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An industry wishlist for Small Business Commissioner Mark Brennan – and his take on things

Monday, 11 February 2013 | By Michelle Hammond

feature-brennan-thumbIt’s only been a few weeks since Mark Brennan stepped into his role as the inaugural Australian small business commissioner, following the announcement of his appointment in October.


Prior to this role, Brennan served for seven years as the inaugural Victorian small business commissioner; the first such position in any jurisdiction in Australia.


In 2011, he was named National Small Business Champion by the Council of Small Business of Australia for his work in guiding and developing the VSBC role.


Brennan has also owned and operated his own small business as principal of MA Brennan and Associates, which provided advice to government on legislative reviews and policy issues.


StartupSmart spoke to five different industry associations about what they would like to see from Brennan this year, before talking to the man himself:


1. Greater clarity on the role itself


“The main concern we have from the FCA is the number of small business representatives we seem to have around the country,” says Stephen Giles from the Franchise Council of Australia.


“Not only do we have the ACCC with an office in every state, we have state small business commissioners and a federal small business commissioner.


“These organisations are doing largely the same thing. We would like the government and the opposition to focus a little bit less on appointing more public servants.


“If you’ve got a small business minister and you’ve got the office of small business and you’ve got the ACCC, what exactly does the role of the state small business commissioners and the federal small business commissioner [involve]? What do they actually do?


“I think the small business minister has an important role but the jury’s out in terms of the long-term value of the state and federal small business commissioners.”


2. More power


“We would have liked to see the commissioner have power when it comes to resolving disputes,” says Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia.


“We’d like to see that position have a strong voice within government. Maybe not a voice we’ll see outside, but one in government where the commissioner works with agencies or senior people who don’t get the small business issue.


“I’m sure he’ll be tough and strong like we know he can be, but in a strategic way.”


3. A consistent definition of small business


“A useful early outcome of this new office could be the establishment of a consistent definition of small business,” says Steven Fanner from the Australian Hotels Association.


“Currently, small businesses are defined by governments in many ways including annual turnover, number of employees and number of FTE employees.”


4. Harmonisation of state laws


“If you’re a business and you’ve got two outlets sitting in two different states, there are lots of things that become difficult,” says Russell Zimmerman of the Australian Retailers Association.


“You have to go back to two states to get approval [for the same things]… OHS laws are one of them, workers compensation would be another, and tenancy could be another.


“There is a lack of harmonisation around some of these things. We would like to see national harmonisation on a whole lot of state regulatory issues.


“Even with insurance, there are different rules and regulations. If those things are harmonised and made simpler, it makes the business of doing business much better.”


5. Better incentives for new entrants


“Our focus is always on ensuring the businesses are high quality and the standard of service delivery is high,” says Dianne Smith, chief executive of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council.


“At the same time, you want to encourage and enable, and get people participating in the industry. In certain states, there is a better proposition to go into mining than to go into tourism.


“[However,] there are very few barriers to entry for tourism apart from getting a bus licence or national park licence. Pretty much anyone can run a tourism business.


“We want to have authentic Australian services but there are lots of people who say they did not open a business because it was too expensive.


“We would like to see greater incentives for young people to work in tourism as well as to invest in tourism… We would encourage and support a range of measures assuming the standards of delivery were maintained.”


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Here’s what the commissioner had to say on:


1. The clarity of his role


The role’s clear enough in terms of what the government has outlined about it. I will be advising to government on small business [issues] and assisting small business, and being a representative of small business.


Having said that, it’s been clear to me that there’s opportunities to shape a job like this. It’s the first time we’ve had a job of this nature.


One of the flagship functions for commissioners at a state level is the mediation of disputes. That’s not a specific role my position will be able to have, although we do have a role for leading people to the appropriate places for resolving disputes.


Assisting small business with information is a key [part of the] role. We help them get the right information to be able to operate.


There’s an opportunity to shape the job, so I’ll be looking for feedback from organisations such as COSBOA and other business organisations as to how they can see the role being effective.


I do have some of my own thoughts about that.


2. His main priorities


I have two areas of aspiration.


One is I’d like to be able to have some sort of influence over how the business environment is [shaped] – how people behave in business – in a commercial and personal sense – and how they conduct their relationships.


Trying to improve the way business is conducted in Australia [is a priority].


The second one is a little ambitious, but one I’d like to see where I can take, and that is the role of government.


It’s pretty well known and time-honoured when you see [people saying] governments need to be more small business-conscious and more small business-friendly.


Reducing red tape is all fine, and I’m very supportive of those notions, but I’m also interested in looking at another angle.


In particular, the way government agencies behave when they’re behaving as a business.


It will be a bit of a challenge to see if government agencies can improve the way they behave as a business.


[It remains to be seen] whether we can define the characteristics of a model business – the best practices of business – and say to government, ‘You should take the lead’.


There’s some merit in exploring whether we can encourage governments to operate as a model business… To identify the characteristics of what is a good business and how [those characteristics] can be incorporated into government agencies, at all levels of government.


3. Working with other small business representatives


My appointment is as an independent. I expect the [small business] minister will expect me to maintain that independence while offering robust advice.


At this point, we haven’t set out any formal protocol of the frequency of meetings or anything. That will probably emerge in due course.


A part of my role requires broad consultation, and engaging with the minister as well as with the business sector.


I’m most definitely looking at forming close relationships [with the state small business commissioners] and, to a considerable extent, I have already got that.


Having been the first one in any state, they’ve been keen over the years to pick my brain a bit.


4. The definition of small business


There’s no doubt there are differences in the small business definitions, and I noticed recently the government has asked the Productivity Commission to… look at the definition of small business.


This is an area that appears of interest. From my point of view, I’m not fussed with the technical description. I would rather look at the issues affecting small business.


You could turn yourself inside out, and technicalities often prevent you from doing anything.


5. Harmonisation of state laws


That’s an area of interest for me personally I guess. I hope to play a key role in retail leases. I reviewed the retail tenancy laws in Victoria. That particular aspect is of interest.


There have been efforts to get some kind of harmonisation, particularly disclosure statements for people before they go into retail leases.


I think there’s considerable scope where we might be able to identify best practice. Why should it be different in that state versus this state?


Another area where it’s really ripe for that is local government requirements.


[Changes are needed] not only in retail areas or in state harmonisation requirements but with local governments too.


6. Helping start-ups


A key thing there is really listening to what people in small business are saying when they’re connected with a start-up business.


Is red tape too much? Is access to finance a struggle? They’re all issues that could be looked at, and are presented as being serious sorts of issues.


Part of my role would be to make sure those concerns are known to government. The other thing, to my mind, is to ensure there’s information available to assist people to start their business.


No business should fail through lack of access to information. What they do with the information becomes a matter for the business themselves. The government can’t hold their hand all along the business process.


There’s a really terrific opportunity for industry associations – COSBOA and the like – to… provide this sort of information.


I’m a bit of a fan of industry associations developing accreditation schemes for their members. They can assist them to reach a standard level. For start-ups, that can be a very important thing.


I’m aware of a lot of the hoops they need to go through… There’s something unbeneficial about someone thinking of starting a business but then deciding not to start-up.


Hopefully, we can encourage everyone to start-up.