HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 18 FEBRUARY 2019
This is a great day for small business, because Labor's access to justice amendment has passed the Senate and looks as though it may now pass the House. This is a great opportunity for the 45th Parliament to come together and address the market power imbalance between large business and small business.
A bit of history. In 2017 the Senate passed Labor's private senator's bill to provide access to justice for small business. There was no crossbench opposition. It was a bill that united Centre Alliance, the Greens and Senators Bernardi, Leyonhjelm and Hinch. Even Senator Gichuhi supported the bill prior to her joining the Liberal Party. Yet, when it came to this place, the Liberals refused to debate it.
Last Thursday, the Senate passed the measure again, despite government opposition. Just to be clear about the government's position, the Journal of the Senate records: 'All government senators by leave recorded their votes for the noes.' So the government was against access to justice for small business last Thursday in the Senate. When they had the choice as to whether they would support millionaires, multinationals and monopolists, they chose the three Ms over Australia's small business. But over the weekend we began to hear what the National Party might do—never mind the crossbench, who in this place have been strong champions of small business. Over the weekend, we heard from the member for New England, the member for Mallee, the member for Wide Bay and the member for Hinkler about their support for Labor's access to justice for small business policy and their recognition of the value of backing the little guy.
Labor's small business access to justice policy allows a small business to request a no adverse cost order when bringing on a court action for a breach of competition law. If the judge decides the case is in the public interest, the small business won't risk paying the big business's costs if they lose. As the Harper competition review concluded, 'there are significant barriers to small business taking private action to enforce competition laws.' Many commentators have noted that small business isn't scared so much of their own legal costs, but of being bankrupted by the legal costs of the other side.
I'm pleased to see in the House the member for New England, who, when quizzed about the coalition's opposition to access to justice for small business in in the other place, said:
… the whole raison d’etre of the Nationals is to support small business.
Anything we can do to assist small business get a more just market we would support—I would support.
There is a lot of contradiction between ’I’ and ‘we’, but it is pleasing that it looks as though the government will backflip, with the Treasurer having said today, 'We will let it through on the voices.' This is a reform supported by the family and small business ombudsman, a former Liberal chief minister of the ACT. She said, 'Access to justice is an issue regularly raised with us by small business. This amendment would be an important step towards levelling the playing field.' COSBOA says, 'Access to justice is a huge issue.'
This is the work of the Labor team. I mentioned before Senator Gallagher's private senators' bill in the other place. Small business access to justice was originally developed by the shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, in 2016. I pay tribute to her for her work on this policy. We took it to the 2016 election, we introduced it as a private senators' bill in 2017 and we will take it, if it doesn't pass today, to the 2019 election. I should say too that today's reform not have occurred without Nick Green, one of the smartest and most persuasive staffers in the building, who is engaged with the crossbench in this place and in the other place. Labor's support for small business goes well beyond access to justice. We will make unfair contract terms illegal, we will allow peak consumer bodies to make supercomplaints, we will double the competition regulator's litigation budget and we will create an independent second commissioner of appeals at the tax office.
At the next election, small business will face the same tax rate regardless of who wins. But under a Shorten Labor government, they will also get the Australian Investment Guarantee. Labor will produce a better national broadband network, a critical issue for Australia's small business. And, thanks to Labor, under a Shorten government, or perhaps today, there will be access to justice for small business, a terrific Labor reform due hopefully to pass the House.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.