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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2228

Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (09:48): It was awkward to watch—a bit like a child being sent to a dress-up party with no costume and not so much as a funny hat. That is what all observers could feel as the Gillard government's recently appointed Small Business Commissioner faced Senate estimates. What became very clear from the thoughtful questioning by coalition senators is that this appointment carries the title of commissioner, but without any clear commission. This is an extraordinary missed opportunity, as the government has appointed a very capable and able individual to this role only to provide none of the tools necessary to ensure that the role is effective and of value and use to the small business community. Instead it appears to be a self-serving appointment by the government, designed to advantage its interests and not those of the small business community, which the government should desperately begin supporting.

While Labor tries to make much of the appointment, the government happily overlooks how the first Commonwealth-appointed Small Business Commissioner was under a coalition government back in 1999. This was a dedicated role in the ACCC with real purpose and teeth, designed to support the implementation of what were then recently introduced unconscionable-conduct and fair-trading provisions, including the adoption of the first franchising code. A decade and a half later, Labor decides to reuse the same title and duplicate that use of the term Small Business Commissioner but attach it to a new role, with no clear purpose, function or power being afforded to the incumbent.

When the Small Business Commissioner explained that he had not met with the Prime Minister and the Department of the Prime Minster and Cabinet and revealed that there is rarely a need for small business issues to concern the Prime Minister because she is 'very much focused on the issues of the day', the tokenism of this appointment was very much highlighted. In a series of questions asked of the Small Business Commissioner about how he had been able to help or whether he had been asked to provide policy input or advice on a range of pressing small business concerns, we learned that no minister has taken the time to seek wise counsel from this role, that the work of government proceeds without the benefit of this role's input and that, time and time again, the opportunity is missed for this role to have an influence over what the government is doing, despite it being described as a policy activist.

Absent any genuine commitment to or interest in small business, Labor cannot even sustain this tokenistic interest in the sector. In the Prime Minister's National Press Club speech where she outlined the state of the nation, her plans for the year ahead and what she thought was important for Australia, no mention was made at all about small business. When it came time to consider which business interest could best contribute to mapping out economic recovery as part of the G20 process, no small business interest was involved in that exercise. They were again overlooked.

It is way past time for this government to try and throw out these little crumbs to a crucial sector of our economy. What is needed is a government that genuinely partners with and supports the engine room of the economy that is the men and women of small business.