Voice of small business is silent on the COVID-19 commission

It looks like Chairman’s Lounge membership was a prerequisite for advising the PM on the economic recovery

Senator Michaelia Cash is the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business in the Morrison government. It’s one thing for a minister to have such a title. It’s another thing entirely for the government to take that title seriously.

It might have been that the minister was absent when the Morrison government was busy selecting the members of its National COVID-19 Coordination Commission. The commission was announced by the Prime Minister in March and it has six commissioners. Its task is to “ensure the government receives the most comprehensive advice to meet the challenges ahead to cushion the economic impact of the coronarvirus and help build a bridge to recovery”.

The commissioners, by virtue of their role, are now some of the most powerful people in the country. They’re advising the government on nothing less than the future of the Australian economy. And when you design an economy, you design a society.

Lending to small business has dropped and the fall in house prices is to blame.  AFR

The six commissioners are Nev Power, who was chief executive of Fortescue Metals Group; David Thodey, who was chief executive of Telstra; Greg Combet, who was secretary of the ACTU and a minister in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments; Jane Halton, a career public servant; Paul Little, who was managing director of Toll Holdings; and Catherine Tanna, who is managing director of an energy company.

That’s four commissioners from big business, one from the public service, and one from both the trade union movement and the Labor Party.

Missing from the commission is the voice of the sector that accounts for one-third of the economy, that provides more than 40 per cent of the jobs in the private sector, and that is the foundation of a free enterprise economy. That voice, of course, is that of small business.

It is small business and the families of the owners of small businesses – not big business and not the public service – that are bearing the brunt of the government-imposed shutdown of the economy. Seventy per cent of small businesses are family-owned.

It is revealing these are the sort of people the Morrison government picked to advise it.

An analysis by the Institute of Public Affairs of Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that over the past three months jobs in the private sector have been lost at 4½ times the rate of job losses in the public sector. Most of those lost jobs will have been from small business.

In fact the government is doing everything it can to ensure public servants are untouched by what’s happening in the rest of the economy.

Although nearly 75 per cent of Australians support pay cuts for politicians and public servants earning more than $150,000, the Prime Minister has categorically ruled out any such reduction. The biggest sacrifice Scott Morrison has offered is to delay pay rises for some public servants.

It’s incredible that a perspective from the sector that employs 4.5 million Australians (or at least did until March) is not represented on the commission.

If and when the unemployment rate reaches 10 per cent or more, the vast majority of those who will have lost their jobs will be small business employees. By the end of March, approximately 8 per cent of small businesses had already stopped trading because of COVID-19 restrictions, while 61 per cent of small businesses have applied, or will apply, for wage subsidies from the government.

The Australian economy won’t recuperate and employment will not grow in any meaningful way until small business recovers from the economic shutdown. The future of small business should be front and centre of the government’s attention, not an afterthought – if that.

It’s frightening to contemplate, but maybe what happened is that those who picked the commissioners thought if you’re deciding how to save the Australian economy, the only people you need an opinion from are those who inhabit the cosy club of the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge: big business bosses, public servants, and former union officials and Labor politicians.

It is revealing these are the sort of people the Morrison government picked to advise it.

Presumably, no one in the Coalition thought to ask the cafe owner in Parramatta who has just laid off all their staff, shut their business and lost their livelihood, whether they would like to be on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission.

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