Do you know who the Prime Minister is? How about the Opposition Leader?
If you couldn’t answer those questions without the help of Google, you’re not alone. A new survey of Australian small-business owners by accounting software provider Xero has found, despite being in the middle of a fiery election campaign, 15% of SME owners don’t know who the Prime Minister is.
A further 20% don’t know who the Opposition Leader is, and a massive 75% couldn’t name the Small and Family Business Minister if asked.
While Michaelia Cash (the small business minister) might not be a household name, small-business owners not knowing the who Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten are just 10 days away from an election is worrying, with some believing it could lead to SMEs making a poorly informed choice on polling day.
Small business disenfranchised
Carlia Ashton, the founder of eco-friendly beauty brand ONNE, says she views herself as politically savvy. Ashton was easily able to name all three politicians.
However, she admits her knowledge of politics doesn’t necessarily extend into the world of small-business policy, saying she’s concerned about broader issues, such as climate change.
“My brand’s very environmentally conscious, so my focus lies there rather than with small-business policy more broadly. I haven’t really followed any of the new small-business announcements,” she says.
“I think there are a lot of issues bigger than small business.”
Stephanie Oley is the head of creative agency The Offices, and a self-described “ignorant small-business owner”. She tells SmartCompany she was a fan of Turnbull, but feels like she’s in between a rock and a hard place, with “colourless” Morrison on one side, and “crazy idealist” Shorten on the other.
She’s a member of many business organisations in inner-western Sydney, but says she hasn’t seen one politician attend any of the meetings or gatherings all year, something she believes would go a long way towards getting SME owners engaged and informed about policies.
“People like Michaelia Cash and other politicians who want to get the small-business vote should headline these events. It’s a huge missed opportunity,” she says.
The lack of engagement from small business is the effect of a lack of engagement from politicians themselves, says Oley, who believes platforms and policies should come before “sniping and cutting down” political opponents in media interviews.
“They should be focusing on all the exciting things they’re planning to bring to their electorates. They should be attending events, going on social media, doing the occasional paid ad,” she says.
“They need to bring trust back, and do something that makes it clear what they stand for.”
Oley also believes many policies are failing to pass the time-honoured “pub test”, which in turn is contributing to the disenfranchisement of small-business owner voters.
However, the survey found while business owners might not be able to name key politicians, they were involved with the issues affecting the business community more broadly, such as tax cuts and energy prices.
Almost 50% of those surveyed felt the sector was being overlooked by both sides of politics, and 47% stated they would be considering minor parties come polling day. Two out of five small-business owners surveyed said they only “somewhat understand” the differences in policy between Labor and the Coalition.
Keeping it local
Ashton thinks the ongoing disenfranchisement in politics from the small-business community is “definitely” a problem, and in part blames the short government terms.
“We’re always changing governments as we only have short, three-year terms. That means there’s so much to follow, and the parties put these promises out, and we either eventually get them or we don’t,” she says.
“We’re disenfranchised because we’re not engaged. If we had longer-term governments, more people would be engaged. With mandatory voting, we have more risk of people casting their vote without being educated.”
Ashton is also concerned about the groundswell of support from small-business owners for minor parties, saying while refusing to vote for the two major parties is valid, preference deals from smaller parties and independents can mean your vote can flow in ways you might not be satisfied with.
Oley also raises some concerns around this, saying business owners often “think they’re sticking their finger up” at larger parties, but believes smaller parties gaining power only serves to undermine and reduce the authority of the major party that inevitably forms government.
According to Xero’s head of industry, Matthew Prouse, there are a number of policies announced in the election campaign which will, directly and indirectly, affect small-business owners, and believes there is a “critical” need for more engagement from politicians.
“With almost one in two small businesses saying their needs had not received enough attention in the election campaign to date, and some even unable to name the Prime Minister, it’s clear there is a critical need for engagement between politicians and the more than two million small-business owners, who employ five million Australians,” Prouse said in a statement.
Ashton agrees, saying local members should make it clear to their constituents that they can pick up the phone and chat to them.
“I think a lot of business owners think they can’t just call their local member, but you really can. Local politicians need to make it clear they’re here to talk,” he says.
“My husband runs a business and speaks regularly to his local member. With so many industries dealing with so much red tape, I think we need to talk local.”