Hunt underway for first federal small business commissioner

Small business experts are speculating on the role of the federal small business commissioner, including how it will differ from that of the small business minister and state commissioners.


Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Federal Government would create the position of Federal Small Business Commissioner, to be appointed in the second half of 2012.


The commissioner will report directly to the Minister for Small Business, Brendan O’Connor, and will work with government departments to ensure they address small business concerns.


The office is due to be up and running from January 1, 2013, and will advise small businesses about government policies and programs.


“The small business commissioner will act as a one-stop shop,” Gillard said yesterday.


“[It will be] a place that small businesses can go when they need advice about the whole range of government programs, rather than having to puzzle their way through as to who to talk to.”


At this stage, it’s likely the appointee will come from an industry association, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the Productivity Commission.


One candidate for the job is ACCC deputy commissioner Michael Schaper.


Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, says there will be “a separation of powers” with regard to the roles of the minister and the new commissioner.


“The minister is developing policy, so they represent us at that level,” Strong says.


“The commissioner would then be going around to government agencies and assessing their impact on small business. The small business minister could never do that.” 


“The commissioner is there doing the day to day stuff including resolving disputes between agencies and small business… [and] assessing case-by-case issues that may happen.


“The commissioner will be assisting the minister assess policy as well, but it’s not the commissioner’s job to take over small business [policy].


Strong stressed he would like to see the federal commissioner work with state counterparts on an “equal footing”.


“The federal commissioner is not getting involved in any state activities. They’d meet to exchange ideas and what might be good models as we go into the future,” Strong says.


However, Strong believes the federal commissioner will be able to influence COAG decisions, which could result in more harmonisation across the states.


University of New South Wales associate professor in business law and taxation, Frank Zumbo, agrees the commissioner must play a key role in disputes between small businesses and government agencies.


“State small business commissioners already play an important role in assisting small businesses with resolving disputes,” Zumbo says. 


He says the state commissioners are an excellent model for the new federal commissioner.


According to Zumbo, the new commissioner had to be given “real teeth” to assist small businesses, especially at the federal level, and be backed by effective legislation.


“We look forward to the Federal Government outlining the details of the legislative framework under which the federal small business commissioner will operate.”


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