Prime Minister John Howard today hit back at Labor with a massive assistance package for business, with many initiatives for small-to-medium-sized companies. There is a new start-up grants program, assistance to connect business with public research, a huge export support program and productivity centres.

The $1.4 billion Industry Statement called Global Integration contains some surprising new initiatives, the usual ideas to get money to start-ups, plus extensions to existing programs. While the statement is sensible and hardworking, it can not be described as visionary. And while some of the initiatives will be welcome, there is a lot of money going into the hands of consultants. And sceptics might well note the huge funds that will be poured into industry associations, at a time the Federal Government is asking for support for its controversial WorkChoices.

Here are the highlights.

Grants for start-ups

A new, streamlined grants program will be launched to assist micro-businesses and public research sector spin-offs. More than $90 million over ten years will be available for Commercial Ready Plus, a new program to ensure that very early ventures get assistance. The program will provide dollar-for-dollar support of up to $250,000 to fund R&D, proof of concept and early stage commercialisation. It is a move that will be welcomed by highly innovative start-ups strapped for cash.

Export support

A new $254.1 million Global Opportunities program aims to help Australian firms win work in global supply chains and major projects. The program will identify opportunities in other countries, facilitate trade missions, and place Australian industry experts in national procurement offices.

New productivity centres

The surprise of the statement: $351.8 million would be allocated to establish productivity centres across Australia to enhance productivity in manufacturing and services businesses.

The centres will provide a suite of business Improvements services, help firms better understand and enhance their performance and solve practical problems through technology and processes improvement.

Small business links with pubic researchers

Attempts to narrow the looming gap between universities and businesses is being addressed with a $20.1 million Intermediary Access Program. The aim, says Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is to connect small businesses with public researchers and other businesses to help them acquire the knowledge and technology to be more internationally competitive. Intermediaries are trusted third parties who help small businesses find and use new knowledge and technology to strengthen businesses. The program will provide support for 150 businesses each year. The success of this program though will depend on the choice of intermediaries and whether they have the skills to really add value.

Register online

There will be a streamlined registration process for new business so that ABNs and business names will be registered together. Registrations previously completed manually will be able to be done online 24/7. Registering a business and ABN online will save time and money, says Fran Bailey, Minister for Small Business. The $89.2 million initiative over 10years will involve the Department of Tourism and Resources, the ATO, IP Australia, ASIC, and state and territory governments.

Skills development

A $14.3 million boost to small business owners who want to develop their business skills and access advisory services including exporting and IT skills development. This is an extension of the existing Building Entrepreneurship in Small Business program which will now receive an extra $2.6 million in 2007-08 and a further $11.7 million in 2008-09.

Nanotechnology boost

The nanotechnology sector will get a $21.5 million boost to draw together a disjoined industry. The National Nanotechnology strategy will draw together industry, researchers, the community and government to establish a nano-particle measuring capability, address regulations and standards and provide balanced advice.

Tax changes to boost R&D

The beneficial ownership test for the 175% R&D tax concession will be changed to allow claims to R&D projects undertaken in Australia regardless of where the intellectual property is held. This will let the arms of big business expand their operations in Australia. The change will only apply to the 175% concession and it is predicted that 300 companies will use the concession.