THE Federal minister for Small Business, Brendan O'Connor, met with a small group of local business owners in Queanbeyan on Tuesday morning to reassure them that economic confidence was starting to return following the Global Financial Crisis.
"If anyone thinks we got through the Global Financial Crisis unscathed, they're kidding themselves. What we did is we got through it better than anyone else in the developed world," Mr O'Connor said.
"But we certainly took a hit in a number of ways, and one of them is consumer confidence. People look to Europe and the United States, and they think 'geez, if they can have ghost towns in America, and if they can have queues around the block for unemployment benefits in Europe, and 30 per cent unemployment in Spain, and Greece almost fall off the edge of a cliff economically, then what can happen here?"
The minister and local member Mike Kelly held the forum to discuss the state of small business - a sector that employs some 5 million people across Australia - with local business owners.
Representatives from Queanbeyan's retail, hospitality, tourism and service industries raised concerns with the minister including the impact of weekend and public holiday penalty rates on business, managing GST-related paperwork, difficulties securing credit from banks, and the general decline in retail and hospitality spending post GFC.
Australian Car Wash Association president Greg Cummins was one of several people who raised the issue of wages.
"One of the issues we have in our industry is the pay rates and weekend pay rates are astronomical. It's making it very difficult to trade," Mr Cummins said.
"We work 24-7, and having kids on the weekends on $30 an hour, which is just getting ridiculous for the work they actually have to do.
"Being able to negotiate on those wage levels is something that we haven't been able to do ... you're paying two and a half times on a Sunday, and even three times on a public holiday, and it's just getting ridiculous as far as trying to keep the doors open," he said.
Minister O'Connor said it was a concern he was hearing from small business owners across the country, and that Fair Work Australia was currently reviewing the two biggest retail and hospitality awards in Australia as a result of concerns over penalty rates.
He also said consumer confidence was starting to turn around following the GFC, but that some consumers were more focused on paying back debt and cutting their discretionary spending.
"Business confidence has been soft, because consumers have not been spending that discretionary money like they used to.
"So it's not like we don't have the money. What's happened is that we now have the lowest household debt for many a year, because people are literally paying off their debt.
"But I think we are now seeing the upturn in consumer confidence. The indicators I'm getting through Treasury show it's starting to build ... but as to when people are going to start spending again, I think it's going to be a slow uptake," he said.
Minister O'Connor pointed to $1.7-billion of federal tax breaks for small business paid for by the Mineral Resources Rent Tax (MRRT) and the pledged return to budget surplus as signs of the Government's commitment to small business.