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Published 04 February 2013 11:56, Updated 06 February 2013 17:29
The Council of Small Business of Australia says the elevation of the small business portfolio, first under Brendan O’Connor and now Chris Bowen (pictured) is key development for representation of the sector. Photo: Jim Rice
Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor have swapped the small business and immigration portfolios in Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s latest reshuffle.
While the move adds to the perception that the small business job is a political revolving door, the head of the country’s main lobby group for small businesses is choosing to see his glass as half-full.
There are now two cabinet ministers with experience and knowledge of the small business portfolio, says Council of Small Business of Australia executive director Peter Strong. Given that the portfolio only became a cabinet-level one with O’Connor’s appointment in March last year, this is a big improvement, he says.
“For the small business minister, that job and that power is to make sure we’re not forgotten,” Strong told BRW on Monday. “Most work with small business is done by the portfolios – Treasury, tax, regulators and people who design all sorts of policies. He’s got to look them in the eye (in cabinet) and say: ‘Prove to me you’ve considered small business in what you’re doing’.”
The risk for Bowen is that his attention gets diverted from small business to the bigger portfolio of Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, which he has inherited from retiring senator Chris Evans. Strong says Bowen, who called him on Sunday and with whom he worked when Bowen was assistant treasurer and minister for competition policy and consumer affairs – a post he left in 2010 – reassured him that wouldn’t happen.
Being a cabinet portfolio is crucial for small business, Strong said. “When it’s outside cabinet, it just sends a message to everybody that we don’t count that much.”
Since O’Connor’s appointment to the role, replacing former incumbent Mark Arbib, the country’s first-ever small business commissioner was created, the Treasury created a small business tax division and the Productivity Commission has said it will make a study of the interaction between regulators and small business.
With just over seven months until the September 14 federal election, owners of the country’s 2.5 million small businesses are a constituency that will matter and Bowen will have to work hard to ensure their support.
“On the other side, (opposition small business spokesman) Bruce Billson is one of the greatest champions of small business we’ve ever seen,” Strong said. “Bruce has done a fantastic job in raising the profile of small business.”
Under the weekend reshuffle, Mark Dreyfus takes on the job of Attorney-General vacated by retiring MP Nicola Roxon, along with the role of Minister for Emergency Services. Home Affairs and Justice Minister Jason Clare takes Dreyfus’s former position of Cabinet Secretary.
With O’Connor moving to Immigration, Mental Health and Ageing Minister Mark Butler takes on the Housing and Homelessness portfolios.
Mike Kelly takes on a ministerial portfolio for Defence Materiel. Yvette D’Ath takes on the Parliamentary Secretary role in charge of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (vacated by Dreyfus), Kelvin Thompson takes on Trade, after Justine Elliot left the role and Melissa Parke becomes Parliamentary secretary for Mental Health, Homelessness and Social Housing.
“Everyone touches small business,” Strong said.