Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Small Business Roadshow
I rise to make a few comments about the small business roadshow which is currently being conducted by the Minister for Small Business and member for Riverina, Minister Michael McCormack MP. I need to begin my remarks by acknowledging the work that is going on in that portfolio and also by making the point that I am not opposed to a small business roadshow program. I strongly believe that the minister and shadow minister should be out there listening to the concerns of small business, of which there are many. So the comments I make are not in any way to take away from the roadshow tour around Australia, but I am concerned that this roadshow, as it is currently being conducted, is a political exercise and is not about listening to the views of small businesses across a range of electorates right across the country. Instead, it is focusing on the views of small business in a selection of predominantly Liberal or National Party held seats.
If we look at the facts that underpin this roadshow, to date—and there may have been more since—the minister has visited 34 electorates. Of these 34 electorates, the vast majority, 31, have been in Liberal or National seats. Two have been in Labor seats, but when they have been held in the Labor seats, the minister has not invited the sitting MP, who would no doubt have a strong connection with local business owners in their area. In the 31 visits to Liberal or National seats, the local member—that is, a member of the government—is invited to attend those meetings. One was held in the electorate of Indi, a seat held by an Independent MP, and, to my knowledge, that member was not invited to participate in that electorate visit either.
There are concerns that I have about that. I have raised those through estimates. Indeed, these roadshows have been advertised as having public servants attending these functions, and public servants from the ACCC, the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman and the Australian Taxation Office have attended and supported the minister at these forums. The Statement of ministerial standards clearly stipulates that:
Ministers and Assistant Ministers … must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety—
particularly when it comes to the use of public money and in their use of the Public Service. Indeed, section 4.3 of the Statement of ministerial standards outlines the appropriate use of the Public Service:
… Ministers are to regard the skills and abilities of public servants as a public resource, and are expected to ensure that public servants are deployed only for appropriate public purposes.
I have raised these concerns through estimates, and I have also written to the Australian Public Service Commissioner and the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ask them to look further into how the roadshow fits in with this definition. The department of the Treasury, in responding to questions at estimates, acknowledged that, while they do support the role of the Minister for Small Business through that portfolio and whilst they had provided advice to the minister about the roadshows, they have not assisted with the organising of the events or the associated costs. They acknowledged that they do not have staff to attend. When asked about how the costs of the more than 30 roadshow events were met, officers from the Treasury were unable to answer, other than to confirm the costs were not met through Treasury. This is something that warrants further investigation.
Once again, I support the concept of a small business roadshow program. I have certainly been out listening to the concerns of small business in different areas across Australia. However, it is not run by the Public Service. But I am concerned that, out of all those roadshows, 31 out of 34 have been held in Liberal or National seats and that in those the local member is invited to attend. They advertise that forum, and some of them are highly critical of positions that the Labor Party has taken in some areas, sending out political messaging around that. Yet, when they have been held in Labor-held seats—only twice, I think, and once in an Independent seat—the same courtesy has not been extended to those sitting members. One can only take from that that this is more of a political exercise about promoting government over other political parties. If that is so, public servants should not be used and should not attend these forums. To date, the response from the minister has been entirely inadequate.