A little less conversation, a little more action please
Have you noticed a little more rhetoric lately from the Federal Government on small business matters? Well, that’s not surprising given that there’s an election around the corner and the Federal Government needs to show that it’s doing something for this key constituency.
No doubt previous Federal Labor Small Business Ministers like Craig Emerson and Nick Sherry will feel that they did ‘something’ during their time, but unfortunately for them not many people will remember or care that Emerson and Sherry were once Small Business Ministers
For those who actually remember Emerson they will recall he was the guy who stopped small businesses from getting laws to prevent them from being victims of unfair contract terms. He also didn’t like commentators pointing out that he let small businesses down in this very important regard.
Then there was Nick Sherry who felt that there were no problems in franchising needing immediate action. The best he could do for the long suffering franchisees was to promise another inquiry into franchising in 2013. Not only is that an election year which will see any such inquiry buried, but Sherry can’t even deliver on that inquiry as he is no longer the Small Business Minister.
‘Promises, Promises’, as the painting in Federal Parliament declares. Both Emerson and Sherry were full of promises. We got lots of talk and we saw how quick they were to criticise those commentators with the ability to highlight the limitations of the Ministers.
Now we have Brendan O’Connor. Seems like a nice fellow and ably supported in his office by some very competent advisers. Being elevated to Federal Cabinet is a plus and gives O’Connor a real chance to make a difference. Will O’Connor make a difference?
That depends on whether he gets good support from his Cabinet colleagues and his Department. Federal Departmental officers are well known for their ‘minimalist’ approach to any policy development they don’t philosophically agree with. You just have to watch any episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ to know that.
Free market theorists reign supreme in the Federal bureaucracy. Small businesses are described as the engine room of the economy in public speeches prepared for Ministers, but are often seen as whingers the rest of the time.
Friendly small business people are always good to put before the TV cameras at a public forum attended by the Prime Minister or the Federal Minister. The problem is that those same friendly small business people tend to get ignored when they ask for effective competition laws to prevent the abuse of market power by big businesses or they ask for laws dealing with unfair contract terms.
All that these friendly small business people usually get is gimmicks or window dressing from the Federal Government. We had Chris Bowen give us an ACCC Petrol Commissioner who now doesn’t want to be called the Petrol Commissioner.
Let’s not forget that at the time of the appointment Bowen’s press announcement said that he was appointing a Petrol Commissioner. The Federal Budget papers have continued to allocate money for a ‘Petrol Commissioner’.
But we now have the Federal Government-labelled Petrol Commissioner saying he wants to be called the ACCC Commissioner with responsibility for petrol and other things. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter what we call him so long as he is delivering lower petrol prices for motorists. If he kept the oil companies and Coles and Woolworths honest he would be called a legend.
Of course, no one ever wants to be labelled a failure. The real danger for the ACCC Commissioner with responsibility for petrol and other things is that because the Federal Government didn’t give him any new powers he is left to simply watch petrol prices. The core of the problem is that everyone else is watching petrol prices and we are left to wonder if we need another ACCC Commissioner to add to the price watching club.
Then you need to wonder why we need a second Deputy Chair of the ACCC. This was another one of Chris Bowen’s appointments. There was always one Deputy Chair of the ACCC generally reserved for a consumer advocate. Then Bowen thought that a second Deputy Chair with responsibility for small business would be a good idea. They were the days when there was plenty of money for the Federal Government to spend.
So Bowen gave us a second Deputy Chair of the ACCC who was going to cost taxpayers lots of money, but at least Bowen and the Federal Government could say they were doing something for small business.
With a Deputy Chair of the ACCC with responsibility for small business now having been in place for several years you would think that small businesses already had a strong voice federally. But no, this year we heard that the Federal Government was now going to appoint a Federal Small Business Commissioner.
Exciting news you would think? Well, not so fast. What is the Federal Small Business Commissioner going to do? We are told that the Commissioner will be a voice for small business. Hang on a minute. Isn’t that what the ACCC Deputy Chair with responsibility for small business already does?
Are we going to have two voices for small businesses with double the cost to taxpayers? Or is the ACCC Deputy Chair with responsibility for small business simply going to be rebadged as the new Federal Small Business Commissioner? What if the ACCC Deputy Chair did become the new Federal Small Business Commissioner, would the Federal Government then appoint a new ACCC Deputy Chair with responsibility for small business?
More importantly, what is a Federal Small Business Commissioner actually going to do? If the new Commissioner is not given any legislative powers, then will we simply get more watching like the Petrol Commissioner (AKA the ACCC Commissioner with responsibility for petrol and other things), or worse will we get talkfests, endless meetings or conference attendances?
Of course, we wish the new Federal Small Business Commissioner all the luck in the world. Sadly, that’s not enough. The Federal Small Business Commissioner needs to be an independent statutory office holder and backed by strong legislation. Here, Victoria and South Australia lead the way with those States having a strong legislative framework for the benefit of their Small Business Commissioners.
Talk is cheap and so are new titles like a Federal Small Business Commissioner where the position is not backed by strong legislative powers. It’s now over to Brendan O’Connor and his very capable advisers to leave a legacy that they and all Australian small businesses can really be proud of.
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