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Exclusive: First interview with new ACCC small business commissioner

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The official announcement that Michael Schaper was to step into the newly created role of deputy commissioner (small business) for the ACCC was made last Friday. Today, already at his Canberra desk, Schaper will have his work cut out for him.

The official announcement that Michael Schaper was to step into the newly created role of deputy commissioner (small business) for the ACCC was made last Friday. Today, already at his Canberra desk, Schaper will have his work cut out for him.

There is a widely held perception in Australia that there is an unlevel playing field, tilted largely in favour of big business. Many small business owners feel they do not get enough protection from big business bullies. And some feel that the ACCC and the politicians have failed them.

As the economy worsens and large companies get more aggressive, this perception could grow. But in his first interview, Schaper will not be drawn on playing fields or the unfair behaviour of large companies.

But he does tell SmartCompany that he won’t be pushing immediately for more regulation, although he will be looking at the big picture and the regulatory framework as part of his role. “The trade practices law is a constantly evolving creature that is very different to the one put in place 30 years ago,” he says. “While we have to work out what’s next, we don’t want to create a society that is so full of rules and regulations that it kills the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Schaper is an academic, who was previously the dean of Murdoch University Business School. He has also been a business owner, run a community-based SME support agency, and was previously ACT Small Business Commissioner until the role was scrapped prematurely.

When SmartCompany broke the news several weeks ago that Schaper had been appointed to the role, some critics immediately complained that the role needed an enforcer, not an educator.

He also sees himself as an advocate of small business. “Entrepreneurs face a constant challenge to see that the rest of the community understands their needs and aspirations. The community needs to understand what it means to be a small business. What are their concerns? But we also need to make sure that while we are sensitive to small business, we mix that with the competing needs of other businesses.”

Schaper also sees part of his job as educating politicians. Schaper is seen as having Labor party connections, having been ministerial adviser to John Dawkins in the Hawke government. He knows that small business is not a natural constituency for Labor.

Last year he wrote in SmartCompany that only two parties (the Liberals and Nationals) have any real level of SME exposure, while Labor and the Greens have very few. “This makes it easy for the conservative side of politics to take the SME sector for granted, while encouraging left-of-centre parties to ignore small business because it’s perceived as a natural conservative constituency,” he said at the time.

He has now changed his tune. “The Government has made it very clear in the lead up to the election that it was important for the ACCC to take into account the concerns of small business.”

But he also points out that the role is more extensive than just looking after the interests of small business. “Like the consumer role, it is not just focused on consumer interests, however those interests are taken into account when decisions are made.”

Schaper says that John Martin, who is a current ACCC commissioner-small business, will continue in the role.

So how does Schaper get on with Graeme Samuel, who has just been reappointed for three years?

“He is back for three years which is great,” Schaper says. “He certainly shows a great interest in the sector and has been along to every COSBOA meeting and many other functions. He is making a real effort to understand the sector.”

 

Read more on Michael Schaper and the ACCC

 

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