When Peter Strong reflects on his time as chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), he tells a story of changing attitudes, of a relentless drive to represent people, and of the power of honesty.
In fact, he says one of his proudest achievements, (or, as he prefaces the conversation, the COSBOA team’s achievements) was to show those in power in Canberra and elsewhere that small businesses aren’t just businesses.
“I really don’t think policymakers, the people who wrote the policies, understood small businesses were people,” he says when recalling the environment he faced when he took on the CEO role 11 years ago. “Still people forget that.”
Strong recounts multiple instances of people, including government ministers, telling him a task undertaken by a small business, like paying an employee, “only takes five minutes”. His response was always, ‘well, there are 20 people that need to be paid and you’re telling me it will only take five minutes?’
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Strong confronted this attitude head on, and made sure people understood COSBOA was representing the people who ran small businesses, rather than the businesses themselves.
Change took time, and Strong admits there were challenging moments in those early years, including when COSBOA members held a special meeting to vote out a number of people from the organisation’s board of directors. Part of the change also needed to focus on the fact that not all small businesses are the same.
“They would paint one brush over everyone,” he tells me in the week that he announced his retirement from the chief position.
“We spent a lot of time communicating that owner-drivers are different to those in retail, for example, and to people in the trades,” he says.
His approach of showing politicians and those working for them the realities of running a small business started to work. I recall an earlier conversation about the time he showed an advisor to then-Treasurer Wayne Swan the complexity and time needed to run a payroll at the bookshop he previously ran in Canberra, Smith’s Alternative Bookshop. That conversation helped sowed the seed for what we now know as Single Touch Payroll.
When Strong started in the role, COSBOA was essentially a one-man show. Now, it has a growing team of small business advocates, researchers and communication professionals working for it. It was the logical choice when the federal government was looking for an organisation to oversee its multimillion-dollar Go Local First campaign, as the message around the value of community has been a key focus during Strong’s leadership.
“We small businesses are the backbone of the economy, and so is big business,” says Strong. “But we’re the backbone of community sport. And charities. We’re what makes communities different to others.”
‘Openness is a weapon’
Strong’s advocacy has been fierce, and unflinching. He’s been prepared to call a spade a spade, and take on the very biggest opponents, including at times, other business groups. (For a trip down memory lane, re-watch this iconic video where he raps about those big shopping centre landlords).
It was a conscious decision early on, he says, to be extremely open and honest. This meant talking to all members of the media, spending time with regulators that had previously had a difficult relationship with small businesses, and being prepared to give a federal budget a good rating, even if others weren’t.
“Someone once said to me, ‘you don’t hold any cards close to your chest’, and I took that as a compliment,” says Strong.
“Being really open is a weapon.
“Any group of people are always suspicious about what goes on behind closed doors, as they should be, and I didn’t want to be put in that group.”
In the early days, Strong said there would often be a moment before he delivered a strong opinion on something that he would “take a big breath and think, here I go, let’s see what happens”. But he did so knowing he had the support of the COSBOA board, which knew a stronger voice was needed.
“When I got the job, I said to some of the board members who had been there for quite awhile, ‘I think we failed’. They said: ‘We have failed, there is more red tape than ever, we haven’t succeeded’.”
“I thought, I’m going to act like a union leader. Number one it’s about people, and number two, confront what’s not working,” he says. “And the honesty part of that is really important.”
On an issue like workplace relations, for example, it was important to acknowledge there are “some dodgy employers out there and we don’t like them either”, he says.
His commitment to honesty also meant Strong was always willing to recognise, and celebrate, when those in government or the public service did put the interests of small business first.
“From day one, I decided the other thing I was going to do was, if I’m going to praise something, I’m going to praise hard,” he explains.
This went against the grain of what he calls a ‘formula’ for advocacy that was based on attacks. But Strong regularly praised the Australian public service as “one of the best in the world”, and he said this led to far better engagement from public servants who were always interested in how to do better.
A stronger voice
There will of course always be critics, and although he doesn’t name names, Strong says there was a time when a number of people connected to the Liberal Party who wanted to “bring me to heel”, especially as COSBOA’s voice grew and became stronger.
But COSBOA itself is a non-partisan group and Strong explains the extensive research it conducted to understand both how many voters are self-employed and the policies that matter to small business owners.
The research showed that in any given electorate, 12-20% of voters are self-employed, and based on his 11 years of observations, Strong firmly believes small business owners make up a large group of swinging voters. For some, it comes from a frustration with how governments allow big businesses to make the job of running their small business harder.
COSBOA’s goal then was to get politicians and policymakers from across both aisles to better understand small businesses and the policies that would improve their lives, or vice versa.
“A few budgets ago, the first couple of words that came out of the treasurer’s mouth was small business. When I went back and analysed previous [budget] speeches, small business might have been mentioned twice, but now it is mentioned non-stop,” Strong says.
“Someone asked me, ‘why does that matter?’ Well, if you’re not talking about something, it doesn’t exist.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight
Strong is immensely proud of COSBOA’s work in other areas too, like mental health. Together with advocate Leanne Faulkner, COSBOA has helped ensure small business mental health is given greater priority across the board.
But he is clear there is still a long way to go on key issues affecting small businesses, particularly access to finance and “the big one”, workplace relations.
Strong says he first argued for a dedicated small business award back in 2012 during an address to the National Press Club, and some people have suggested the fact that we are still talking about the merits of the idea almost a decade later shows little progress has been made.
He says it shows change takes time.
“If you expect change to happen overnight, you’re not going to get it,” he says.
“You have to bring people along for the trip, find out why something is needed and what’s stopping it.”
The introduction of unfair contract terms for small business is a case in point, he says. The then-small business minister Bruce Billson introduced a transaction threshold of $100,000 when the provisions were first introduced in 2015, but some in the small business community argued that limit wasn’t good enough — it needed to be much higher.
“I said, ‘yesterday we had nothing, today we have $100,000’,” says Strong. “I would rather have a threshold to argue about than nothing.”
The threshold was lifted to $300,000 soon after, and it is set to lift again to $1 million soon.
“We had to get that first change,” Strong says.“If it were killed off totally, we would have nothing.”
“You have to understand how to do change.”