Small business gets a big voice

Australia has more than two million small businesses, which generate about a third of the country’s economic output, but it can be a struggle when disputes are involved.

The most costly part of any dispute resolution process can be the time taken away from business; however, that could be set to change with the appointment of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

This role will be a ‘concierge’ for dispute resolution services to allow businesses options to resolve disputes before the need to resort to litigation.

It will also give small businesses a bigger voice by advocating for small business at a Commonwealth level and helping to develop federal laws and regulations.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (ACCI) head, Kate Carnell, steps into the federally appointed five-year role this month.

Federal Minister for Small Business and Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer made the announcement last month [February] and said Carnell brought extensive experience and knowledge to the role of Ombudsman.

“Ms Carnell, who ran her own small businesses for 15 years before becoming ACT Chief Minister, is well-positioned to translate the voices of small Australian businesses and family enterprises into targeted policy messages for government.”

O’Dwyer said the appointment was a win for small business owners who would have access to advice and support, and an independent advocate to ensure the government created conditions for small businesses to grow.

A voice for small business

Since 2014 Carnell, who is a pharmacist by profession, has held the position of Chief Executive of the ACCI, which represents more than 300,000 businesses across Australia. She is also the former chief executive of beyondblue, the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the Australian General Practice Network.

“I see this role very much as working with those groups and I obviously know well to ensure that their voice is heard in the federal arena.

“I think our politicians on both sides are very interested in hearing from small business, but sometimes it's a little tougher to get in front of departments. So hopefully I can help,” she said.

Carnell said many disputes happen in small businesses – with suppliers, other businesses or landlords, for example – and the last thing business owners needed was being tied up in court.

This can cost a lot of money that many businesses do not have, so the Ombudsman would provide an alternative approach.

The role would also act as a one-stop-shop into Federal Government for small to medium businesses – those with fewer than 100 employees and revenue not exceeding $5m – to go to for Commonwealth assistance and information.

Change well overdue

The Ombudsman will replace the Australian Small Business Commissioner, which will continue to operate and service the needs of small business around the country during the transition. Unlike the Commissioner, however, the Ombudsman is a statutory position with more power and does not sit within the public service.

The Council of Small Business Australia (COSBOA) welcomed the appointment, stating it had been calling for an ombudsman since 1977 when the association was first formed.

“No other group has called for such a position until more recent years so it seems that patience pays off,” Chief Executive Peter Strong said. “Kate Carnell is a great selection.”

Strong said that for too long big business associations had ruled the roost. COSBOA had bitter experience with “ideological policy makers” who saw small businesses as unimportant in economic terms and showed this sector scant respect. 

He said he hoped that the new appointment would change the way in which government agencies designed their tender processes and business communication in order to get the best business outcome for government rather than make their job easier.

“Areas that will definitely improve will be around communications and process for small business as well as for dispute resolution,” Strong added.  “Ms Carnell has the skills to stop many disputes happening or reaching a need for action.

“This is a great decision and only 39 years in the making.”

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman will link with, operated by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, to help small businesses easily find out about other government services and programs.

To contact the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman visit their website or call 1300 650 460 between 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday.

Written by Penelope Creed

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.