Small Business Minister Bruce Billson will formally launch his Harper review consultation program with business on Friday and, you guessed it, small business will be the first to air its views.

The minister and departmental boss Ben Dolman will talk through the key sections of the review in a breakfast session, moving from an overview into the key provisions, including section 46, collective bargaining, unconscionable conduct and codes of conduct.

Billson has scheduled the next two months to talk through the report before releasing a broad outline at a CEDA luncheon on July 1.

The minister is hoping to outline some directions in the report but it should be noted that even amendments to the law that pass through federal parliament in ­theory need state approval, so Billson may be limited in just what he can say.

He can give a broad outline of where he would like to go with the report, subject to state approval, which means desired legislative and structural reforms.

On Friday he unveiled state agreements on the new unfair contract provisions, which will bring small business into line with consumer protection provisions.

This makes sense but some in the small business lobby worried that, with the thresholds applied, you have be a very small business to get the protection of the law.

As stated previously, the new provisions only apply to a business employing fewer than 20 people, contracts worth less than $100,000 or multi-year deals worth less than $250,000. This ­effectively rules out most pubs, car dealers, mortgage brokers and newsagents when dealing with key suppliers.

The issue intended to be addressed is whether a supplier has all the rights to vary and even withdraw the contract on its own terms.

The list of small company complaints runs long, from limiting the customer’s rights to sue the supplier to permitting the supplier — not the customer — to vary contract terms, and terms to demand access to other business accounts.

The concerns can be addressed; it’s just that the new laws give small business better access to the law.

In his meeting with small business representatives on Friday Billson will also talk through recommendations for planning and zoning laws, retail trading hours, product standards and taxis.

The Harper review included some 600 submissions in its draft report and included extensive consultation, which the government is extending with its own ­review.

Any change that requires a legislative amendment in theory needs state approval, but this doesn’t stop Billson coming to his own view and stating he would like to, say, amend section 46 along the suggested lines.

This is the best we can hope for come July 1, when he is due to unveil his plans.

Importantly in laying down his views at least Billson is committing to change before the report gets lost in next year’s pre-election confusion.

Stationery on the move

The ACCC is looking at the impact in Australia of the proposed $US6.3 billion ($8.1 billion) merger between the biggest and second-biggest US stationery retailers — Staples and Office Depot.

In Australia the merger mainly affects the commercial market, with Staples controlling office supplier Corporate Express and Office Depot the big education supplier, Office Max.

The Wesfarmers-controlled Office­works dominates the Australian retail market for office ­supplies.

Officeworks’ competitive decision is interesting, given it could argue against its main competitors getting bigger, but like most companies would also see the benefits of a virtual duopoly.

Given the Staples and Office Depot chains are No 1 and 2 in the US, the US regulator’s decision will centre on the rival stores provided by online retailer Amazon and Wal-Mart.

The US authorities had previously blocked Staples merging with Office Max, which was followed by Office Depot then acquiring Office Max.

The Australian competition regulator’s decision is likely to follow that in the US.

Asciano future bright

Asciano boss John Mullen confirmed the company was on track to boost earnings growth by more than 5 per cent and, importantly, free cashflow by even more.

Capex this year is tipped to be about $65m, down from $264.3m last half and on the final legs of a $1.5bn revamp of the business.

The good news, then, is the port and logistics firm is set to rapidly boost free cashflow from the $60m posted last half and has flagged an increase in dividends on the back of the increased free cash.

Asciano boss John Mullen has made clear he is committed to keeping the rail and port assets under the one roof, which perhaps explains why he tires of being asked just when the mooted China Merchants deal will happen.

No time soon, is the answer, and the focus is more on boosting the existing business with deals like the ACFS port logistics joint venture.

If Asciano is a proxy for the rest of the economy there is reason for some confidence, even if the intermodal division was slightly weaker than expected.

This was mainly due to weak steel shipments and Mullen maintained freight forwarder volumes remained high, which tells you that outside the commodity end of the economy there are signs of life.

Asciano has just finished automating its Port Botany container operations and it seems market share gains will follow, with container growth in the last quarter up 3.6 per cent against industry volume up 2.8 per cent.

It early days yet but right now, even with coal volumes down 2 per cent, there is plenty to be bullish about at Asciano.

Building diversity

Just as the Australian Institute for Company Directors ramps up its campaign for 30 per cent female representation on company boards, a couple of high-profile men have quit their day jobs in search of board seats.

ANZ’s Phil Chronican and Telstra’s Robert Nason on paper would make fine directors, but they fall squarely into the median range, being close to 60 years old and a white former executive/professional.

This column has an issue with board diversity being not just an issue of having more women on boards but more professional and ethnic variation.

The trouble with single interest quotas is they risk destroying selection on merit.

That is the danger for the likes of AICD pushing set targets even on safe ground like 30 per cent women, when its role should be about improving the quality of boards and their relations with the market so more people understand just what they do.

The latest ACSI figures show the number of women on boards has increased from 11 per cent in 2008 to just under 20 per cent in 2013, so the numbers have jumped rapidly, while still well short of parity or even 30 per cent.

Corporate Australia is littered with notables, who, for a variety of reasons, have not served on boards when their experience suggests they would be ideal.

Toll founder Paul Little is a notable example; one suspects the risk/reward ratio just wasn’t right.

Not everyone is suited to being a director, which is why some argue the best model is to get guns for hire as board advisers.

Extracted in full from The Australian.

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