Recent positive and constructive announcements from the federal Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and others shows a change in the environment for small business and increased understanding of who we are, what we need and how to provide support.
This new environment hasn’t just occurred overnight; it has come as a result of the special support positions, linchpins, for small business people built up around Australia over the last decade. These linchpins have been built up slowly but remain in place despite the constant attacks from those who do not want ‘interference’ with their dominant position and who are threatened by fairness and transparency.
One of the pioneers and a constant pillar of fairness and support for small business, the current federal Small Business Commissioner Mark Brennan, will hopefully soon be appointed as the first small business ombudsman at the national level. This is a position that COSBOA has called for since our inception in 1977 and now Billson will finally bring this to fruition.
Bruce Billson has been a stand-out performer for the Abbott government. His focus on reviewing competition policy, creating fairness in contracts between big and small business, developing a framework for assessing the behaviour of regulators, bringing in a franchise code, developing a supermarket code and placing major recognition of small business in the budget, all achieved in a relatively short time, shows why we need his ilk in Parliament and particularly in the cabinet room at the top table. COSBOA called for a dedicated small business minister in cabinet in 1977 and we partly achieved that in 2010 and in now in Billson we have a strong, knowledgeable and informed incumbent.
Mark Brennan has been a ‘go to’ on small business issues since 2002 when he was appointed as the first small business commissioner at the state level in Victoria, a position which became the model for the small business commissioners in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia. Brennan also became the first federal small business commissioner and would bring that trailblazing experience to the newer national role of Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. One of Brennan’s great skills is to bring warring parties together and get a fair result for all concerned without recourse to law courts and judges.
We also have in place four small business commissioners in Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia and have a deputy chairman of the ACCC, Dr Michael Schaper, who is designated as the “small business commissioner”. This position was initiated by the Howard government, supported by the Gillard government, and has been well received by the small business community.
The incumbents of these linchpin positions have proven themselves time and time again and also proven the need to provide the positions with increased power. Interestingly, the profit margins of landlords, Coles and Woolworths and the big banks have not decreased as a result of these positions but many still don’t like the fact that a small business person can access expert advice, quality information and professional assistance at a reasonable cost.
The enemies of fairness? The Shopping Centre Council in particular likes to throw its weight around and attack and question the skills and motivation of the people in these positions. Last year the council attacked the Victorian Small Business Commissioner, a person of the highest integrity and skillset, for just doing his job; council members have questioned the role of the ACCC deputy chairman and questioned why that position exists and they have generally agitated against other commissioners and policymakers.
They have argued against increased protection for small businesses from unfair contracts with the biggest landlords – what do they fear? If there is no unfairness there is nothing to worry about. Billson recently announced proposed changes to contracts between big and small business and this will, of course, be fought tooth and dollar by the landlords and others whose business models are based on unfairness and unfettered power instead of fact in negotiations.
For our part, COSBOA will be working to have the thresholds for unfair terms to be considered raised to an amount that includes the leases of the biggest landlords. Why should they be excluded?
In the end what small business and the economy needs is a dedicated minister in cabinet (tick), a national small business ombudsman (almost tick), state small business commissioners (four ticks), a strong representative at the ACCC (tick) and a strong unambiguous small business advocacy organisation (tick COSBOA and its members).
We will approach other key government organisations and ask that they consider having a designated position at the highest level for small business issues, similar to the ACCC. This might not mean a new position but someone at the commissioner level who is our go-to when we have a concern or an issue. This includes: ASIC, the Fair Work Commission, APRA (the prudential authority), the Reserve Bank and the Australian Skills Quality Authority. The decisions and activities of these organisations can have a negative or positive effect on small business, but the appointment of a champion for small business will hopefully mean the effect will be positive.
Success for Billson, Brennan, Schaper and the other linchpins will mean a better economy through more efficient and effective small businesses and that can only be good for our country. Well done small business linchpins – there will be more of them soon.
Peter Strong is the executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia.