Celebrating the first anniversary of Australia’s small business ombudsman

Royal Commission

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell. Source: Supplied.

The Office of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) is 12 months old. It actually turned one on 11 March but due to the shenanigans around penalty rates we have not been able to celebrate this significant occasion until now.

The Council of Small Business of Australia and its members worked for some 30 years fighting to get an ombudsman for 99% of businesses who between them provide income and lifestyle for over 6.5 million people and their families. It was just over 12 months ago that we finally got what was needed.

Finally, an ombudsman for small business people.

So, are we happy? The reality is it has only been 12 months since Kate Carnell was appointed to the job and some would say this is too short a time to make judgment. But no, we can say we are indeed happy — very happy.

In the time the Ombudsman’s office has existed we have seen many positive outcomes of having an independent ombudsman with real power to confront small business issues from within government.

One major outcome is we have a point of contact for small business people who have a problem with government agencies or processes or have an issue with other businesses and need assistance and advice.  This valuable access to support should not be underestimated; it is vital for individuals stressed and on the edge. This service sits in virtual partnership with the state small business commissioners that are found in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. What a great network.

The ASBFEO has dealt with broad issues that have been compellingly important for the small business person. Let me at this stage acknowledge that Kate Carnell and her staff have focused on small business as people — a major difference from the way economists and regulators have for years treated small business as smaller versions of big business which we certainly are not. Every small business is a person, or maybe two people, doing their own thing, and often employing people. It’s not a company run by a bevy of experts and a well remunerated board of management.

The matters confronted by the ASBFEO have included some key issues.

The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (the RSRT) was a problem needing to be fixed. The RSRT had changed from a body looking to create safer roads to one that was destroying owner operators in the transport sector across Australia. There were many organisations and politicians involved in fixing this problem and a key part of the process was the involvement of Kate Carnell in gathering information and providing a report to government. Facts to back our advocacy.

Australia has a disturbing culture of late payments from big business to small business. We have the worst record in developed economies. The ASBFEO with COSBOA has confronted this issue. Again Kate Carnell and her team are seeking facts and figures to support industry advocacy. If we can get a reasonable payment time on invoices from small business not only will individual stress be managed better, but the economy will be better off due to more cash flowing through businesses and more jobs coming from better business practices.

The battle around competition policy and the introduction of an effects test in Section 46 of the relevant Act has been long and bloody. Since the inception of the ASBFEO, we have had a voice inside government presenting facts and figures free of accusations of rhetoric or poor knowledge of policy. Big business interests have finally been met, challenged from within the system, and sent on their way.

The banking system in Australia has copped a worthy belting over the last few years and what the ASBFEO has been able to do through its own inquiry is focus on the needs of small business. There have been too many individuals that have suffered through no fault of their own from the poor practices and poor communications found in our very large (too large) banks. The ASBFEO inquiry has created a focus on small business that could not have been done solely by industry bodies.

When the 10 year anniversary of the ASBFEO is celebrated I hope to get an invite to the celebrations because we know if this office does last through the long term politics of big versus small and employers versus unions then our economy will be better off.  Thanks to Kate and the team for the first year and I hope that they also get an invite to the 10th birthday bash in 2027, unless of course Kate and all or some of her staff are still there, in which case I fully expect an even bigger party!

Peter Strong is the chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia

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