Australia to get a small business commissioner, but what will they do?

In the space of a few weeks, Australian small businesses have seen a small business minister appointed to Cabinet, the announcement of a federal small business commissioner and the likelihood of a tax cut from July.

Not a bad run for a sector that often feels overshadowed by big business.

The Gillard Government says the new commissioner will be named this year, with an office to be established in 2013.

The role is designed to:

  • work with Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor;
  • take up individual cases for small business with relevant government agencies;
  • provide a ‘one stop shop’ for small business services and information, and
  • provide referral to dispute resolution services.

So how will it work?

Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, says the small business minister, Brendan O’Connor, will represent small business in policy development, while the commissioner will go to government agencies and assess policy impacts on small business.

With small business commissioners already in place in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales, Strong says he hopes the federal commissioner will work with state counterparts on an “equal footing”.

“The federal commissioner is not getting involved in any state activities. They’d meet to exchange ideas and what might be good models.”

He also hopes the federal small business commissioner’s work will influence the work of COAG, speeding up harmonisation of state and federal laws.

Frank Zumbo, academic and deputy small business commissioner for South Australia, also welcomed news of a federal small business commissioner.

Zumbo says the federal commissioner will complement state commissioners and provide a “practical and effective way” to help small businesses, particularly for disputes between small business and federal Government agencies.

But he cautions that the inaugural commissioner needs “real teeth”.

“A federal small business commissioner needs to be backed by effective legislation and we look forward to the Federal Government outlining the details of the legislative framework under which the federal small business commissioner will operate.”

The Franchise Council, meanwhile, said the proposed commissioner’s stated focus on cutting red tape and eliminating state-national overlap was welcomed, but the council was wary of more bureaucracy for no good reason.

“Differing state laws simply add to complexity and compliance cost. It is good to see the Federal Government acknowledging this at a time when its Labor counterparts in SA and WA seem bent on the opposite, at least in terms of franchising regulation,” FCA executive director Steve Wright said, referring to state-based franchising legislation introduced in the two states.

“Hopefully, the dispute resolution element of the new national small business commissioner office will help assure Labor in WA and SA that they do not need to go down a separatist path, creating an additional state-based regulatory burden for franchise businesses.”

The Coalition, however, says the Labor government has once again pilfered Coalition small business policies by first promoting the small business minister to Cabinet-level and then creating the position of federal small business commissioner.

Shadow small business minister Bruce Billson says the Coalition’s idea for a small business and family enterprise ombudsman was designed to mediate commercial disputes that state commissioners couldn’t address.

“The aim is to facilitate a quick and cost-effective resolution that enables the commercial relationship to be maintained and get people back to the business of their business,” Federal MP Billson said in a speech last week to COSBOA.

“Where the complaint is genuinely about anti-competitive conduct, the Ombudsman can assist the aggrieved small business in preparing a brief of evidence and an account of efforts to resolve the matter that will accompany the transfer of the case to the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] where it can exercise its lawful jurisdiction.”

He says the Ombudsman could also support mediation and dispute resolution under existing mandatory codes where there was no confidence in the objectivity and effectiveness of industry-sponsored mediators.

Billson also called on the Government to “genuinely listen to the concern of the sector and dump this toxic carbon tax” and heed small business concerns on the Fair Work Act.

Other Coalition promises include:

  • Improving small business access to finance;
  • Making it easier for SMEs to bid for government contracts;
  • Protecting independent contractors;
  • Having a direct voice on the Board of Taxation;
  • Reducing regulation (the Coalition has committed to cutting $1 billion in red-tape in its first year in office);
  • Ensuring government pays its bills to small business on time;
  • Enabling small business to opt-out of paying paid parental leave to staff;
  • Conducting a root and branch review of competition policy;
  • Extending unfair contract terms protections to small businesses;
  • Giving small business a voice on key bodies such as the Reserve Bank; and
  • Having the ATO distribute employer-funded superannuation contributions.

More detail was sought from Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor’s office on the small business commissioner’s role but it was not available before publication.

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