FCA chair failed to disclose earnings

Bruce Billson, executive chairman of the Franchise Council of Australia, has apologised to Parliament for failing to disclose earnings of $75,000 for his new role with the lobby group while still a sitting MP.

Billson reportedly emailed the ABC’s current affairs program 7.30, explaining he had contacted the Clerk of the House to apologise for his error.

“[It] was a discourtesy to the House of Representatives and an administrative failing of my behalf not to lodge a timely formal disclosure statement before the parliament was prorogued,” he wrote.

The ABC also indicated that Billson had not disclosed he had been appointed a director of the council on 9 March 2016.

Parliamentary rules demand MPs reveal sources of income and directorships to a register of interests.

In a statement Billson said “There is no basis for inferring my appointment was concealed or not known publicly or within the parliament. No conflict existed between my parliamentary responsibilities or FCA role.

“There were no public policy matters requiring my advocacy on behalf of the franchise community to Government in the two months when I undertook my FCA role in addition to my responsibilities as a Member of Parliament.

“The Government’s intentions to legislate to strengthen vulnerable worker protections were not known or revealed until the 2016 election campaign, when I was no longer a Member of Parliament.”

In a statement backing its executive chairman, the FCA said transparency and integrity marked the former Liberal minister’s appointment to the FCA Board.

“Mr Billson has undertaken this role with enthusiasm and propriety, including in all engagements and advocacy undertaken on behalf of the FCA’s largely SME membership.”

The FCA commended Billson’s “tireless advocacy”, particularly in regard to the impact of the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017.

The spotlight falls on Billson as changes to workplace legislation are set for debate in the Senate today.

Former small business minister Billson has headed up the franchise community response to proposed revisions to workplace law, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017.

“We have argued amendments are required to accommodate the diversity in size, resources and format of Australian franchise business and that if new legal obligations are to be introduced to make franchisors responsible for franchisee-employers properly paying their employees, this new accountability should depend on the franchisor having control or significant influence over this aspect of a franchisee’s business.”

In a letter to FCA members, Billson said the FCA has sought to be constructive and collaborative with the Government and parliamentary processes.

He suggested the Senate recommendation to “embrace a ‘responsibility test’ that focuses on control or significant influence over workplace relations policies and arrangements would alleviate much of the over-reach and regulatory cost”.

However, Billson said there are serious concerns about how a business is identified as a franchise: “the definitions being used by the Government are not that of a ‘franchise agreement’ under the Franchise Code of Conduct but a Corporations Act definition used for the Fair Work Act that is to be used for this new ‘joint employer liability’ purpose,” he said.

“Unlike the Code definition of a franchise agreement, under the Corporations Act there is no requirement for there to be any form of system or marketing plan, or the payment of any amount by the franchisee to the franchisor.

“So the Corporations Act definition of a franchise and therefore the reach of the potential ‘joint employer liability’ will extend to and include commercial relationships where there is the connection between the supply of goods or services and the granting of a right to use a trade mark, design or intellectual property.

“This represents a fundamental recalibration of the circumstances under which a separate business may be held liable for the Fair Work Act contraventions of another business with which they may have commercial dealings but no line of sight over or control/significant influence on the workplace relations practices or arrangements under which the non-compliance arose.”

Billson said the FCA’s intent is to ensure the resulting ‘joint employer liability‘ legislation “recognises what the FCA and franchise community is doing to nurture a culture of compliance” while enabling franchises to encourage small business opportunities, economic growth, investment and employment.