COSBOA’s Peter Strong: This year we learnt that in a crisis, we must consult and consult often

Peter-Strong

COSBOA chief Peter Strong. Source: supplied.

Every year since 2010 we have published a ‘year in review’ from COSBOA. This year is obviously somewhat of a special year and a challenge to review. 

The year started off with bushfires and then COVID came and tried to take control.

As a result, the nation stood up and did what was needed and so far (there is no end yet) we have excelled, and indeed overachieved. From a health perspective Australia is better placed than most other countries and certainly better placed than any other country in the top 20 economies.

There are many people to acknowledge for this very positive situation. Firstly, it’s the health workers, other frontline workers, and business people in essential services in particular who have carried the nation on their backs.

We also need to congratulate our political leaders, business association leaders, the federal and state public sectors, the small business community and the general population. 

None of them, or us, were perfect. We all made mistakes and made predictions that were wrong or way out of kilter. But we were facing something we had never faced before.

We needed to come together, and we did. The need to cooperate, to meet and discuss, to identify problems and issues, to seek comment and opinion from others was paramount. We also saw the great majority of people show tolerance and forbearance as needed. Our society had some people who denied the crisis or thought the rest of us were overreacting, but they thankfully did not have much influence.

Our politicians

Our political leaders stood up and did what was necessary. Have no doubt there were some bad and costly mistakes along the way; we didn’t agree with all they did or how they did it, but we got where we needed to be.

We may have made fun of the names JobKeeper and JobSeeker but they saved businesses, jobs, people’s mental health, and were a major contributing factor to the economy faring better than it might have been. 

Our industry leaders

The great majority of industry associations delivered — their leaders and staff and directors did what was required.

They met constantly, were always available to discuss policy and process, kept in constant touch with their members, developed industry specific safety plans, provided essential information to small business people, offered help lines, and worked effortlessly with government and government agencies, with other industry associations and with health officials.

We learnt just how important industry and their associations are to the welfare of the country.

Interactions with the public sector

The federal public service performed exceptionally well. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and the Fair Work Commission in particular stood up splendidly when needed. The success of JobKeeper and other programs was due to the partnerships between industry association leaders working with these government agencies and with the federal Treasury. (This list does exclude, notably, Safe Work Australia, which failed in the key area of communications).

The other group that contributed in a big way to JobKeeper were the developers and providers of accounting software. Well done, you lot. Without the local software industry we would be worse off and have fewer businesses and jobs.

The NSW public service and government were a stand-out when it came to consultation. We met weekly with their Treasury officials for many months, as well as with NSW health officers and their chief economist. These senior bureaucrats swapped information with industry association leaders and we discussed the best ways to communicate and engage with business people, employees and consumers. The NSW health strategies were explained to us so that we understood why certain actions were taking place; we could then explain that to our small business members.

We added value to the NSW approach, and they added to our knowledge and understanding. As a result, that state and its businesses are in a much better place than they might have been.

The Victorian public service and politicians achieved success eventually, but if they had consulted in the same way as NSW they would have achieved success faster and would be much better off in the long run. It must be noted that the state with the worst health outcome is the state with the worst consultation process. 

The other states built their responses mainly on border closures and solid quarantine management. Let’s hope their tracing and health systems are not tested by a second wave.

Michaelia Cash Peter Strong Pru Goward David Alcorn Go Local First

COSBOA’s Peter Strong with Go Local First Champion Pru Goward, Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash and David Alcorn, owner of Mocan and Green Grout Café in Canberra. Source: supplied.

Consultation was key to managing the crisis

Small business people know well the value of consultation in a crisis. For our part, we held video meetings of COSBOA members and stakeholders every week for some six months and then fortnightly up till the year’s end. These meetings were well attended and became compelling for everyone. This is where we shared information, confronted and dealt with confusion, and prepared for another week of change and COVID.

The meetings were regularly attended by senior representatives from the ATO, the FWO, federal Treasury, the Australian Bankers Association and various political offices of all sides. Kate Carnell, our Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, also attended regularly, as did her staff. We had presentations from Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash, as well as the likes of Josh Frydenberg, Anthony Albanese, Jacqui Lambie and the Australian Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan. 

We released a communique after most of the weekly meetings. A review of these communiques shows at the beginning of the COVID crisis we were focused on the health impacts of the virus itself, and then as time progressed and we saw the results of good health management, we started focusing on the economy. Eight of the communiques included the word ‘recovery’ in the heading, and we certainly developed a good range of papers and recommendations for the road to recovery.

Other major themes in the meetings were workplace relations and the confusion it caused; access to finance (particularly for financing the first JobKeeper payments and being able to afford commercial rent); mental health; inconsistencies between state, federal and local management of the crisis; and how best to give small business owners the assistance and advice they need to recover. 

Without a doubt the biggest lesson was that in a crisis we must consult, and consult often. We must be inclusive in that consultation.

As a result of what we have learned, we can now focus on specific industry sectors and develop actions that can take place at the local community level to manage unemployment, and to provide the necessary training and skills for workers and businesses, as well as developing value-adding businesses and our manufacturing base. It is imperative to build upon what we have learnt and manage the negative effects, while constructing positive outcomes with export development and, where necessary or possible, import replacement. 

It’s many economies that make up the Australian economy

This crisis isn’t over yet. But we know that we must work together and we must go local, act local, and understand local to take advantage of the relatively positive position we are in. There are many more economic challenges to come as we deal with emerging issues, such as a belligerent China or the potential re-emergence of laissez-faire economics.

Australia is not one economy – we are hundreds of small economies that come together to form a national story. Let’s work in those smaller economies, in communities, then the whole economy will be in a better position to deal with change and future crises.

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