Commissioner can make his own running

Federal Small Business Minister Brendan O’Connor has made a really sensible choice in appointing Mark Brennan as Australia’s first Federal Small Business Commissioner.

Brennan is best known as the inaugural Small Business Commissioner of Victoria, which was the first state to create a small business commissioner’s office way back in 2003 under Labor premier Steve Bracks.

Brennan immediately won almost universal praise for the way the office of the Victorian commissioner operated and when state governments across the country created their own small business commissioners in subsequent years many of these offices were based on the systems and processes that Brennan put in place.

The fact that Brennan has experience in establishing a new office also counts in his favour. Clearly, he will be well placed to understand the resources, systems and processes that a new institution needs and this should ensure that the commissioner’s office is up and running quickly and making a real difference.

The challenge for Brennan, of course, is how, when and where he will be able to make that difference.

Unlike the office of the Victorian Small Business Commissioner, Brennan’s new federal position does not have a role in dispute resolution and is instead focused on advocacy – essentially, making sure that the interests of small business is considered in Canberra.

This will involve working with government departments on how policies and regulations impact small businesses, making submissions to government inquiries that canvass small business matters and potentially advocating on behalf of individual businesses that run into some sort of problem with a part of government.

O’Connor also wants the office to act as a “one-stop-shop” for small businesses to get referrals to programs and services for SMEs at all levels of government.

That all sounds good, although one slight concern I would have is that a lot of these aims involve behind-the-scenes tasks which are important but potentially a little invisible.

Hopefully Brennan also emerges as a really strong public face for small business in Canberra.

I think Brendan O’Connor will be keen to see this happen. When he visited the SmartCompany offices a few weeks ago it was clear he has a pretty open mind about how the commissioner’s role could develop and stressed the fact that this is an independent position.

One interesting question is around the longevity of Brennan’s position with an election looming next year. The Coalition has been calling for a national advocacy role, although they want an ombudsman rather than a commissioner, with slightly different powers.

Whether that would mean major changes or tweaks to Brennan’s role is unclear, but it is at least comforting to know there is bipartisan support for a commissioner, even if the name might change slightly.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.


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