Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (19:01): I rise to speak on this motion moved by the member for Dunkley. I think the only thing we agree on is acknowledging the start date of the system; everything after that is in dispute. The only thing he has got right is that we commence the register from 28 May last year. It has come into being as a result of an agreement between levels of government, states and territories, through our COAG commitment for a seamless national economy. Under the intergovernmental agreement that arose out of the 2008 COAG national partnership agreement, the states referred the necessary powers to the Commonwealth to enable us to establish the national system for the registration of business names. I completely reject the member for Dunkley’s characterisation of the national register as being a failure, which he suggested in a media release mid last month. Sure, any new system has to find its feet, but it will get better and better over the course of time. There will be problems at the start of a scheme, but that does not necessarily mean that the entire system is judged by its early days. For instance, where a business is required to register in more than one jurisdiction, the register has reduced the cost. To register a business name in all eight states and territories, we have reduced the cost from $1,000 to $70. For a small business, that is nothing to be sneezed at. That is a significant reduction in those costs. It has also proven a much more convenient system for businesses than the paper based registration system.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission operates the national register and has reported that since it commenced close to a third of business name registrations have occurred after business hours, reflecting the convenience of the new online service, particularly for small business. It allows them to focus on their core business instead of going through the process of these registrations. That certainly has the potential to benefit the more than 8,000 businesses that operate throughout the electorate of Chifley. ASIC, for example, has received over 300,000 applications for a business name since the national register commenced a little over a year ago. Since October last year, it has issued over 530,000 renewal notices to businesses whose registrations were due to expire on or after 28 May 2012. Although the vast majority of businesses have used the benefits of the new online national register without significant issue, admittedly there have been some that have experienced difficulties accessing the website, contacting ASIC and renewing business names.
These system constraints would, no doubt, have been the source of a great deal of frustration for people attempting to register their business names, but ASIC has taken steps to address those issues, particularly around congestion and call wait times. It is worth noting that they have added 150 phone lines in the call centre and have recruited additional staff to respond to those inquiries. Those measures have succeeded in dealing with the volume of calls, which has been much higher than initially forecast. That, in itself, is a reflection of the fact that this has been embraced so widely by small business. People have wanted to avail themselves of the service and it has been a lot more popular than people originally intended.
ASIC also reports that almost no customers are having their calls blocked at the exchange. Last week there was only one identified. This means that almost all business-name customers are having their calls queued and then answered. Average call times in February this year, for example, were reported to be around the 30-minute mark, but are now down to 5½ minutes. That is a significant reduction.
In last month’s federal budget the government allocated $7.8 million to ASIC for further improvements to the client contact centre specifically to service business name registrations. Of that allocation, $1.6 million is earmarked for capital costs. So this will let ASIC upgrade its telephone infrastructure over the next two years, and that will help achieve a target of 60 per cent of calls answered in 300 seconds.
The member for Dunkley has raised concerns about the privacy of some small business owners, particularly those who operate businesses from home. Certainly, privacy concerns should always be taken absolutely seriously. The privacy issue arises from the online registration system not necessarily permitting the customer to use a post office box as a registered address of the business. I understand, from what I have seen, that since the issue first came to the issue of ASIC, they have worked closely with Treasury to examine the feasibility and the legal standing of a number of options to address the concerns of home based businesses, a lot more of which will be able to open up as the NBN rolls out and allows a lot more flexibility for businesses operating from premises at home.
I am advised that the Treasury and ASIC have now agreed upon a preferred option and that ASIC is developing the IT changes that are needed to roll out that solution. And while we wait for this measure to take effect ASIC has also undertaken to address concerns by allowing customers to change their address to a postal address, which is a good move. The interim measure will not occur automatically; rather, it will happen when the customer raises concerns with the call centre, which will allow them to make that choice. On top of this, ASIC will review its escalated complaints, where these concerns have previously been raised, and will invite businesses to change their address to a postal service.
This government’s reform of business name registration was aimed squarely at making it easier for business to operate across the country. We were particularly concerned that this reform would reduce the regulatory burden of small business. I do not accept the member for Dunkley’s assertion that only the coalition cares for small business. From day one this government has focused its tax reform agenda on assisting business, particularly small business. As a Labor government we are unapologetic about keeping people working and about supporting jobs. I certainly note for the chamber some of these small business-focused tax reforms—for instance increasing the small business instant asset write-off from $1,000 to $6,500. We also introduced accelerated initial deduction for motor vehicles costing $6,500 or more, and the government has announced its intention to introduce loss carry-back, allowing companies to carry-back up to $1 million worth of losses to get a refund on tax paid in the previous year.
It is particularly worth noting that—in an environment where businesses that might have an outward focus are affected by the strength of the Australian dollar—allowing businesses to restructure is an important measure. Lifting the tax-free threshold from $6,000 to $18,200 on 1 July last year benefited small businesses, particularly in terms of the people they employ.
I also note the government’s support for small business advocacy. I am particularly proud of the fact—and I would like to have it recorded here—that we were able to support the Greater Western Sydney Business Enterprise Centre, who are providing services for businesses all over western Sydney. In particular I note the work of David Baumgarten and people in the BEC who are providing support for small businesses in the Chifley electorate.
We were able to support them with over $200,000 of assistance which, funnily enough, was cut by the state government.
The state government of New South Wales, which professes concern for New South Wales small businesses, cut the funding available to this type of advisory and advocacy outfits, and we had to step in and provide the assistance. When this was brought forward to the then Minister for Small Business, Brendan O’Connor, he was able to ensure that we could provide funding support for small businesses in our area that want advice on the best way to start a small business, to grow a small business and to take a small business to the next level through a whole range of different strategies. I have seen some of the work on the ground through what he has achieved and certainly commend the BEC for their work.
An opposition member interjecting—
Mr HUSIC: That is the type of practical assistance that is provided through this government at times where your coalition friends at the state level have not been entirely helpful, and it is worth pointing that out to the chamber.
Admittedly, with a system like this—a national system that is replacing state-based systems—there will be teething problems, there is no doubt about that. But when you see what has been done in terms of correcting them and, importantly, what has been done to reduce the cost on small business—as I said before, reducing the cost from $1,000 for registration to $70—this is something that small business welcomes. They welcome the reduction of the regulatory burden on them. This has been a positive move welcomed by a lot of small businesses, and will definitely be welcomed in the long term as well.