Address to the 2017 Young Liberal Federal Convention

Check against delivery

eaAs my year as your federal patron draws to its natural conclusion, I thank you for the privilege. I salute the efforts of Claire and David, the executive team and all Young Liberals – especially during the campaign.

When we had such a close-run result it is fair to say that everybody’s effort made the difference. Let there be no doubt, but for the efforts of the Young Liberal Movement you would be having a host of Opposition members addressing this Council. So, a big thank you from me and a grateful Nation. Having said that – you did yourselves a great favour by ensuring your own future is more secure: strategically, economically and socially.

And when we reflect on Australia’s strategic, economic and social needs you can understand why our Party’s founder stressed the virtues of hard work, personal responsibility, reward for effort, encouragement of entrepreneurship and small government.

All these are the virtues that underpin small business. These are the guideposts to which government and policy makers need to direct their thinking to enable the small business sector to flourish.

As someone who mortgaged everything and then some to start a legal practice which served the local community including the small business sector I understand the relentlessness, the commitment and hard work required to get established and keep on going.

When it comes to time obligations – you come last.

When it comes to financial obligations – you come last.

When it comes to staff leave – you fill in and work even harder.

When it comes to worries, customer satisfaction – it’s your responsibility.

Small business is full of both obligations and rewards.

Small business is the economic and social backbone of our society. And that is why it is both an economic and social good to advance the cause of small business. Too often the sector can rightly be described by the Menzies phrase – “the forgotten people”.

When they are up against it – for whatever reason – there aren’t the headlines of job losses or share price crash. But be assured every day, everywhere small businesses are sadly putting off staff and closing shop which sees hard working people lose their house, their life-savings, often with family and friends added in.

A former Small Business Minister, Bruce Billson, experienced the failure of his small business. That is why having him in Cabinet representing small business was so valuable.

Too much red tape, too much taxation and oppressive regulations designed by the unholy trinity of big business, big unions and big government together with the institutions they create tend to stifle if not snuff out the entrepreneurial spirit that is the heartbeat of small business which in turn is the wealth generator and job creator for our communities.

The anti-owner driver and falsely named Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal is a classic example. 35,000 owner drivers, with loans and houses on the line were set to lose everything whilst the big companies would’ve moved in. Its abolition was none too soon.

As an aside – former Senator Glenn Lazarus and some other cross benchers refused to countenance its abolition until the Tribunal’s true purpose became apparent. Sadly, some lives and livelihoods were lost.

So what can government do?

Allow me to provide a practical agenda.

First, I’d put small business into Cabinet to ensure all Cabinet decisions are fully seasoned with its perspective.

Secondly, I’d give the small business portfolio to the Liberal Party. Anyone who knows me knows this isn’t anti-Coalition or the current Minister. It’s just that this is a key portfolio for the wellbeing of our country and our political survival in marginal/suburban seats – Liberal heartland.

Thirdly, the anti-red tape agenda needs to be a constant in our thinking and the way we do business as a government.

In this area I suggest that we have a small claims type tribunal for issues arising between the Australia Taxation Office and small business. The size and legal fire power that the ATO can muster will never be matched by a small business unless an outside body like Independent Contractors Australia is willing to assist. It should not be like this.

A common sense, non-legal representative, practical tribunal that looks for solutions and resolutions rather than court hearings could actually not only save the public purse but businesses and jobs as well.

Fourthly, whilst on the issue of the public purse we need to rein in expenditure and reduce the size of government and the tax burden.

Many savings have been blocked by a dishonest, two-faced Labor Party in the Senate along with populists that argue for increased expenditure and tax reductions, not appreciating the inherent difficulty with such an approach. We need to ramp up our advocacy for budget repair. And we can lead without legislation.

Take one small example. In the Commonwealth workers’ compensation scheme I inherited a scheme with a $200 million deficit. By working hard and improving the operation of that scheme, I am pleased to say that it is now turning a $50 million profit. The outrageous claims that you’ve read about in the media are ending. This means less cost to the taxpayer which means lowering the tax burden.

But the key to this approach is discipline and appointing the right personnel. Just hard work and leadership.

Similarly, when I was responsible for the public service in 2013, I had the media and everyone within government telling me we couldn’t trim the size of the public service by the numbers which we set out in our policy – To be achieved through natural attrition and discipline.  I met with the Public Service Commission weekly and personally kept on top of the policy to ensure no breakouts and within two years, we achieve a 14,000 reduction in the size of the public service, resulting in an annual $1.4 billion saving. Again, without the need for any legislation.

Regrettably, in just one year since we’ve seen almost 4,000 more staff added to the Commonwealth payroll. This adds another $400 million to the annual tax burden or $1.6 billion over the forward estimates.

It means that we cannot invest that money where it is needed.

This could fund a continuation of the $20,000 instant asset write-off that we announced in 2015 that is due to finish in July. For me – that’s a pretty simple proposition. More public servants in Canberra or more support for small and medium sized businesses right around Australia – something that can be achieved without legislation.

Fifthly, we need to continue to pursue the full suite of our Workplace Relations policy which we took to the people in 2013 – including the full implementation of our Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation.

Here is a handful of ideas which would enable us – to more fully match our values with our policy settings – to ensure that small business knows their cause is championed by us; and

To provide practical and understandable substance to our economic narrative.

I congratulate the Young Liberal Movement for embracing the importance of small business and providing a platform for advocating its many needs.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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