You would have struggled to find it in the press, but yesterday Malcolm Turnbull did something positive: he released a small business policy.

A small business announcement looks incongruous when everyone is focussed on the meeting of the great and powerful (and Kevin Rudd as well) in London, but there’s a sort of logic to the contrast. The Prime Minister might be rubbing shoulders with Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, but the Coalition is looking at ways to help those salt of the earth small businessmen and women to whom politicians of all stripes instinctively genuflect.

Turnbull proposes to enable small business to in effect claim back the taxes they’ve paid from previous years, up to $100,000, to offset losses this year and next. Because the proposal would amount to a movement of losses and taxes between years, there would be no net budget impact over time. The proposal for the Government to pay part of small businesses’ superannuation contribution would have a significant impact on the budget deficit this year and next, but would strip some of the staff-related overhead businesses face, encouraging retention of staff.

Sound, thoughtful stuff, aimed at supporting employment. You can debate the pros and cons, but at least the Opposition is producing sensible ideas. Turnbull looks and sounds a lot better when he isn’t simply carping about the Government.

The rest of the package is perhaps politely passed over. Turnbull has gone through some old announcements from the Howard years and given them a quick reheat. He wants to quantify the average time it takes to comply with regulatory requirements for business. The Howard Government tried this in one of its occasional fits of “regulatory best practice” zealotry back in the late nineties, with the idea of putting a twee little clockface on every form businesses were asked to fill out so they could estimate the time it took to complete them.

The previous Government was also keen on single web portals for business, an idea Turnbull wants to extend across all jurisdictions. The Howard Government indeed developed some fine single web portals, but failed miserably at making the contents within the portal make any sense, especially after the first wave of Web 2.0 consultants had enjoyed taxpayer largesse while developing wholly incomprehensible websites.

Turnbull has also promised to elevate the small business portfolio to Cabinet status. This promise has almost certainly been made by most Opposition leaders since Federation. Indeed, there is probably ancient Aboriginal rockart in the Kimberley showing politicians swearing blind they will have a small business minister in Cabinet. It is a fine Australian tradition, and long may it continue.

Reflecting Turnbull’s luck at the moment, however, the announcement sank more or less without trace. Only The Australian gave it appropriate attention. It’s not all luck, though. Earlier in the week might have been slightly better timing. The announcement also appeared without context. Small business issues aren’t featuring in current debate any more than they otherwise would be in a recession. The Rudd approach would have been to hold a small business summit and announce the policy then, generating maximum interest. Turnbull is actually conducting serious consultations with communities, rather than the gimmicks beloved by Rudd, through an ongoing serious of jobs fora, but they are almost entirely beneath the media radar.

You have to make your own luck in politics.

Peter Fray

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