The Federal opposition has accused the Government of stealing its idea after Small Business Minister Nick Sherry unveiled proposals for a national small business “advocate” to help resolve disputes.
Sherry has released a paper that outlines four different options to aid the resolution of disputes, citing government research from last year that shows 20% of surveyed small businesses experienced a dispute with another company in the previous five years.
The four options open for consideration are:
- A National Information and Referral Service: a telephone hotline and website that would advise small businesses that are involved in a squabble with another company.
- A National Dispute Resolution Service: a body that would provide information, similar to the hotline, but also offer mediation.
- A National Small Business Tribunal: a department that would deal specifically with small business disputes, offering both investigation and conciliation. A national network based in capital cities.
- A Small Business Advocate: a person who would offer “independent representation of small business interests and concerns within the Australian Government.”
This latter proposal has raised the ire of the Coalition, which has previously campaigned for the installation of a Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman at a national level.
“At last year’s election, the Gillard Government promised only ‘more of the same’ that has seen 300,000 jobs lost in small business since Labor was elected,” says Bruce Billson, the shadow small business minister.
“Belatedly, the Gillard Government shamelessly ‘lifts’ one of the dozen practical policy commitments of the Coalition’s small business action plan as Labor tries to lift itself out of the hole it has dug and dragged many small businesses into.”
“After a budget that included further attacks on independent contractors, how ironic that the Gillard Government has contracted out small business policy development to the Coalition.”
“There are many more Coalition small business policies the Gillard Government should copy given it has no ideas or positive small business action plan of its own.”
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Sherry says the aim of the dispute resolution proposals was to provide an integrated national service to help small firms.
“This paper seeks to identify where there may be gaps in Australia’s current disputes resolution landscape and how best to form an integrated national service,” he says.
“The four options in this paper have been developed to complement and, where necessary, supplement the existing system of public, private and industry-based dispute resolution mechanisms. I look forward to feedback from interested parties.”
Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, welcomed the proposals, saying that the lobby group had been calling for a dispute resolution service “for a long time.”
“If you have a blue with your landlord, it’s so hard,” he says. “Small businesses spend all their time trying to save their business when there’s a dispute, which is where larger businesses take advantage of them.”
“No one supports small businesses at the moment, so it would be great if the business owner could say ‘I’m going to take this to an advocate.’”
“The question is, though, what power would this have at Federal level? I’d be particularly interested to see the power it has over leases, which is a big factor in many disputes.”
Strong adds that a small business advocate would be of particular use to start-ups, saying: “Most disputes take place when you’ve been up and running for a while, but this will encourage large businesses to treat start-ups well from the beginning. It will also help with start-ups’ costs.”
“I think we’ll see a lot of cases to begin with, but big businesses will then start to get the message.”
The opinions paper, along with details on how to respond to it, is available until June 30. To see the paper, click here.