Awhi lobbying firm founder Holly Bennett (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao)

Comment: When it comes to politics in Aotearoa New Zealand there is no phrase more meaningless than “small business is the backbone of the economy”.

If you are a small business owner, work within a small business, or shop at a small business (so, 99 percent of us) then stick with me while I make the case for this increasingly vacuous political trope.

I am one of those small business owners. After stints in my early years selling home-made bean bags in the playground and lemonade from the front lawn, I founded my first business at the end of 2017 with just $300.

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I had moved on from working as a political advisor in the Beehive and was deciding on the next steps to take in my career. Living in Kirikiriroa, I was doing pro-bono work, helping organisations better understand the ins and outs of political engagement. It was a conversation with my Pāpā who said “you should turn this into a business.”

I said, “That’s weird.” And he replied: “It’s weird you think that’s weird.” And just like that, I went all in on backing myself.

Starting a business is the best decision I have ever made for myself. Others must agree: MBIE says we have 592,704 businesses in Aotearoa New Zealand. Of those, the vast majority are small businesses. 425,952 have no employees – that’s 72 percent of all businesses.

Eighteen percent of businesses (105,543) have one to five employees. Just 1 percent of our businesses employee 50 or more people.

Numbers of NZ business, by staff employed

The now defunct Small Business Council produced a report in 2019 outlining the difficulty in creating one single definition or description for small business, however our business discourse tends to define a small business as one with fewer than 20 employees – this represents 97 percent of all businesses in our country.

So if you thought that this would provide a priority audience for meaningful election policy, once upon a time you would have been right.

But not in Election 2023, it seems.

As a small business owner myself, I am under no illusion that the success of my business comes from the strength and commitment of my kaimahi, and therefore, to support our collective success, I care (a lot) about the shape and form of small business policy.

Moving from a cushy $90,000 salary to $0 per week, every week, for the foreseeable future was tough. It didn’t take long for me to burn through that $300 start-up investment.

But I became extremely savvy: I learnt how to do (much) more with (much) less. It is this that I look for in small business policy. Every successful small business out there will tell you how they get really good at creating seemingly impossible solutions from nothing.

Sadly, 36 days out from election day and there is no political party that is really invoking that entrepreneurial spirit: how can we get the government books back in the black by doing things (much!) differently?

If Election 2023 was to be the election for small business you’re left wanting. Only one political party currently in Parliament has released a dedicated small business policy: the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The policy platform, found at part 6 of their Sustainable Business Policy, sets four key focus areas for small business, including making compliance easier and improving access to capital. Whether they can achieve this is another question entirely.

The Labour Party makes mention of small business once – in the context of digital programmes already underway; the National Party’s Dealing with inflation plan mentions Labour more times than it mentions business.

Meanwhile, further across the political horizon, you have a hodgepodge of tax, inflation and economic policies from the other four parties that scream ‘we have no focused ideas to help small business’.

I’ve backlinked the remaining four political party policies reviewed at the time of writing below, and provided one key takeaway about each for you to keep in mind:

● in their 11 page Economic priorities plan, the Labour Party makes mention of small business once – in the context of digital programmes already underway;
● the National Party’s Dealing with inflation plan mentions Labour more times than it mentions business;
● the Act Party Red Tape plan, which proposes to revolutionise productivity and workers wages, makes no mention of business, only the creation of another minister, another ministry and a new piece of legislation;
● the 2023 Tax Policy from Te Pāti Māori details no aspiration for pakihi (business) or pakihi Māori, instead proposing a company tax increase from 28 percent to 33 percent.

So coming back to the politics of it all.

In 2017, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver showed – in just 30 seconds – just how fickle the phrase, “small business is the backbone of the economy” in politics can be.

It is said so often by politicians that I get the feeling it would be easy to create a homegrown version of that video, perhaps with the odd substitution for "lifeblood" or "pillar" of the economy.

YouTube video

Small businesses employ 693,100 people, which is 29 percent of the country's workforce, and contribute over a quarter of New Zealand’s gross domestic product.

Like every other ministerial portfolio, the Minister for Small Business is responsible for championing initiatives across government that benefit small businesses, which means every government has a role to play in supporting small business.

For me, policy means a plan, a plan provides direction, and direction means progress.

Day in, day out, small business owners make plans to ensure their businesses don’t end up becoming another statistic. If the line “small business is the backbone of the economy” carries as much weight as the frequency with which it is said, why is Election 2023 so light on small business policy?

Hopefully a big dose of meaningful small business policy is incoming – because we don’t need a quarter of the economy placed on life support post October 14.

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