Bruce Billson says the passion for “energising enterprise” still runs through his veins and he has plans to elevate the profile of small businesses across the entire Commonwealth, starting right now.
As of today, Billson takes up the role of Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, a position he himself created when serving as the nation’s small business minister.
He succeeds Kate Carnell, who spent her five years in the role pushing for change across a wide scope of areas for small businesses, from insolvency reform and access to finance, to payment times and mental health resources.
In his first media interview as Ombudsman, Billson pays tribute to the “outstanding” work of Carnell, who he says has laid an “exceptional foundation” for him.
Borrowing some of his well-known catchphrases from his time as small business minister, Billson says he will use his energy and enthusiasm to help make Australia the “best place to start and grow a business”.
His immediate focus will be supporting the small business community as it continues to navigate the massive economic shocks of the pandemic.
“There’s clearly some segments of the community that have turned the corner, and others have navigated the constrained economy quite well. But there are a significant number still feeling the impact,” Billson tells SmartCompany from Canberra.
In part, this is due to changes in consumer behaviour that are being felt across the country, from Melbourne’s CBD to far-north Queensland, he says.
This presents significant challenges to SMEs, which will form some of his top priorities as Ombudsman.
Access to finance is one of those challenges, says Billson, despite some encouraging signs in the rate of business loans increasing.
“There’s still a lot of businesses that are uncertain about what the post-pandemic economy looks like, and they’re not sure how solid the ground is that they are working on in order to pursue finance,” he explains.
He also acknowledges the progress Carnell made in the area of payment times, but says for some businesses, late payments are still “punishing”.
Improving government procurement processes for small businesses is also on the agenda, as is work around unfair contract terms — an area he also focused on as small business minister.
“There’s no shortage of things to do,” he says.
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And while Billson says the Ombudsman’s office can’t ensure any one business is successful, he says he see’s the office’s role as enabling businesses to “be their best selves”.
“Where we see headwinds or obstacles that don’t need to be there, our advocacy becomes more important,” he says.
He wants to see all government departments and agencies work with his office whenever one of their policies or programs affects small and family businesses, essentially lifting the status of this section of the business community.
“We can help make government policy and programs better by sharing the outstanding field evidence we collect everyday from the enterprising women and men of Australia,” he says.
Billson also intends to take a collaborative and constructive approach to working with members of the government, some of whom are his former colleagues, and says his track record as small business minister shows that he’s not a “combative, spear thrower”.
“My approach to my former calling as an elected member was always the contribution I could make to the country, not who I could take out,” he says.
“I worked collaboratively and effective across both sides of the political spectrum and across government, at both federal and state levels.”
Franchising in focus
Many in the SME community will be interested to see what position Billson takes on franchising reform, given his previous involvement with the Franchise Council of Australia.
A private members bill that would introduce an arbitration mechanism, via ASBFEO, to franchising disputes is currently being considered by Parliament.
The same bill would also increase fines for exploitative franchisors from $133,000 to $10 million.
The recommendations come from a wide-ranging inquiry into the franchising sector, which, to date, the government has not acted on.
Billson says his time with Franchise Council gave him important insight into how the sector operates, and he’s always taken the view that “successful franchising is built on successful franchisees”.
“Franchising done well is an outstanding model for entrepreneurship,” he says.
He says his “colours are well known” in this area, and his work with the Franchise Council was predominately with smaller franchise operations, where the franchisor is itself an SME.
“The really big brands are big enough and ugly enough to fight their own fights,” he adds.
Commenting on the proposed reforms, Billson says there are some “good ideas floating around” and he is “pleased” at how receptive the government has been to those ideas.