Small business ombudsman questions RSRT approach

By: Rob McKay


Carnell kicks off new office’s public operations with focus on ‘safe rates’ RSRO

Small business ombudsman questions RSRT approach
Kate Carnell fears smaller players are at real risk.

 

The federal government’s new Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO), Kate Carnell, has taken up the ‘safe rates’ Road Safety Remuneration Order (RSRO) as office’s first order of business.

A former small business owner, politician and industry body leader, Carnell tells ATN the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal’s (RSRT’s) intrusion into a sector that had been largely uncharted by the industrial relations system was a surprise.

"I haven’t seen something quite like this before," she says.

"It wasn’t about the normal industrial relations approaches, where there are awards and there’s clear methodology on what you do and what happens with award changes.

"The way this happened is certainly unique from my experience."

Carnell counts the small number of owner-driver submissions to the draft of the Contractor Driver Minimum Payments RSRO compared with the mobilisation related to the final order and possible variation as speaking to a gulf in understanding between the tribunal and the owner-driver and small hirer sector.

"I think that really shows the need for this office," she says of the ASBFEO.

"For owner-drivers, for the small businesses and even the small companies with a few trucks, they’re running their businesses.

"They are not in the business of trying to understand reasonably complex government approaches that exist almost in the clouds almost from their perspective – they’re running their businesses.

"How many of those people have expertise in writing submissions?"

Of those having to present their position and give evidence in what is often an alien environment, she says: "It’s incredibly daunting, even for people who do it all the time.

"So for owner-drivers to understand the ramifications early, to be able to write submissions, to be able to turn up, to be able to give [evidence], all of that stuff, is incredibly difficult."

She recognises the mismatch between powerful interests and the mass of often unaligned smaller industry players and believes her office has a role there.

"We’ve got to make sure that the voice of owner-drivers and small businesses in this space is heard, because what it looks like at the moment is that they’re going to get squashed.

Of the smaller hirers, she says: "It looks like they’re going to end up with higher costs and no real capacity for higher income."

Carnell questions the weight the RSRT has given to that part of the industry related to big companies and transport providers.

"The focus on the impact that this decision will have on vast percentage of the industry – eg, the small to medium businesses that are the absolutely majority of the transport industry – seems to have been dramatically underdone, at least from where we sit at the moment," she says.

"That’s certainly something we will be spending a lot more time on.

"Our job here is to advocate on behalf of businesses in Australia, small businesses, family enterprises with less than a 100 employees, and that is a very large percentage of this industry."

She admits to only passing knowledge of the long-haul owner-driver operations specifically but has had exposure to industrial relations and logistics and supply-chain issues, not least as CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), as well  as being National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) executive director.  

Like many, she, the ACCI and her office, formerly the Australian Small Business Commission (ASBC), were only vaguely aware that the RSRO had the potential to provide serious difficulties before the issue blew up at the start of the year.

Her March 17 RSRT submission on the March 16 draft delay variation supports the idea "as the minimum necessary step to mitigate the potentially very serious impact on a large number of small businesses.

"When there is a change in the law or regulatory environment, it is appropriate that there is sufficient time for businesses to transition and mitigate potential negative impacts.

"Generally, the time given to transition should be proportional to the impact of the change.

"The original Order was published, together with reasons, on 18 December 2015. In its current form, the Order is due to take effect on 4 April 2016. This would, in my view, be a very poor result.

"The potential for the original order to negatively impact the income of owner-drivers is a significant change and warrants a transition period that reflects this.  A transition period of less than four months is clearly insufficient for such a change. The Draft Variation proposes an alternative commencement date of 1 January 2017. Taken together with the proposed transitional provisions, this appears to be a significant improvement."

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