OPINION: Why is the federal government turning on the charm towards small business? Has it seen the light or are its focus groups telling it that small businesses are sick and tired of growing red tape and the escalating costs of doing business?
Either way, we have heard a range of government announcements, such as the proposal to appoint a new Australian small business commissioner. Prime Minister Julia Gillard even made this announcement at a small independent bookshop in Canberra, that's coincidentally owned by a person who runs a small business association.
A nice touch, you might say, but the astute observer will know that Gillard is trying to cuddle up to small business by offering a new small business cop on the beat. The problem is that the federal government has a poor record when it comes to appointing a new ''cop on the beat''. How can we forget the ''tough petrol cop on the beat'' we were promised? The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's petrol commissioner doesn't even want to be called the petrol commissioner anymore.
Surely, advisers have warned the government about the potentially huge trap it was springing when it proposes a new small business cop on the beat.
While a smart federal adviser would know that there are many small business votes for any government that helps small businesses get a fair deal from big business, an even smarter adviser would know that small businesses would quickly see through a big-talking but toothless Australian small business commissioner.
You would, of course, expect the smartest type of adviser to be pushing strongly for an independent small business commissioner that's tough and backed by new, leading-edge legislation.
Talk of a small business cop on the beat may be good spin, but small businesses certainly don't want a talking head for a new small business commissioner. There are already plenty of industry associations available to talk on behalf of small businesses.
Rather, what small businesses urgently need is a small business commissioner who can do what the ACCC and industry associations always talk about but can't or don't do. Small businesses want a small business commissioner who can directly help them when they have a problem with a big business or a federal government agency. They want a small business commissioner who can help them resolve disputes with the big shopping centres, franchisors, Coles and Woolworths and the like.
Here the federal government didn't have too far to look for guidance on how to get it right when announcing the proposed new small business commissioner. Victoria had long shown the way and South Australia had recently improved and strengthened the small business commissioner model.
It would have been so easy for a federal Labor government to draw on the cutting edge work done in South Australia by a state Labor government. Surely, a smart federal government adviser would have been looking in the direction of South Australia for guidance on how to establish a truly groundbreaking small business commissioner.
Sadly, it appears that the small business commissioner will fall well short of the South Australian model and may even fall short of the more limited Victorian model. Here you really have to wonder what's going on. How could the federal government have been allowed to miss such a golden opportunity? We should have got an Australian small business commissioner with real powers to help small businesses in their dealings with big businesses and the federal government. Instead, it looks like we will be getting a new small business commissioner who will have no legislative power.
We all know how fast the federal government can move when it really wants to, so you have to wonder why it didn't seize the opportunity when one was handed to it on a platter.
Could it be that the federal government didn't want a truly independent small business commissioner backed by a strong legislative framework? Could the proposed new small business commissioner be just a gimmick? Time will tell.
In the meantime, we await the announcement of who will be the new small business commissioner. While knowing who gets the role may tell you a great deal about how the role might develop, the more astute observer would be concerned that the person is not going to be given any legislative powers.
Frank Zumbo is an Associate Professor at UNSW's School of Business Law and Taxation.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Canberra Times.