A Small Business Ombudsman moves closer

The government says it is committed to establishing a Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman “with real power”.

It has now released a discussion paper on establishing such an ombudsman. The Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, said the idea is to establish a single entry-point for small businesses, providing an easy way to find out about services and programs.

The government is looking for input on the scope of the ombudsman’s key responsibilities and how to best provide the role with appropriate powers to deliver benefits to small businesses.

The paper concentrates on the four main functions of the new ombudsman. As part of its key responsibilities, the ombudsman will be a:

  • concierge for dispute resolution. The paper says there are four types of disputes the ombudsman’s own mediation service could focus on. These include small business disputes with: (i) Australian government agencies; (ii) international businesses; (iii) interstate businesses; and also (iv) disputes under Commonwealth industry codes of conduct;
  • Commonwealth-wide advocate for small businesses and family enterprises. This could include concerns from smaller enterprises about their dealings with Australian government agencies (such as the ATO and others) or other businesses;
  • contributor to the development of small business-friendly Commonwealth laws and regulations. The government intends that the new Ombudsman would help ensure that Commonwealth legislation and regulations are small business-friendly, and assist the Australian government in achieving its broader deregulation agenda; and
  • single entry point agency through which Commonwealth assistance and information regarding small business can be accessed. The single entry-point will also provide information to help small businesses manage and avoid disputes.

The discussion paper includes options for the scope of the ombudsman’s functions and powers, and seeks to identify possible areas of duplication, gaps or alignment with services and functions that are delivered through other governments, industry bodies or private providers. 

The government says the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman will extend the activities of the existing Australian Small Business Commissioner to create a more purposeful, empowered and effective role. Providing statutory backing for the ombudsman is designed to help cement the ombudsman’s impartiality and equip it with the tools to effectively receive and deal with small business concerns and disputes.

Some examples of what the new ombudsman may deal with include:

– If a business is unable to resolve a disagreement or is concerned about actions of another business or government agency, there are various informal and formal pathways available if it wants to pursue the matter further. When considering a small business complaint, the ombudsman would need to consider the merit of the matter and the appropriate course of action.

– Where a complaint raises concerns about maladministration by a government body, the Ombudsman would then refer businesses to existing complaint handling bodies such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman or the relevant state-based ombudsman.

– Where a business is seeking to resolve a disagreement with another business or government agency, the ombudsman may undertake preliminary enquiries into the matter before considering an appropriate method to resolve the dispute. The ombudsman may refer the business to existing dispute resolution services, such as those offered by the state small business commissioners.

The government says it is committed that the ombudsman will be supported by legislated powers. Small businesses can be destroyed by disputes, and the intervention by an ombudsman may be one method to prevent this. The ombudsman could be conferred powers to:

  • make administrative decisions;
  • investigate small business disputes, including obtaining information from parties; and
  • compel parties to attend mediation before approaching a tribunal or court.

The single entry-point aspect is expected to provide advice and educational resources to small business. This could include material developed specifically for the single entry-point, but also direct small businesses to information readily available through other government websites and hotlines (like digitalbusiness.gov.au and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch).

Cooperation with non-government organisations, such as industry associations, under agreed publishing guidelines, would allow the rapid development of industry-specific information and educational resources that respond to emerging priorities and issues.

The government is seeking views from all interested parties, including of course SMEs. Comments on the paper are due by May 23, 2014 and details are on the treasury website. This is an excellent opportunity for SMEs to make their views known.


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