Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Election date; Tony Abbot’s Policy Vacuum; National Rental Affordability Scheme; Small Business in Tasmania; Tasmanian bushfires – ABC Hobart

Location: Hobart

Program: Breakfast with Ryk Goddard, ABC Hobart, 7.10AM

E & OE – Proof only

Subject: Election date, Tony Abbot’s Policy Vacuum, National Rental Affordability Scheme, Small Business in Tasmania, Tasmanian bushfires.

RYK GODDARD: The federal Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Small Business, Brendan O’Connor, is in Tasmania today and I don’t think it was part of his plans that it would be on the morning of the announcement of an election. He joins you this morning. Minister, good morning.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Good morning.

RYK GODDARD: How much notice did you have about the calling of the election?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, I guess that’s not the big issue. The big issue is that that’s been cleared. The Prime Minister announced the election date to make sure there’s no game playing going on and we can focus on the real issues. And that really does require both major parties to put forward their policies. And I think it’s clear that that’s left the Coalition exposed because you have Tony Abbott running around with a mini-campaign but without any policies.

RYK GODDARD: What happened in your office as soon as you heard? Did you hear it on the news?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, as always, the Prime Minister makes these decisions. It doesn’t matter whether it’s announced just before the Governor-General is asked to dissolve the Parliament and issue the writs, it doesn’t matter if it happens now. There’s always a bit of excitement when the election date is announced.

I think this is a really good opportunity for everybody. On one hand, it provides certainty for businesses and for everybody else to know when the date is. It allows us as a government to get on with doing the things we must do for the nation. I guess for journalists it might mean that they have less opportunity to speculate endlessly about the election date.

RYK GODDARD: I know, what are we going to do with our time? How are you going to go really, how is anyone in government going to keep their eye on the job?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, we’ve got so much to do. I’m in Hobart today to announce the construction of dwellings under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. It’s been a very successful scheme by the Government. We know we’ve got a shortage of housing stock and this has been a great scheme

I think for me and for my staff and the Department and the constituency of my portfolio, they can be assured of the date and they can now look at those other matters that need to be done before the election.

What would have been worse, what would have been more difficult would have been if we had had this endless speculation about elections being held maybe in March, maybe in April, maybe in et cetera.

RYK GODDARD: It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, particularly with the intention of keeping the conversation on policy rather than on negative politics. Here we go, here’s something original, I won’t speculate on it. How good is that?


RYK GODDARD: Coming back to portfolios and policies, as well as Minister for Housing which you’re here for in your capacity at the moment, you’re also Minister for Small Business. How does that work in a Labor Government. Labor tend to focus on industrial relations, you know, workers in big industries and protecting them, and one of the things that might happen for example is penalty rates going up and then small business is often harmed by that. Certainly it’s a big issue in Tasmania with small businesses just struggling to meet the costs of those penalty rates. How do you balance that in your portfolio?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, firstly, small business is a huge part of our economy. There are more than two and a half million small businesses in Australia and they employ five million workers in this country. So it’s the engine room and it’s critical therefore that governments enable their success through providing, for example, the NBN, ensuring we can remove red tape, providing them tax concessions where possible.

And as you say, there are other issues including industrial relations. As far as the penalty rates are concerned, there is a review by Fair Work Australia to consider the impact on small business. Both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party have said that Fair Work Australia should undertake that review. Neither major party has suggested that we intervene to change the arrangements of employment, including penalty rates. Senator Abetz has already indicated that the Liberal Party would not intervene. And I do think that that body, Fair Work Australia, should consider those impacts in hospitality and tourism.

But there are so many other things that small businesses need. They need to have a good relationship, for example, with the big players in the marketplace. There are questions around the fairness of tenancy arrangements, there are huge issues around the Franchising Code. So there are plenty of other things. And most importantly I think is the need to have the right technology for the digital economy and the NBN for example plays a very important part in ensuring that small businesses can succeed.

RYK GODDARD: Another core issue that’s really occupied us here in Tasmania, Minister Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Housing, Homelessness and Small Business, is freight equalisation, being able to get customers past our door, freight and passenger equalisation, and for small businesses to be able to afford to export out of Tasmania.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, that’s always been an issue here and in both Launceston and Hobart I’ve spoken to businesses about that. We always need to find ways to remove impediments for small businesses to expand their markets. There are some really difficult issues there.

But you know, I think that we should also be very positive. If you look at, for example, the capacity for businesses to grow through digital technology, through NBN, you can see ways in which you can overcome some of the real impediments to trade through technology –

RYK GODDARD: That can help you get access to a market but you’ve still got to get product to them.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That’s right. What I have said is that we will examine the ways in which we can improve the opportunities for small businesses in Tasmania to deal with freight equalisation. We understand that is a huge issue so we certainly will look at that issue. But it’s not an easy fix. It’s been around for a long time.

But you know, I’m very confident and optimistic about businesses, in particular small businesses, in Tasmania. This is an economy that needs to be diversified. You’ve got some extraordinary entrepreneurs here and we need to help as a government to ensure that they get those other markets.

RYK GODDARD: You did meet with business leaders, as you said, in Hobart and Launceston. Did they share the same confidence, Minister?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: One thing I always get from small businesses is that they are confident, that they see a good future. They raise issues that are challenging. But I’m inspired by small businesses. If you meet those that are doing well – what I would like to do, if I was able to do it, if it was easy to do, is show some other businesses how well those templates, those exemplars are doing in expanding their horizons, in growing their businesses. Because there’s plenty of businesses that can do that.

I guess from the Government point of view, we’ve just got to make sure that we can remove the impediments. We need to have good enablers like the NBN, which of course is under threat under Tony Abbott. It’s certainly a very important tool, it’s a very important enabler for small business. We need to ensure that we have the right things in place to create the environment in which small businesses can not only survive but thrive, and that’s why we have tax concessions, we have the loss carry-back initiative, we have the instant asset tax write-off which has helped in terms of cutting red tape but also improving cash flow. These are the sort of things that small businesses are crying out for.

We’ve delivered those but we need to do more. That’s why I’ve appointed a Small Business Commissioner – to listen to the needs of small business and respond accordingly.

RYK GODDARD: One last question for you from a listener, PJ, who asks “has the Commonwealth any leverage – this is in your role as Minister for Housing – to pressure state and local government to stop people building in fire-prone areas and flood plains”?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, we’ve seen some devastating national disasters recently. Who would have thought that Tasmania would have been the centre of some of the worst fires in this summer with 130 homes destroyed and 110,000 hectares burnt?

I think that’s an important decision for all governments. There’s no doubt, whether it be flood or other national disasters, when we are making decisions about where people can build, we have to be mindful of the potential consequences, whether that be Tasmania or Queensland that should be done.

Most of those decisions are not determined by the Commonwealth but I can assure you that the Gillard Government is very sensitive to those problems, having seen not only the awful floods of two years ago in Queensland, again in Queensland this week and this month, but also the fires in Tasmania. So I think that’s something we can discuss and we can raise at COAG so all governments are sensitive to that and we don’t just make decisions in the short-term, but we look to the long-term consequences of those decisions.

RYK GODDARD:  Minister O’Connor, thanks for your time.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Not at all. Thanks very much.