Can Canberra cut away an SME bind?

Small business has seen a COAG win in the government's new program to reduce 'nuisance' regulations. But much more needs to be done.

Rob Burgess certainly had it right last week when he wrote that the Gillard government is making a series of pitches to the small business community (Labor's historic SME assault, April 12).

For people working in small business, it sometimes feels like it’s you against the world. After a Sunday filled with government paperwork, you find yourself screaming at the news coverage of yet another announcement that you know will only mean more headaches for you and your business, while the government spokesperson tries to convince you they are really listening. But with 70 per cent of the Australian workforce employed by or operating a small business, just who are they listening to?

Small businesses are the new forgotten people. How do we get the ear of government, let alone convince them to change anything?

As the deputy chair of the Council of Small Business of Australia I was invited to attend the Business Advisory Forum in Canberra on Thursday and put forward the case for small business. I took the prime minister’s invitation as an important achievement for COSBOA and as an acknowledgement by the Council of Australian Governments that small business must be part of any meaningful reform agenda.

The other invitees mostly represented the big end of town. Aside from the COAG members, there were industry representatives from corporate Australia and chief executives from some of Australia’s largest companies. Most of these people are widely recognised and respected. All of them are incredibly influential. To have small business at the table was a big deal.

Some people have already criticised the meeting as being little more than a talkfest. I suppose there have been enough of those in the recent past to make a healthy dose of cynicism understandable. But I choose to consider this as being a positive first step for small business to play a role in achieving workable productivity reform.

So what did we get out of it? Well, keeping in mind this event was a first meeting of its kind, the main objective was to have an open and honest exchange of ideas and to identify some of the issues as priorities to work on.

Without doubt, there was universal recognition that red tape was strangling businesses of all sizes.

It was certainly an issue we wanted addressed and I was very pleased that we at least achieved agreement that the current system was a mess with a view to doing something about it.

The formal communique produced after the forum confirms we received a commitment from the government leaders to work individually and collectively, to identify and reduce 'nuisance' regulations that may impose unnecessary costs on business, hindering competitiveness and stifling innovation.

They’re calling it the "Red Tape Challenge” which kind of makes it sound like some sort of reality television program, but if it gets results I’m happy for them to call it whatever they like.

An important outcome for COSBOA is that we have now been asked to work with the Minister for Small Business, Brendan O'Connor, and others to come up with examples of the irritating, time consuming and unnecessary regulations that create the biggest headaches for small business.

Nobody got into small business to be a de facto tax collector or policeman and the sooner we are freed up to concentrate on our core businesses the better.

Of course, hand in hand with the need to clear the mess is the need for governments, in particular, to fully understand how the decisions they make will impact on small business in terms of wasted time and additional expense.

The paper we put to the forum called for a mechanism that will measure the impact of regulation on small business and set a benchmark which will hopefully form the high-tide point. It’s a sentiment echoed by the forum, which has emphasised the importance of governments being proactive in taking a best practice approach.

I know to a lot of people this will still sound like the sort of rhetoric that has been heard before. We know there is a growing perception that the reform process may have stalled and we have seen evidence that small businesses are doing it tougher than ever with a 48 per cent increase in small business failures over the past twelve months.

Small business owners are rightfully growing impatient and needs to see outcomes being delivered in the next six to 12 months. They won’t be satisfied with merely recognising the issues if steps aren’t taken that will deliver solutions.

So we’ve taken a first step. We’ve made it to the table alongside the big end of town and we’ve made ourselves heard. Some will say it’s not a big step, but I think it’s an important step and I look forward to a speedy response coming out of COAG so we can all get our Sundays back.

Amanda Lynch is deputy chair of the Council of Small Business of Australia and chief executive of the Real Estate Institute of Australia.

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