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Monday, 25 February 2013
Page: 750

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (17:58): I present the explanatory memorandum for the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Small Business Commissioner Bill 2013 ensures that the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Small Business Commissioner are set out in legislation. It also provides teeth to the Commissioner to ensure he or she can effectively carry out their role as an advocate and representative of small business.

The Small Business Commissioner must be more than a symbolic position, the Commissioner and their office must be empowered to be effective advocates for small business. This bill provides the necessary capacity to move beyond the symbolism.

Small Business is a crucial part of the Australian economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics small businesses employ more than two million people; therefore they are a fundamental pillar of the Australian economy. The personal risks that people take when starting a small businesses and the challenges they face are immense. They deserve a champion at the Federal level to deal primarily with Commonwealth related issues and to complement the work of the small business commissioners in the States that have them.

This is why the Australian Greens welcomed the decision of the Government in 2012 to appoint a small business commissioner. However this does not go far enough - currently the Commissioner has no legislated role. It has no power to ensure it can be an effective broker between small and big business. At the moment the Commissioner and their office don't have defined roles and responsibilities, the Commissioner can channel their office's resources and energy in whatever direction they choose.

Therefore legislation for the office of the small business commissioner is crucial to ensuring roles are defined and the Commissioner has the power to be effective.

A legislated position will also make it more difficult for an incoming Government to abolish the position as happened recently in Queensland when the Newman Government abolished their Small Business Commissioner.

The roles and responsibilities of the Small Business Commissioner as described in the bill cover a range of areas including assisting in dispute resolution and investigating complaints from small businesses about their commercial arrangements with Departments, Statutory Agencies or Executive Agencies of the Commonwealth. A recurring theme from small businesses that conduct business with Commonwealth Departments is the unnecessary complexity involved in winning and adhering to Government contracts. Some small businesses also claim that Commonwealth Government bodies can be particularly slow in paying their bills.

As cash flow is integral to a small business, delayed payments of bills can be quite destructive. In many ways just as crucial to small business owners is the time they use in following up late payments. This is time they can't use to grow and develop their business.

Government agencies and departments should adhere to best practice in dealing with small businesses and many do. However for those who don't, small businesses will be able to contact the Office of the Small Business Commissioner for assistance and representation in their business dealings with Commonwealth Departments and Agencies.

The Office of the Small Business Commissioner has the power to bring representatives of Commonwealth Departments and Agencies to the table to facilitate conflict resolution with a small business. Subject to constitutional constraints it also allows the Commissioner to facilitate resolution between larger businesses and small businesses. If Departments or businesses fail to attend in front of the Commissioner or provide documents as requested this Bills allows for the application of financial penalties. Based on my understanding of the operation of the small business commissioner in South Australia I anticipate that businesses will willingly attend resolution and mediation sessions with the Small business commissioner. Therefore the power is there to be used if necessary, but I hope it will be used minimally, if at all.

The Small Business Commissioner Bill also requires the Commissioner to monitor, investigate and report to the Minister on market practices that may adversely impact small businesses. This will provide a dedicated office of people who can undertake research and monitoring of issues and market practices that are key to the operation of small business and provide reports to the Minister for Small Business. The office of the Commissioner will also be able to prepare information for small business about entering into commercial arrangements with Commonwealth Departments.

This bill vests a research function within the Office of the Small Business Commissioner. This will ensure research on small business trends and growth is available to policy makers through an annual report. I also hope that research into the size and structure of the small business sector and emerging trends is carried out to help policy makers to better understand the sector.

The Bill provides for cooperation between small business commissioners in the states and territories and other relevant Government agencies and the Commonwealth Small Business Commissioner on a voluntary basis in respect of any dispute that has national ramifications. I would think that the expertise and advice of a Federal Small Business commissioner would be valued across the country. I would also like to take this opportunity to call on the states and territories without small business commissioners - including my home state of Tasmania - to strongly consider their introduction.

The architecture is already in place. As previously outlined the Minister has appointed a Small Business Commissioner who started work in January. This Bill is not intended to undermine this position; its intention is to strengthen it. This Bill provides for a seamless transition, it explicitly states that the person known as the Federal Small Business Commissioner should be appointed as the first Small Business Commissioner once the legislation receives Royal Assent.

Small businesses are a major contributor to the Australian economy and therefore employment. They deserve their own advocate and the legislation to back them up. This will help ensure small businesses are at the forefront of economic policy discussion and development in Australia.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate adjourned.