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Australian government's fambiz "conversation" interrupted by elections

An Australian white paper examining the role of family businesses in the national economy could be forgotten in the wake of national elections this year, a family business expert says.

An Australian white paper examining the role of family businesses in the national economy could be forgotten in the wake of national elections this year, a family business expert says.

The report, Family Business in Australia – Different and Significant, published in March, was the result of months of research by a parliamentary joint committee aiming to quantify the contribution of family businesses to the economy and to assess the challenges they face.

According to polls, the current Labour-led government, which commissioned the 250-page document, is set to lose the September elections. Parliament is currently in the last week of its current session.

Philippa Taylor, chief executive of advocacy group Family Business Australia (FBA), said: "I have no confidence that this report will have a positive outcome without serious lobbying from us."

"I am in two minds about pushing for action resulting from the inquiry at this point; the political atmosphere here is toxic and both parties are becoming increasingly bitter. I fear that if Labour takes this up and runs with it, it will be poison to the incoming government, and there is little doubt the Liberals will be incoming," she explained.

The report was partly prompted by the actions of the FBA, which realised the Australian government had no interest in seeing the family business sector as distinct from the small business sector, regardless of their size.

The FBA's cause was supported by Liberal senator Sue Boyce – from a family business background herself – which helped to get the report commissioned.

The report stated its purpose was "to further the conversation with the government about family business issues that this inquiry has started".

Alone, Taylor reckoned, the report didn't spell significant changes for Australian family business, but it was important in that the government recognised its understanding of family businesses was "nascent" and had taken steps to redress its ignorance.

It could have paved the way for new legislation to foster family business, and it recommended 21 different issues – such as succession planning, shareholder structure and access to finance – that were worthy of further attention from the legislature.

Despite the support of Boyce, Taylor was unconvinced the Liberal party would be any more committed to family businesses should they be elected.

"I have asked the Liberal Party to say what it will do for family business, but so far, have had no commitment," she said. 

The FBA had been lobbying for greater recognition for family businesses for some time – for example, aiming to have a designated family business minister instated. 

But, Taylor said, while past governments have made steps towards recognising family business, this has failed to translate into policy changes.

Taylor cited Australia's 50-shareholder rule as an example. In Australia, business with more than 50 shareholders are forced to report as non-listed public companies, and incur the related accounting an auditing cost which could be punitive for family businesses with many family shareholders. 

Four years ago the senate held an inquiry to look at changing the rule to 100 shareholders, but it was never enacted by parliament, according to Taylor.   

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