Give us a small business minister who cares

It is still not clear to me why Small Business Minister Mark Arbib has stepped down as a government minister and will now leave the Senate.

In a somewhat confusing media conference held yesterday afternoon – in the wake of Julia Gillard’s dramatic drubbing of Kevin Rudd – Arbib first said he was stepping down to allow the party to heal (presumably without one of the key “faceless” men hanging around in the background) and then said he was moving on for family reasons.

Tellingly, small business was not mentioned at the press conference.

Was he asked to move on? Had he just had enough of the pressure of Parliament? It’s not really clear, although Arbib’s announcement (and particularly the timing of it) was a surprise to many of his colleagues.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter why Arbib has gone. What matters is the fact that Labor will now be forced to appoint its fourth small business minister in less than five years, since Kevin Rudd swept to power in late 2007.

Four in five years is bad enough, but it’s the type of person they’ve appointed that is also galling.

First we had Craig Emerson, who was an aggressive small business spokesman while in Opposition and an active minister in the Rudd government, although we certainly didn’t agree with everything he did (or didn’t do, as was the case during the GFC). However, small business always seemed to be a stepping stone for something with a bigger profile for Emerson and so it proved when he received the prized trade portfolio after Gillard’s coup.

Then we had Nick Sherry, who took the portfolio on after being booted out of Cabinet in Gillard’s first ministry in late 2010.

He stepped down after a fairly pedestrian period in the job, sparking a reshuffle that saw Arbib add the small business portfolio to the roles of Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Sport.

Small business, as has so often happened under governments of both persuasions, had been tacked on to the work of an already busy minister. As if to say “don’t worry, there’s not much to this.” Hardly a symbol of an area government takes seriously.

Opposition small business spokesman Bruce Billson has been on the attack over the merry-go-round of small business ministers under Labor, but it should be remembered that the Coalition passed the job around a lot during its reign, including a period in 2001 when there were four small business ministers in a year – Peter Reith, Tony Abbott, Ian Macfarlane and Joe Hockey.  

Let’s hope this time Gillard can find someone to take on the job who actually wants it. Someone who has some connection to small business and understands how entrepreneurs think and what sort of support they need from government. Someone who doesn’t just want to use the portfolio as a pit stop on the way to something better, but actually wants to engage with the sector and get some stuff done.

Actually Julia, I’ve got the perfect candidate – Kevin Rudd. In the last week he’s made a big deal of pursuing tax reform for small business, so he’s presumably interested. He’ll have lots of insights into how entrepreneurs think and what they need, thanks to his wife Therese Rein. And he’s the last person likely to ever use a ministerial portfolio as a stepping stone to something else…

OK, not such a great idea. But let’s hope Gillard can find someone who really wants the job – and will stick with it.


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