Liberal leader Peter Dutton delivered his budget reply on Thursday, slamming the federal government over its push towards renewables and its tabled industrial relations bill.
When it came to the budget itself, there wasn’t a great deal in there for startups and small businesses. Similarly, Peter Dutton’s budget reply speech sorely lacked a focus on business. The vast majority of the reply pointed towards a “missed opportunity” to help Australians in need and most of the relevant points for businesses were tangential.
However, there were some important points mentioned about Labor’s industrial relations bill, energy prices and childcare subsidies that will all affect SMEs.
Here are six key takeaways for business owners from the budget reply.
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1. Energy prices
One of the key points in Peter Dutton’s reply was on energy prices, particularly regarding Labor’s failed election promise to cut household energy costs by $275, as well as what the opposition leader said was the budget papers’ “reckless rush” push towards renewable energy.
Labor’s budget papers warned that energy prices would dramatically rise over the next two years — 44% for gas and 56% for electricity.
One renewable measure included in the budget papers was $62.6 million over three years for SMEs to fund energy efficient equipment upgrades. “The funding will support studies, planning, equipment and facility upgrade projects that will improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions or improve the management of power demand,” the budget papers read.
Dutton stated that while the Liberal party believes renewable sources of energy and environmental protection is important, Australia does not yet have the technology to scale or provide stable renewable energy during peak usage periods and at night.
“‘Firming-up’ means using coal, gas, hydro, hydrogen, nuclear or batteries as an energy source or to store power when renewables aren’t feeding the system. But Labor is going to phase out coal and gas before the new technology has been developed and rolled out,” Dutton said.
Dutton also narrated an example of how these increases could affect small businesses.
“Kel runs a multi-generational family-owned IGA supermarket in Mapleton, Queensland. He negotiated a commercial and industrial energy contract when the Coalition was in government and power prices were much lower than they are now. Today, Kel’s business is threatened as he faces an increase of $160,000 dollars on the power bill from last year,” Dutton said.
The opposition leader also pointed towards energy pricing pressure and rationing in Europe. While he didn’t ignore the part the war in Ukraine is playing, he also argued part of the issue is the move by these countries to renewable energy.
“Governments in several countries in recent years have made catastrophic energy decisions – they have turned off the secure supply of electricity and gas before the technology and system are ready for more renewable energy,” Dutton said.
“Despite those warnings and lessons, this Labor government is following in the footsteps of those countries.”
Dutton also took aim at the cost of Labor’s rewiring the nation policy that would result in “hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars” spent on rolling-out poles and high transmission wires in towns and suburbs, meaning regions and farms would be “carpeted.”
“Every dollar spent on new transmission lines will be paid for by consumers through higher electricity bills.”
2. Dutton goes nuclear
Rather than spending money on renewables, Dutton pushed for the nuclear option as a solution for cheaper power supply, as well as saving Australian manufacturing and jobs.
“As the Australian Workers’ Union noted, struggling manufacturers will be forced to move their operations offshore. Should that occur, there will be no net benefit to the global environment. Only a net loss of Australian jobs, income and sovereign capabilities,” Dutton said.
“Meanwhile, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the US are all investing in next generation, zero-emission nuclear Small Modular Reactors. They are doing this to shore-up energy security and to meet their zero emissions targets.”
While Dutton’s criticism of Labor’s $275 household energy bills promise is a fair comment, it’s worth remembering that Labor inherited the current energy crisis — as well as a narrative that they caused it. Let’s not forget that Angus Taylor pledged that energy bills would drop by a quarter back in 2019 and for electricity prices to be $70 per megawatt by 2021.
Further to that, the Morrison government delayed releasing the Australian Energy Regulator’s Default Market Offer (DMO), which was due in March. Instead, it released it on May 26, three days after Anthony Albanese was sworn in.
3. Industrial relations reform bill
Dutton also took issue with Labor’s new industrial relations reform bill, which was tabled on Thursday. The long-awaited bill will allow the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to adjudicate over flexible work disputes, cap rolling fixed-term contracts and provide a system for multi-employer bargaining.
If passed, the bill will allow these changes to be enacted across all businesses across the country, including SMEs.
Under the bill, the FWC will be able to intervene for employees during deadlocked negotiations and “make a variety of orders, including that the employer grant the request for flexible work arrangements, or make other changes to accommodate the employee’s circumstances”.
The bill would also prevent employers from offering more than two consecutive fixed-term contracts for the same role, in an aim to push for permanent employee status and benefits.
The expansion of multi-employer bargaining proposed in the bill would also enable workers from similar companies to negotiate and expand enterprise bargaining agreements, which often isn’t possible for small businesses.
“Increasing the accessibility of collective bargaining promotes the right to enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work by enabling employees to leverage the collective power of multi-employer bargaining to secure safe, healthy and fair working conditions,” the bill reads.
The Liberal party has taken issue with the proposed reforms, saying the changes would result in ‘one size fits all’ workplace conditions and increase the power of unions.
“Australians were hoping that this budget would help to lift productivity. Instead, Labor’s changes to multi-employer bargaining threaten to undermine productivity and will be a throwback to the 1980s,” Dutton said.
“Where union ultimatums are not met, however unreasonable, multiple sectors will be able to engage in crippling economy-wide strikes, where parties unaffected by disputes join in on protests.”
Dutton went on to argue that when unions pushed industry-wide strikes in 1982 it resulted in unemployment reaching 9.4%, inflation at 12.4% and the loss of 2 million working days due to industrial disputes.
4. Childcare subsidies
However, Dutton isn’t against everything handed down in the budget papers, confirming the Coalition’s support for the government’s proposed changes to childcare subsidies.
The budget provides for $4.7 billion to be invested into early childhood education subsidises over four years.
“From July 2023, Child Care Subsidy rates will increase up to 90 per cent for eligible families earning less than $530,000. Families will continue to receive existing higher subsidy rates of up to 95 per cent for any additional children in care aged 5 and under,” the budget papers read.
The government estimates the reforms will increase the hours worked by women with young children to 1.4 million per week in 2023-24. According to the government, this is the equivalent of an extra 37,00 full time workers.
“The Coalition has always been a strong supporter of choice. And that’s why we supported increased access to childcare for working families,” Dutton said in his budget reply.
However, no mention was made in the reply regarding the extensions to the Paid Parental Leave Scheme outlined in the budget.
When asked about this in an RN Breakfast interview on Friday morning, Dutton offered some support before loosely tying it to the Liberal’s issues with the proposed industrial relations bill.
“I think that’s reasonable… but we’re just going to be careful about what’s happening in the industrial relations space at the moment. We’re up against other countries that don’t have the industrial relations system that Labor’s about to introduce that’s a throwback to the 1980s,” he replied.
5. Dutton spruiks the Super Home Buyer Scheme
The opposition leader also used his budget response to recommit the Coalition’s push for the Super Home Buyer Scheme. Under this scheme, Australians would be able to access their super for the purpose of buying a home.
“Today, it’s much harder for young people to afford their first house – even with hard work, sacrifice and saving,” Dutton said.
“Currently, a super fund can be used to buy a residential or commercial rental property. To buy shares or even livestock. In fact, it can be used to buy almost any asset class except a home to live in. Taking money out of super before retirement is a bad investment decision, unless you put the money back in before retirement.”
Dutton went onto state that a Coalition government would also allow women “who separate later in life” to access this option.
“Your super is your money. This government thinks it’s their money – something we have seen in this budget. They want your super to invest in someone else’s home – not your own.”
Dutton also took aim at the budget’s promise to put $10 million towards building 1 million additional homes over five years.
“The Government’s initiative has no detail. It isn’t realistic. It’s Kevin Rudd-esque in design,” Dutton claimed.
6. Jobs for pensioners and veterans
Dutton also doubled down on the Age and Veteran Service Pension Work Bonus Scheme, which the Coalition proposed back in June.
Under this scheme, pension payments would be doubled from $300 to $600 dollars per fortnight, or to $1,200 dollars for couples.
“Across the economy, employers are crying out for workers. It’s a policy to allow older Australians and veterans to work more, if they choose to do so, without losing their pension payment,” Dutton said.
“It not only fills job vacancies, but helps older Australians and veterans to supplement their fixed incomes and to deal with Labor’s 56% increase in electricity prices.
“Right now, more incentive is required to get people to work – not less – and to mobilise a ready workforce.”