Thursday, 15 March 2012
Questions without Notice
Small Business: Enterprise Connect
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Industry and Innovation, Senator Lundy. Can the minister explain why, in the International Year of Co-operatives and with many of the most successful businesses across the world being cooperative owned, almost no Australian cooperative can benefit from the government's Enterprise Connect scheme—which requires an applicant to have an Australian company number—when allowing applicants to use an Australian business number, thereby indicating they are a taxpaying business, would allow most Australian trading cooperatives to benefit from the scheme?
I understand Senator Madigan has had contact with the minister's office directly on this matter. Enterprise Connect is a major initiative introduced by the government in May 2008. It has supported more than 10,000 businesses through its national network. Enterprise Connect helps Australian small and medium enterprises develop skills, tools and knowledge needed to improve their competitiveness and productivity to maximise their growth potential.
I can inform the Senate that to date there have been very few cooperatives seeking to enter the program. While general eligibility requirements for the program require a business to have an ACN, this is not restricting cooperatives from accessing the program. Where a cooperative has made an approach, the department has requested the applicant make a case for admission based on their ability to absorb and utilise the services provided by Enterprise Connect. The department has been able to consider these requests as exceptional circumstances on a case-by-case basis.
In response to Senator Madigan's principal question, cooperatives are able to participate nationally in Enterprise Connect's workshops, industry intelligence and networking, and knowledge dissemination activities. In the case of creative industries, cooperatives may access the Creative Industries Innovation Centre's monthly Biztro service. Further, in remote areas cooperatives are eligible for Enterprise Connect's core services if they meet the Remote Enterprise Centre eligibility requirements, which do not require an ACN. I also note that cooperatives have a range of legal structures. Most operate as corporations, either as publicly listed companies or publicly unlisted companies, and they typically have an ACN. Some are incorporated under state and territory law. All of these are eligible entities.
Mr President, I have a supplementary question. Does the government accept that not to include cooperatives in Enterprise Connect programs because of a belief that they lack adequate governance is not based on evidence, when the administration and compliance of cooperatives can be verified by simple checks on the state registry of cooperatives, and results from prejudice against the cooperative legal structure and the business model it encourages?
I reiterate the department is able to assess on a case-by-case basis the exceptional circumstances, but perhaps it would be useful if I outlined the general criteria used for eligibility to Enterprise Connect services. Generally, yes, they are required to possess an ACN or, in the case of firms in remote regions, an ABN. They are required to meet the relevant revenue or expenditure thresholds of between $750,000 and $100 million, depending on the sector and region. They have to be solvent. They have to have operated in Australia and filed business activity statements showing ongoing trading in at least three full consecutive years. They cannot have received a business review previously. And they must operate in one of the following industry sectors or regions: manufacturing or manufacturing related services, defence industry, resources technology, clean technology, creative industries, remote Australia, innovative regions or tourism. (Time expired)
Mr President, I have a second supplementary question. Does the minister accept that the existing state based cooperative acts and the new national core-consistent legislation make constant reference to Corporations Law, so that in many ways the accountability and reporting provisions for cooperatives are the same as companies and that, in terms of the regulatory compliance accountability, cooperatives are not so different to companies as to exclude them from the Enterprise Connect scheme?
I go back to the point I made in response to the member's first question: that on a case-by-case basis they can be considered for eligibility. I will take this opportunity to outline some of the history of Enterprise Connect. It was started in May 2008 and is a program that provides support to eligible small and medium enterprises to develop skills. It is important to recognise that Enterprise Connect applies across the critical areas and specific industries that I mentioned. It does not really matter whether those businesses are located in metropolitan or country areas or, as I mentioned, in the remote programs. To date, Enterprise Connect has assisted over 10,000 firms and has provided detailed expert advice to over 5,500 clients. Eighty-three per cent of firms provided with expert advice report that Enterprise Connect helped them on productivity and efficiency.