In our annual report last year we remarked that it is a huge understatement to say that at our 2019 AGM in October no-one could possibly have predicted the events of 2020. Well, again, 2021 has proven to be a continuation of that understatement.
What has perhaps been the greatest and most concerning discovery is that of the thin line between democracy, the rule of law, and the authoritarian overreach of government by democratically elected leaders acting as dictators. Victoria has been the place of most concern. Of course the authoritarian cause has all been in the name of ‘saving lives’. But what has also occurred is that respect for, and adherence to, the rule of law by those who rule over us has been fundamentally trashed.
Whatever the justification for their authoritarian rule, the people most hurt and damaged during 2021 have been, and continue to be, small business people. Think of retailers, tourism operators, restaurateurs, hairdressers, gyms and personal trainers. The list goes on. While governments lavish pay-rises on public servants, the support for small business people is by comparison a pittance, yet they must still pay interest on their loans and a long list of government charges—including rates and land taxes for example.
SEA cannot do anything about these bigger issues but what we can do and have done is maintain our focus on seeking to achieve practical public policy outcomes that will give self-employed, small business people a fair go in these difficult times.
As a volunteer not-for-profit organisation, our finances have always been tight, but as of our October 2021 AGM, the financial position is strong. While many members have understandably had to cut back their support for us, our enlarged membership has meant that support is more widely spread.
SEA membership across all our categories is up significantly. In particular, the campaign membership category has grown.
4. New Website
Our new website was finally completed and was launched on 5 August 2021. Our great thanks to our web manager for the hard and expert work to achieve the outcome.
5. Social Media
For a small association that focuses entirely on public policy our website traffic remains strong. It fluctuates from month to month depending on our campaign activities. During this year unique viewers in any month ranged from a high of around 14,000 from a base of around 4,000.
The most notable traffic has been related to our campaign to require prosecution of the Victorian government for breaches of work safety laws with respect to the hotel quarantine mess in 2020.
6. Activities of our Executive Director—Ken Phillips
Ken’s activities on behalf of SEA over the last 12 months have included:
- Writing regularly for Spectator
- With travel restrictions the face-to-face advocacy work has had to be curtailed. However trips included:
Canberra 22-24 March – meetings with Government ministers, Lib/Nat backbenchers, Greens, ALP shadows and backbenchers, One Nation. Mainly advocating for reform of the ATO.
Sydney & Canberra 26-31 May, meetings with:
- Chris Merritt – Australian Journalist – Director, Rule of Law Institute.
- SEA members in Sydney.
- Inspector-General of Taxation.
- Director of the Rule of Law Education Centre.
Canberra Senate Estimates on ATO:
- ALP, One Nation, Minister Tudge adviser, Ben Morton MP, Senator Eric Abetz, Senator Ben Small, Jason Falinski MP, Minister Michaelia Cash adviser.
Some other online meetings have included:
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 21 May.
- ATO consultation Employer v Contractors, 21 May.
- Australian Building and Construction Commission, 24 June.
- TaxPayer Rights organisation Washington, 23 June.
- Senate Select Committee on Insecure Work, 27 July.
SEA’s primary interest is to argue for reform to regulations (and regulators) in terms of how they treat small business, self-employed people. These are always long-term campaigns and the current campaigns are as follows.
7. Commonwealth Integrity Commission
The introduction of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission is a Morrison Government election commitment. A draft discussion Bill is available and SEA has been involved in providing feedback on this. Our main interest is to ensure that the ATO would be subject to the reach of the Commission. Currently if there is a complaint about corruption inside the ATO, the complaint is handled entirely internally within the ATO. This is unacceptable.
8. Unfair Contract ‘beef-up’
SEA campaigned for seven years to achieve the unfair contract laws that are currently in place (started 2016). The current Act probably achieved about 70 per cent of what we sought. After five years of the existing law it is now being ‘beefed up’ and we are very pleased with the new proposals. The new Bill is strong and important.
The Bill’s key features are:
- Applies to consumers and small business.
- Expands the definition of small business. To apply to businesses up to 100 full- or part-time employees (excludes casuals) or less than $10m in turnover. Currently only 20 employees.
- No limit on the value of the contract (currently restricted to contracts of up to $300K).
- A ‘standard form’ contract is one if the contract has been used before.
- If minor changes have been made to a contract in negotiations this does not stop the contract being ‘standard form.’
- Imposes fines for breaches (up to $500K for individuals). There are currently no fines.
- A person breaches the law if they propose to use or seek to apply an unfair clause.
- Multiple unfair clauses create multiple breaches.
We are keen to see this Bill passed as soon as feasible.
9. ‘Pay on Time’ Report
Probably the single most important issue for small business, self-employed people is being paid on time. The Morrison Government made an election promise to introduce new regulations to improve payment on time. These have now largely been implemented. There are three key elements as follows:
- The federal government requires federal departments to pay their small business suppliers within 20 days—this has been implemented and we congratulate the government on this.
- A register has been established for large businesses to report their payment times to small business. This has been established and is going through the implementation phase.
- Large businesses that supply services and goods to the federal government have to pay their small business suppliers on time or lose access to government work. This is in the process of being implemented in line with the payment register.
10. ATO reform to require fair treatment of small business people
We have a highly detailed ATO administrative reform program that we are pushing for implementation. The program is based on US laws covering the administration of the US Internal Revenue Service. We launched our agenda on 29 October 2020.
In broad summary, we’re advocating to implement legislation so that:
- A Taxpayer Bill of Rights guides tax administration.
- The Bill of Rights is supported by a Taxpayers Rights Code.
- A Taxpayer Advocate is charged to ensure implementation of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and
Key reforms under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to include:
- The ATO to have the onus of proof of a tax debt.
- An ATO-assessed tax debt is not a collectable debt at law until all appeals have been exhausted/finalised.
- A genuine, stipulated independent review process inside the ATO.
We are promoting the reform program across the political spectrum in Canberra. Naturally, the incumbent government is our first focus, but we have also had discussions with the alternative government.
Some of the advocacy activities have included:
- Working with the Parliamentary Tax and Revenue Committee Report. They have a major report pending.
- Meetings with the Assistant Treasurer, Attorney-General, Small Business Minister, the appropriate Labor Shadow Minister and Senate independents, the Inspector-General of Taxation, Small Business Ombudsman and others.
There have been several important legal tax cases that we have followed as these go to the heart of how the ATO administers the tax act. These cases include the ‘Gold’ case which the ATO comprehensively lost in the High Court, and other related cases.
The Inspector General of Taxation has produced several important reports. For example, ‘When is the Commissioner of Taxation required to give a taxpayer reasons? Answer is, ‘almost never’ and ‘Understanding a Taxpayers Rights’ which shows that taxpayers have few, if any, legislated rights
11. Independent Contractor Status
We find again that it’s necessary to work to defend the right of self-employed people to be self-employed.
- The Victorian government has a policy that would effectively outlaw self-employment. This poses a real and present threat and we are campaigning against this.
- Uber Eats—a decision in April 2021 by the Fair Work Commission found that Uber Eats uses independent contracting.
- The NSW parliament is holding an inquiry into the ‘gig’ economy.
- The Federal Senate is also holding an inquiry into the ‘gig’ economy. SEA Executive Director Ken Phillips gave evidence to the inquiry.
12. Victorian OHS campaign
This is proving to be one of the largest and most intense campaigns that SEA has ever run.
Our objective is to have the Victorian government and named individuals in the government prosecuted for breaches of work safety laws over the Hotel Quarantine mess in 2020.
Just some of the activities have included:
- Several waves of social media campaigns including paid social media adverts.
- Three lots of radio advertising campaigns—April (three weeks), June (three weeks), Sept/Oct (three weeks).
- Tv advert launched on 26 September on Channel 9 news slot for three weeks.
- Many TV, radio appearances and news articles.
- ‘Not unprecedented’ document.
- ‘Case for the prosecution’ document.
- Lots more…