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Exclusive: Small business field officers on the budget chopping block

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Labor’s budget razor gang is set to slash funding for a network of 65 mobile small business advisers based across regional Australia.

Small business field officers provide entrepreneurs in rural and regional areas with face-to-face advice on matters including starting a new business, keeping financial records, exporting, and how to access Government programs.

The role performed by the officers is even recognised on the Government’s own AusIndustry website, which says they provide “a vital resource for the many small businesses who want to know where and how to access relevant information”.

It has emerged that Labor will not continue funding for the $7.5 million program, with Small Business Minister Craig Emerson’s office this morning confirming the scheme will be cut.

A spokesman for Emerson’s office denied the decision is a blow to regional small business and says resources such as the 130-branch Business Enterprise Centres providing an adequate source of business advice.

But opposition small business spokesman Steven Ciobo says the BECs, while competent, do not have the reach into regional areas that the small business officers do.

“This is an example of the Rudd Labor Government ripping the carpet out from under Australia’s small businesses, especially in the regions,” Ciobo says. “This is a real centralisation of support for small businesses from a Government that is quickly developing form as being metro-focused. States like NSW will probably be reasonably well served, but in most other parts of Australia local small business can say goodbye for the level of support they have been receiving.”

While Business Entreprise Centres are located in some regional areas, the reach of the small business officers was much more extensive.

For example, business owners in Alice Springs, who previously had access to their own small business field officer, will need to travel hundreds of kilometres to Darwin to receive face-to-face advice.

Former small business minister Fran Bailey, who increased funding for the program, also slammed the decision. “This is an absolute catastrophy,” Bailey says.

Tony Steven, chief executive of small business peak body the Council of Small Business of Australia, says the decision is disappointing. “Anecdotal evidence suggests they are providing business support, much needed in Australia, to many businesses in locations where it would not otherwise be available,” Steven says.

While there is a huge amount of business information available online, small business field officers were recognised as providing a valuable face-to-face service that helped business owners in remote locations keep in touch with the business community and the latest business trends.

A small business field officer who spoke to SmartCompany said he did not believe the service he and his colleagues provide could be properly delivered remotely or over the web.

“Nearly everything we do is face-to-face – it’s far better face-to-face than speaking to someone you can’t see, and I think we do a good job,” he says.

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