no disagreement there. But when big business starts calling for change is it because it is best for the country or they are not getting what they want as business entities?
The bicameral system of government we have in the commonwealth parliament and in most states offers many advantages even though it may on occasions provide temporary interruptions to a particular political party’s agenda. Of course there are frustrations but if policy is good for the people, then the people will in due course support it. Small businesses are people, and there are some 2.1 million of us who all vote, big business CEOs might have 200 votes between them (although they have plenty of money to spend on influence).
We know the bigger issue for many small businesses is more about the influence of non-voting big business and how they use their power to manipulate party politics, the obvious examples being the biggest unions and the Labor Party vs big business and the Liberal Party.
For instance small business needs were totally ignored in recent days when the MRRT (mining tax) was removed through some behind closed doors dealing between the Government and the PUP party. Big business, the mining companies, got what they wanted while small business had tax concessions removed and even had the changes backdated into previous financial years. This is an example of big business representatives manipulating the Senate at the cost of small business people and the economy.
The recent findings of the ACCC against Coles for unconscionable conduct and misuse of powers shows that even though we had spent decades arguing our case the big end of town manipulated policy makers and Senators to make sure that unfairness in competition remained. It didn’t matter who held sway in the Senate, the biggest businesses still won out – at a cost to the country’s productivity.
We have had some fairness created recently due to the new environment created by the Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and by a more professional and focused approach from some regulators, particularly the ACCC. But we know that 2015 will bring pressure from big business lobbyists onto Ministers, Senators and MPs to maintain the status quo of domination by a few big businesses. It may not matter who the senators are, it may just matter how they are manipulated.
An enlightening summer read on this issue is “When Corporations Rule the World” by David C Korten. He is one of the true champions of independent small business. This book is truly an eye opener on just how the big players manipulate governments. Just consider how many big businesses move profits to low taxing countries to create unfair advantage in the market and get away with this onerous behaviour.
In the end there has been too much influence from big business and their supporters and that is not good for the economy. Will electoral reform of the Senate fix that?
Tony Smith, the member for Casey in Victoria (Lib), heads up the Parliamentary Committee that reviews electoral law. Mr Smith and that committee have achieved bipartisan agreement on changes needed to reform of how we elect Senators.
For example one of their recommendations could impact on the way we vote. At the moment if we vote above the line we must forfeit our preferences to the decisions of the party we choose. It is this that enables the micro-parties to get together, harvest preferences and see a candidate with as little as half a percent of the primary vote be catapulted to election on masses of preferences. This is a distortion of the will of voters because they can’t and don’t know who they are preferencing. Tony Smith has described this as lottery where instead of a ball popping out of the machine a micro party Senator pops out.
His Committee has recommended restoring full power to the voter to determine their preferences to the extent they wish to exercise them by abolishing the power of the parties to allocate preferences through group voting tickets, and introducing optional preferential voting above the line. Under this system every voter would decide their own preferences and would number as few or as many boxes as they wish.
Mr Smith’s committee agreed that they could not and would not recommend any changes that would clash with the constitution or create a sense of unfairness for voters. Tony Smith recently gave a presentation of his committee’s findings to our Council members and there was broad agreement that changes need to take place and care must be taken. Our council represents voters who are small business people.
By all means reform the Senate election processes but let’s make sure reform is driven by electoral and voter needs, by democratic process, not big business profit margins.