About 12 months ago I travelled to Geelong to see a small business program at work. As an entrepreneur who pays a pile of tax, I like to see my dollars at work as much as the next business man or woman. That afternoon I watched as a room full of start-ups, would-be start ups and small business owners asked questions to government officials and field officers.
I personally met some of the field officers, who were bright committed individuals determined to link these isolated businesses in mainly regional areas into networks that could assist them become sustainable, regulation-savvy, and to employ and innovate.
I was impressed by the program, the commitment of the officers and the eagerness – even desperation – of the business owners to learn and link in to other resources and networks. The businesses improve, they take on staff, train apprentices, buy products and services from other local businesses and link into metropolitan and export markets.
So when I learnt this morning that the $7.5 million small business field officer program was to be dumped, my first question is what will take its place? Things can always be improved. Maybe the Small Business Minister Craig Emerson has come up with a better plan – even a vision – to assist people in regional areas create better businesses, jobs and linkages.
Not so. Instead a spokesperson from Emerson’s office tells us that the internet and the existing enterprise centres, mostly located in metropolitan areas, can adequately fill the gap. Well, thanks for the compliment Minister. But no, we can’t.
And what will happen to the 65 field officers who have built up their knowledge base over years of dealing with businesses? By culling them you lose not just a network of businesses but a network of advisers, linked into the many nodes that create an innovative community.
This new Government has the knife out. But that should not impact on an important priority – to ensure that hundreds of thousands of home based businesses and consultants take the next step and run sustainable businesses, particularly in regional areas. And that wannabes never take that first, risky start-up step.
After all, other countries have vibrant enterprise programs led by enthusiastic ministers who can see the future.