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Meet our small business commissioners: but will they be able to help you?

features-commissioners-200aThe pieces of the jigsaw are finally coming together.

State small business commissioners are proliferating, and the Federal Government has seen the light by putting the small business minister in Cabinet, while also confirming that Australia will have its first-ever federal small business commissioner.

New Federal Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor hints that feedback from the small business community spurred the decisions and that they augured well for future Government decisions.

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“I think these two decisions are about responding to the matters that have been raised by the small business sector with the Federal Government.

“And I guess that bodes well for future decisions; it means we’re sensitive to their issues.”

Victoria led the way with a small business commissioner established in 2003, and South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales have now followed suit, establishing commissioners over the past few months.

Their tasks are broadly to resolve disputes between companies and government agencies, and advise the states on small business issues and red tape.

These business commissioners met recently for the first time, along with Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Michael Schaper, and have pledged to meet every few months.

Victorian small business commissioner Geoff Browne says the federal role “completes the picture for a focused view on small business across the nation”.

Western Australia’s new small business commissioner David Eaton also welcomes the news of a federal commissioner, saying it will assist with cross-jurisdictional issues such as franchising.

“Having a Commonwealth commissioner that’s a conduit into the Fed Government and ensures that policy and legislation has been assessed in terms of impact on the sector has got to be beneficial,” he adds.

NSW Small Business Commissioner Yasmin King says the commissioners see a lot of “coal-face complaints” and are “able to see what the policy failures are.”

“I see a real opportunity for procedural reform to happen from that group,” she says.

But some questions remain.

Will the federal small business commissioner have real teeth? How will the commissioner interact with its state counterparts? And is a recent decision by the cash-strapped NSW Government to cut small business programs a sign of things to come?

As Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, puts it: there might be improved “architecture” for small business these days, but with state and federal budgets under pressure, funds will be tightly contested.

Acting South Australian small business commissioner Frank Zumbo concurs.

“In all the states, there’s been a rejigging of programs, money moved from program A to B,” says Zumbo, who is also an Associate Professor in Business Law from the University of New South Wales.

“And, in all cases, everyone’s on a very tight budget. The question is how to use scarce government resources.”

Modest budgets aside, Zumbo says the commissioners will have their work cut out for them.

“It’s clear there’s a pent-up need for a small business commissioner in South Australia,” Zumbo says. In fact, Zumbo says he’s already consulted with the NSW commissioner on a franchising dispute between a SA-based franchisee and NSW-based franchisor.

Changes at the coalface 

These small business commissioners might be good news for the sector, but let’s not think the cup runneth over.

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NSW Trade & Investment – a NSW Government business development agency - this month controversially said it would scrap small business events programs and shut five small business offices, one in Sydney and four in regional towns.

The small business events programs included Small Business September, MicroBiz Week, the Young Entrepreneurs Program and the Women in Business mentoring program.

At the time, NSW Small Business Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said the decision was based on feedback from small business that training and networking opportunities didn’t provide the practical advice and assistance they were seeking. Instead, the budget for advisory services has been doubled to $5 million, with emphasis on “meaningful” advice rather than infrastructure and seminars.

NSW small business commissioner Yasmin King, who met with about 500 businesses after her appointment last year, says the cuts are designed to “do one thing and do it well” rather than run a series of minor programs.

“The agency had had a strong view about ‘touching’ lots of people, going out and engaging with ‘X’ amount of people, but they couldn’t see what that had achieved,” King says.

“And, from an event perspective, it was clear that many organisations do the same events as the agency, and there wouldn’t be a vacuum if they were stopped.”

“The feedback from businesses was also they didn’t have the time and what they really valued was face-to-face business advice.”

King says her discussions with small businesses across the state revealed that many felt neglected, and didn’t know where to turn with queries.

“They’re in information overload. Governments have tended to think that putting every piece of information out there means there’s a duty fulfilled, without thinking what that means for a time-poor business,” she says.

King says by directing business to the right area or actually being able to resolve an issue on their behalf, she’ll be able to play her part in stopping the “run-around” that so many small businesses despise.

Start-up versus established businesses – who gets the funding? 

When it comes to funding, acting SA small business commissioner Frank Zumbo says there’s also tension between providing programs that assist start-ups versus programs for established small businesses.

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“At the start-up phase, they’re excited and just want to start, and often they won’t access programs that are useful,” Zumbo says.

“You have to question how many franchisees and small businesses actually access these programs.”

“But when inevitably there’s a dispute in their relationships, they go looking [for help], either from the ACCC or a small business commissioner or an MP.” The competition watchdog is unable to provide dispute resolution services.

“The problem is, in a dispute context, there are typically few places for small business to go, so I can understand why government is moving towards dispute resolution models.”

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