James Thomson Editor

James Thomson is the editor of BRW. Previously he was editor and publisher of SmartCompany and a senior editor at Business Spectator. He writes regularly on Australia's wealthiest entrepreneurs and has deep expertise in small business and the mid market.

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Labor gives small business revolving door another spin

Published 04 February 2013 07:01, Updated 05 February 2013 06:45

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Labor gives small business revolving door another spin

Labor’s new small business minister Chris Bowen has just nine months to develop the deep love and understanding of the small business sector that eluded his many predecessors.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard insists the cabinet reshuffle announced over the weekend was a long time in the planning, despite the fact that it was sparked by the surprising resignations of not one but two ministers on Saturday.

If it was a long time in the planning, then surely Gillard has a good explanation of why the small business portfolio has become a sort of ministerial halfway house since Labor came to power in 2007.

Opposition small business spokesman Bruce Billson – who loves nothing more than a thundering press release, which never take themselves too seriously – was quick to point out that Labor has now had five small business ministers since 2007, and an impressive four in the last 14 months.

First we had Craig Emerson, who used small business as a stepping stone to trade. Then we had Nick Sherry, who picked up the portfolio after being demoted following the Kevin Rudd coup. Then we had Mark Arbib, who lasted a matter of months before he left politics all together. And finally, we had Brendan O’Connor, who was impressive in his short stint but has now been whisked off to the immigration post.

In hindsight, everyone who went through the ministry was on the way to somewhere else – a better portfolio or out of politics. None showed a deep love or understanding of small business.

The Coalition has some form in this area too. The Coalition passed the job around a lot during its reign, including a period in 2001 when there were four small business ministers in a year – Peter Reith, Tony Abbott, Ian Macfarlane and Joe Hockey.

But Billson has been the Opposition’s small business spokesman since 2007 and has developed strong relationships with the small business lobby during that time.

You’d also have to think Billson is in a much better position to come up with strong small business policy than the new small business minister, Chris Bowen.

Bowen, a career politician, has been a strong performer in the Rudd and Gillard government, although his stint as immigration minister was marked by the spat over moving refugees to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

But getting on top of an eclectic area like small business with less than nine months to the election wouldn’t be easy for anyone. The fact that Bowen is also the minister for tertiary education, skills, science and research mean small business is not likely to get much attention in the lead up the election.

Surely Bowen simply has too much to get his head around.

It’s potentially quite an advantage for the Opposition. But do they have a brilliant small business policy to really lock in the votes of SMEs?

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