O’Connor’s out: Chris Bowen appointed as government’s sixth small business minister

Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor will step aside from the portfolio, with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen now set to take on the role as part of a shock cabinet shuffle this weekend.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the changes, which were forced by the resignations of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Higher Education Minister Chris Evans.

But business leaders aren’t happy about the result. Both Council of Small Business of Australia chief executive Peter Strong and opposition small business spokesman Bruce Billson have told SmartCompany the change further highlights the volatility of the small business portfolio.

Bowen’s appointment means there has now been six small business ministers under the current government, and four in the last 14 months.

In particular, Strong says he is concerned Bowen will now have to look after both the small business and higher education portfolios.

“People get disappointed that you see so many small business ministers, but the more people I brief about small business the more get it, Brendan O’Connor remains in cabinet and he gets it, so now we will have two people in cabinet who understand small business.”

“The area of concern is it is a big portfolio he has picked up with tertiary education as well.”

Opposition spokesperson Bruce Billson was more direct, arguing “small business deserves more respect”.

“Most of the media reports have cited Chris Bowen’s new role excluding any mention of small business, and the government has tagged on the word “small business” to the role that seems increasingly focused elsewhere.”

Billson also cited recent statistics from the NAB Small Business Survey, arguing negative confidence readings will be affected by yet another change in Federal Parliament.

Bowen was contacted by SmartCompany, but wasn’t available for comment prior to publication.

The cabinet changes have caused a stir, especially during the start of an election year. Both Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon were the third appointees to their respective portfolios since Labor took power in 2007.

It is now expected Communications Minister Stephen Conroy will be elected as Senate Leader today.

Brendan O’Connor will take up the immigration portfolio, while Chris Bowen will take over the portfolios for small business, tertiary education, skills, and science and research.

Bowen, member for the New South Wales seat of McMahon, was elected to the House in the 2004 election. He was appointed shadow assistant treasurer and shadow minister for revenue and competition policy. When Labor took power in 2007, he was appointed assistant treasurer and minister for competition policy and consumer affairs.

In 2009 he became the minister for financial services and superannuation. He spearheaded a number of changes to the financial services sector, including new rules for financial players. He became minister for immigration and citizenship in 2010.

Bowen, who holds a Bachelor of Economics, joined the Labor Party in 1988 and has held several key positions in the party since then.

But Billson argues Bowen has no business experience, which many SMEs believe is crucial to the role. He also says given Bowen is now the fifth small business minister after Craig Emerson, Nick Sherry, Mark Arbib and Brendan O’Connor, he has doubts as to whether the position has been given the respect he feels it deserves.

“It’s one of the reasons why Labor has no plan for small business – because small business is an after-thought to them”, Billson said.

 

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