Labor’s Cabinet congrats

Labor has finally done it. Ever since Kevin Rudd swept to power in 2007, the Opposition has constantly badgered Labor to put the small business portfolio in Cabinet and thus recognise the importance of the SME community to the nation.

Labor resisted during the reigns of Craig Emerson, Nick Sherry and Mark Arbib, but the latest reshuffle – sparked by last week’s leadership challenge and the sudden departure of Arbib – has seen Brendan O’Connor inserted into Cabinet.

Julia Gillard even made a special mention of the SME sector in her statement announcing the changes.

“Small businesses are central to Australia’s economy and deserve Cabinet-level representation,” the PM said on Friday.

We’re not sure why Gillard suddenly decided to put the small business portfolio ministry in Cabinet – did Kevin Rudd’s specific highlighting of small business during his short leadership campaign spark something? But credit where credit is due: Labor has finally recognised that the engine room of the economy should be a key part of Cabinet discussions on all big issues.

We’re yet to hear too much about O’Connor’s knowledge and experience in the area of small business – we look forward to catching up with the new minister in the coming weeks.

Some SmartCompany readers have expressed concern about the fact he is a former union leader. However, it’s pretty hard not to have a strong union connection as an ALP politician, so we can but hope that O’Connor’s knowledge of the employee point of view will quickly be put second to a clear understanding of the needs and concerns of small business employers.

O’Connor’s previous ministerial roles (including a stint as Minister for Human Services and a period as Minister Assisting for School Education) are quite removed from small business, so he will have a good three to six months ahead of him getting around and meeting the key players to learn about the sector.

That job will be made slightly harder by the fact that O’Connor is also the new Minister for Housing and Homelessness. Presumably he’ll have a long learning curve ahead of him in that portfolio too and housing is another high-pressure, crucial sector.

Frankly it would have been much better to see the new small business minister given one responsibility rather than two – the SME sector is just so eclectic it would appear to require full-time attention. But after seeing Mark Arbib try to handle the small business portfolio in addition to being Minster for Sport and Assistant Treasurer, we’re probably heading in the right direction.

Arbib has left O’Connor with a blank canvas in the small business portfolio – he wasn’t around long enough to make any decisions, so O’Connor won’t have to deal with any legacy issues of unfinished reform or orphaned bits of legislation.

That gives him an opportunity to really make an impact. Red tape, tax reform and improving funding conditions need to be at the top of his agenda.

What else should be on Brendan O’Connor’s agenda? Let us know in the comments below.

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