11 April 2023

The ACT Government and small business are like cheese and chalk

| Peter Strong
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Canberra Centre entrance

Is the government more interested in big business than small-scale enterprises? Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The relationship between the ACT Government (basically the Labor Party, The Greens and UnionsACT) isn’t awful and also isn’t great.

Many ACT Government regulators are OK. Some aren’t. Some local regulators, a minority, to be sure, can be very bolshy and abusive of small business people and their employees.

The main issue is that many advisers to the politicians aren’t fans of small business and will kowtow to the likes of the Canberra Centre and other big landlords and developers. They believe they’ll never get the small business vote and don’t need it anyway.

Here are some examples of interactions between small businesses and the ACT Government.

When the Canberra Centre expanded in 2010, I attended the opening event run by the Chief Minister. I told one of his advisers that this wasn’t good for the small businesses outside the Canberra Centre. She replied, “but Garema Place had died and needed to be revitalised”.

When I pointed out that the owners of the Canberra Centre had purchased most of the shops in the area and had made the rent so high that it meant the shops were empty and the whole area struggled, she didn’t want to know, didn’t answer and walked off.

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At the same time, many car parks on the west side of Northbourne Avenue were being closed and the car park under the Canberra Centre was expanded. When I questioned this, as my shop was on the west side, the bureaucrat said, “if your business is any good, people will walk there from the Canberra Centre”.

Arrogance, ignorance, aloofness and ideological dislike of business folk are traits of too many advisers.

Next, when the government started building the light rail, they decided to close the law courts car park and use it for equipment storage and as parking for the workers who were building the rail.

When the businesses in the Melbourne Building (opposite the law courts car park) objected and said that would be the end of their businesses, an ACT bureaucrat told them, “but when the light rail is finished, the station will be right next to your building, and you’ll make a motza”.

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An ACT bureaucrat who had never run a business and didn’t ever want to run a business told the business operators, many of whom ran successful long-term businesses that they would make a motza – as though they were stupid.

One of the business people asked, “when will you finish building the light rail?” The answer? “In four years.” The bureaucrat seriously thought that these businesses could weather four years of significant decreases in customers with the resulting decrease in income and work for their employees. To be so ignorant and dismissive is not OK.

Then we have the secret agreement, a signed agreement in around 2009, between the ACT Government and UnionsACT where union representatives were given access to all confidential ‘commercial in confidence’ tenders submitted for government contracts by private businesses.

When questioned, the government said, “it wasn’t a secret, it is just that no one knew about it”‘. Non-public servants answerable to no one had access to confidential business information and those businesses did not know it was happening.

The ACT Government, in the main, has no real regard for the small business folk of their jurisdiction. They don’t hate small business folk, they just don’t value them.

These are the small business people who contribute to the treasury coffers, provide jobs, make our suburban shopping centres interesting, make places like Lonsdale Street fascinating, and sponsor sports teams all over Canberra.

Now if the Canberra Liberals can show they aren’t in the pocket of big business, like Labor is in the pockets of the unions, then we might get somewhere. Maybe.

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I’d be willing to wager a bet that Mr Strong has taken considerable artistic licence in his telling of the various the government responses, in keeping with his long term ‘advocacy’ for small business against the evils of government. This article should be renamed “I’ll take ‘Things That Never Happened’ For 500 Bucks, Alex.”

HiddenDragon8:27 pm 11 Apr 23

Some of the unhelpful attitudes described in this article are likely to be a product of what is a very Canberra phenomenon – i.e. the smug entitlement of people who are the products of multi-generation public sector families and whose work and life experience (aside, perhaps, from less-than-fondly-remembered student jobs) is centred around involvement in and uninterrupted support from taxpayer funded and subsidised programs and activities.

Unlike people who rely on business, and particularly small business, for a living, the question is never “how do we make the money?” – or more acutely “have we made wages today/this week?” – it is “what will we spend it on?”.

If there’s not quite enough money (and there never is), it’s always someone else’s fault – typically those contemptible politicians from less enlightened parts of the country who lack the vision to spend even more money in Canberra. It is never ever the fault of the in-bred self-government elites who have done such a lazy, mediocre job of making the most of Canberra’s many advantages.

Thankyou for your article Peter. It confirms my 20+ years experience in dealing with the ACT government as both a small business and as a resident. So frustrating that I’ve disengaged, but dealing with the Feds is no better.

Many of these issues have been brought up at each and every election. The answer is always “it would be worse under the liberals”.

Canberra chooses to ignore these and suffers a run down CBD with no atmosphere which they then have to fund the city renewal authority to fix.

However the miss management still exists.

Most ACT local government runs like a union. You’d struggle to find someone hired based on merit that wasn’t a union stooge.

ChrisinTurner1:28 pm 11 Apr 23

Does anyone know why the Post Office was evicted from the Canberra Centre?

The reactions of the ACT government people is spot-on, they’re amazing. You get it right across ACT government, especially from the more senior people.

They seem to work in rooms without windows, full of like-minded people, having circular conversations unpolluted by views from outside the room.

Arrogant, and completely devoid of any actual experience or knowledge.

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