Where is the economy heading in the ACT?
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Where is the economy heading in the ACT?

Is Canberra a city/state run by big businesses and big unions? It appears we are heading that way.

Any small niche economy, like Canberra, needs to be diverse and as broad-based as possible to deal with change and create new opportunities for a growing population.

In the not too distant past the Canberra economy was all about the federal public service and the businesses that serviced the departments and provided for the public sector employees.

Then things started to change as the population grew and businesses started to expand. The Howard government public sector reform and down-sizing of the 1990s created the urgent need to become a more diverse economy.

We now have more than half our workforce employed by the private sector and, in partnership with Queanbeyan, we have become a hub of technology and innovation.

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Businesses also make up the culture of Canberra and its many parts. Businesses in other communities also define its culture. Goulburn is different from Dubbo is different from Bateman's Bay and some of that is due to climate and location and much is due to the business people who drive those smaller economies. It is the same with Lyneham and Kingston, Ainslie and Hughes, Civic and Weston Creek. They are different but can we keep it that way?

So what is going on in Canberra where it appears the business community will be narrowed and innovation and competition stifled. This will impact on growth, jobs, diversity and on our culture.

The government has already shown it does not want to support local businesses in the construction industry. It has a deal with large businesses and the construction union that will force locals out of the mix of contractors or into the membership of the union. The unions have started a media campaign to discredit the safety practices of local businesses that are not unionised. This is so big businesses will only use union labour and import other labour it needs. This is not about safety, Canberra or business and is all about cronyism. The ads are falsely branded as 'community service announcement' when they are actually paid advertisements.

The government is also considering increasing liquor licensing fees for off-licence businesses which will favour big retailers and could drive small suburban supermarkets out of the market place. This could remove the final vestige of retail diversity in our community. Is this a favour to the retail union, the far right wing SDA?

Already in the world of supermarkets we see that the domination of the business partners of the SDA – Coles, Bunnings and Woolworths – is almost complete. The few remaining Superbarn stores will not provide real choice for most consumers who will end up having nowhere to shop but Coles and Woolworths with their industry-destroying generic brands and limited choice.

The proposal to increase the liquor licensing fees has no outcome except to create bigger market share for the big two retailers through their liquor outlets First Choice and Dan Murphy. We will then be a city of big malls with their dungeon-like car parks and their retail predictability.

The rationale for changing the licensing fees is supposedly driven by a need to limit alcohol-related violence. The information that will inform this decision is based on studies of Geelong and Newcastle, which do not stand as fair comparisons to the Canberra market. The proposed increases have not been supported by the advisory group set up by the government and are not supported by the Victims of Crime group, who know the outcomes and causes of violence.

So why is the government intent on making a decision that fails the test of consultation and favours big retailers? Similar to their infamous secret MOU with UnionsACT

The smaller supermarkets we find in the suburbs of Canberra will be hard hit. Yet these are places that largely sell wine and service an older local population, not the 18-30 age group that is the main base for alcohol-related problems. Suburban families having a wine with dinner is not a problem.

The big outlets are where the younger group go to buy the large bottles of spirits that can create problems. The troublesome few in the younger generation who may 'fuel up' before they go out will get their spirits from big retailers.

The fees being proposed are also higher than in NSW. Dan Murphy in Queanbeyan will pay lower fees than a small supermarket in Tuggeranong. Why is that?

Why does the government seem intent to force out small businesses in construction and retail? Why is it important that unions have the final say on what happens in our society? Why has the government turned its back on the very liquor advisory group they set up?

What is happening is the Labor government have turned on the majority of people in the business community to the benefit of a few big retailers, some big unions, a few big construction companies and an extra $200k to the budget coffers.

Furthermore, we have more public holidays than any other jurisdiction, how does than help the business community? How does that add to community? Does the government and unions hope to keep power and keep the Canberra citizens under control with big gaudy shops, train sets and holidays? Is this Orwell in action?

It is obvious Labor cannot resist the pressure from the unions. Can the Liberal Party resist the pressure from the associated big businesses? Someone has to stand up and be counted for the Canberra economy, for local businesses and for our culture. Anyone?

Peter Strong is CEO of the Council of Small Business Australia

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