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Hockey knows middle Australia’s happiness lies with small business

9 May 2015 No Comment

When John Howard said in 1996 Australians should aspire to feel “comfortable and relaxed, he captured the aspirations of vast swathes of middle Australia. After more than a decade of Labor rule under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, most Australians aspired to such a way of life.

Nearly 20 years later, we as a nation need to work out how we want to feel. Does “comfortable and relaxed capture the aspirations of the modern Australian household in 2015? In many ways, it still does.

In the time since Howard, some things have changed but others have stayed the same. It remains true that most Australians want to be comfortable — in the sense that we should have jobs and opportunities, in the main of our own choosing. Contrariwise, we don’t like to feel forced or coerced into doing many things that we do not wish or want.

It also remains true that most Australians have a desire to be relaxed. We want to know that if a friend or family member falls on tough times, we can be assured that there will be support to help them out. Being relaxed also nicely fits our supposedly laid-back national psyche.

Economically, and personally, we need to be relaxed. This is because Australian households that are stressed do not open their wallets, purchase new assets and stimulate the economy.

But despite some similarities, Australia has changed a lot in two decades. Now, more than ever, most Australians fervently wish to feel confident.

In an important speech in Melbourne to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce recently, Joe Hockey recognised that modern Australia aspires to be confident. He also recognised that all Australians needed a little bit of a “pick-me-up.

In this speech, the Treasurer didn’t whinge or whine. Instead, he took his audience for a virtual trip around the world, then an excursion throughout Australia, pointing out that numerous “green shoots existed in our national economy.

Hockey’s main argument is that, if we all work together, we can nurture and expand key elements in our economy so that all Australians can have a better and more prosperous future.

There are increasing opportunities for Australia. We are living in the fastest growing region in the world. Everyone knows about China. But few realise that, to cater for its rapidly growing population, India needs to build the equivalent of a new city the size of Mumbai every year.

Hockey pointed out that several new cities in Asia could be built with Australian resources, backed by Australian know-how. The leadership class of many of these countries, in many cases, spent their formative days at Australian universities. Few realise or remember that already in Singapore’s short history, two of its presidents received academic qualifications from the University of Adelaide.

Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, a senator from Western Australia, and Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, from the blue-ribbon Melbourne seat of Kooyong, both boast astute political antenna. In concert with Cormann and Frydenberg, Hockey is acutely aware that Australian small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. Indeed, with a record 223,000 company registrations last year, Australians are at last getting back in the business groove after experiencing severe economic and fiscal problems under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments.

Buoyed by three new free trade agreements, there are now millions more middle-class consumers waiting on our doorstep to purchase our goods and our ser­vices. In large part, these are produced by small businesses. But it is important to recognise that not all Australians aspire to owning their own business. To be relaxed, comfortable and confident, numerous Australians can be content with being employees of successful companies — be they large or small. Australians want stable and well-paying jobs for themselves and for their children.

The link that Hockey, Cormann and Frydenberg make between small business and jobs is a powerful one. A strong small business sector leads to more jobs and better employment. This is because in good economic times it is often small businesses that react to the buoyant economic conditions, put on more staff and contribute more to the economy.

Nearly a quarter of a million jobs have been created in the 18 months since the 2013 federal election. Consider the scale of this. It means that a quarter of a million Australian families can put more food on the table because now they experience the dignity of work. This is a powerful mental image because a great many citizens know, or know of, an Australian who has gained a new job sometime in the past 18 months.

Although these statistics are available to anyone, what made Hockey’s speech a standout was he used these statistics to tell a convincing story about the future of Australia.

Much of this came down to his tone and phrasing. For the first time in months, the hitherto beleaguered Treasurer sounded energised and alert — especially when he forecast that, if handled properly, Australia could be on the dawn of a new economic era.

Hockey knows that if he is positive in next week’s crucial federal budget, then the nation’s businesspeople and households will find it easier to be positive themselves.

If Hockey maintains the same optimistic and upbeat tone when he delivers his second budget on Tuesday night, then he may well be on to an economic winner — and a political game changer for himself and Tony Abbott.

However, the Treasurer knows that we need to boost Australia’s finances and that, to achieve much-needed budget inputs, he has to make some tough decisions.

In particular, Hockey needs to work in harness with the industrious Cormann and Frydenberg to take on all corporate, transnational tax avoiders, not just Apple and Google.

As the talented Frydenberg continues to stress, at minimum this means that all profits earned in Australia should be taxed in Australia.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australia, May 9-10, 2015, online

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