Peter Strong has been Executive Director and then CEO of COSBOA (the Council of Small Business Australia) since May 2010. He is a key voice in the Australian business community and has established a reputation as a voice of reason when public policy is being discussed and developed. He is also known for being tough when needed, outspoken and challenging on key issues and being independent of political parties.
Until recently, Peter also owned a bookshop in Canberra and based the headquarters of COSBOA in the store itself. As an alternative bookshop with attitude behind it, the premises soon became a popular place to meet. Prime Ministers and senior ministers would come in and visit Peter in the store and he saw this as a very good thing. He wanted to be different from the big business associations within their high-rise offices. But just basing the headquarters in a small business wasn’t going to change things.
“When I took over the job I sat down with the COSBOA board and assessed where we were at, what success had we achieved and what more could we do? We agreed that over the last twenty years the small business community had actually gone backwards. We had more red tape* to deal with including the GST, superannuation collection and mounting regulations on financing, tax and workplace relations. There was more complexity for businesses and economic policy favoured big businesses. There was also a lack of respect from most regulators. I think we can safely say that has now changed. There have been major improvements in competition policy, in B2B contract law, the approach to workplace relations and we have seen the establishment of the federal Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. There have been other positive changes but of course we can never stop and must always seek positive change.”
Peter believes that regulators and the business community should be on the same team. “We all want people to follow the rules, we all want the rules to make sense and we all want the rules to be easy to follow. We have now convinced most regulators that running a small business is 80% process and communication. If a policy maker has a good idea but can’t communicate it, it’s a waste of time. If a process is difficult or complex then it will fail. It is also good to see most regulators acknowledging that the great majority of business people follow the rules, it is only the minority that get it wrong. We work with the regulators to find the minority who give the rest a bad name.”
COSBOA is consulted regularly on policy matters and the lot of small business has definitely improved. Peter is adamant that achieving these changes would not be possible without support from members “which I received in measurable amounts”. He highlights several attempts to gag COSBOA and in one case have him sacked coming from both main political parties and the essential nature of the support he received from the membership to counter these attacks. “COSBOA is sometimes seen as a one-man band, me, but in reality I wouldn’t be there without the support of the board and members. In the end an organisation is only as good as its membership and our membership is exceptional.”
Peter highlights that the change in approach from COSBOA was built on the fact that a small business is actually a person. Strange as it might seem, he found that most policy makers had either forgotten that fact or just ignored it. As a result, policy and processes were designed around the needs of big business who have resources and experts to complete complicated tasks. So, Peter started using the terms the small business person or small business people. He would challenge those in power by asking ‘how can a person do all the tasks you have demanded from them? When will they get time with their families? How is it even possible for one person to know all this?
He recalls, “Early in my role I knew that to be influential we had to have a strong media presence. We also wanted to be different and not sing from the same hymn sheet as the other associations. I can’t remember ever knocking back a call from media – if you want to be influential, you can’t say ‘No’. I have found that the media people are in the main like small business people; honest, hard-working and good to work with. I found being honest and direct was, like in most things, the best approach and it seems to have worked very well.”
From early on, Peter realised he was representing people – so he adopted an on-the-front-foot approach towards the cause he was entrusted with:
“I wouldn’t step back. If somebody said something that I believed was wrong, that was insulting to a small business person or ignorant of their needs, I’d challenge them. I’d tell them they’re wrong and tell them why. A great example of this is the superannuation collection process where employers are obliged to manage the collection process and send employees superannuation payments to funds or to a government based clearing house. It is a nuisance and employers should not be involved in this process. When I’d go along to meetings to discuss superannuation policy and process, there’d be 20 or 30 people around a table, and they’d all talk about how important super is (which it is). I would challenge them ‘There’s only one person in this room who doesn’t get paid for the work they do in super – me. I’ve got to do it in my own time or I’ve got to pay somebody else to do it. There’s only one person in this room who can get fined for not doing their job, and that’s me. Everybody else here gets paid and cannot get fined. The system is a scam on small business employers, so you’re ripping us off!’ They initially didn’t like these comments, but I believe they now understand the system needs fixing. Whether they fix it or not is another thing.”
In his role, Peter has written many articles published in mainstream and on-line media as well as trade magazines. Peter represents small business interests on a number of permanent and ad hoc government and industry advisory groups including with the Tax Office, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, ASIC, the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Reserve Bank and Fair Work Commission and the Australian Treasury. One story he likes to relate is attending a tax forum in the great hall at Parliament House in Canberra held by the Gillard government.
“It was really interesting, very well attended and provided an opportunity to highlight our issues. At one point I was on a panel and got the opportunity to suggest that some other panel members – the head of Trade Unions, the CEO of the Business Council, the head of Treasury and the CEO of the Australian Industry Group should leave the room, go have a cup of coffee while the rest of us design a tax system for the 96% of businesses – the small business people. Then they can come back in and try to fit in with us, because we’ve spent the last 40 years fitting in with them. It made the news that night so it was all good. I don’t think people mind that type of approach as long as you’re fair dinkum, as long as you’re honest and admit when you make a mistake.”
Peter has also spent time highlighting that between 12% and 20% of people in any electorate is self-employed and their votes count. He uses this fact for one of his pet hates which is laissez-faire economics and the associated ideologues who “ignore reality and instead look at pretty graphs and illustrations in text books”. Peter believes that while the market can decide when it’s allowed to, big business like Coles and Woolworths have held too much power for too long (an argument that would no doubt cause many in Australia’s small-business retail community to nod their heads in agreement): “(And) the rest of us suffer because the ideologues didn’t get it. I’d condemn both of them (Coles and Woolworths) in public and some people would say ‘You can’t do that’ and I’d (say) –well, I do and so should you!”
Peter has the experience needed for his role, he has spent much of the last 20 years in change management at the business, community and national level. He’s worked for the Australian Government, with NGOs, the World Bank and the United Nations. He has worked on national business and employment policy and internationally on projects aimed at assisting countries and regions undergoing substantial economic and social change. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that Peter would view Canberra as such a crucial base for a person in his position:
“Being in Canberra is important – you go up to Parliament House and there’s five television studios up there. Whereas in Sydney, they’ve got to come to you, or you’ve got to drive to them and it takes a long time. Whereas I can do five interviews in an hour in Canberra. So being there, if your job is an influencer at Federal level it’s very important. Working with the Public Service is also obviously important. If they didn’t want to work with me, then I would have difficulty in achieving good outcomes.”
Over the years Peter has also participated in the management of many community and industry based groups and organisations. He has been a director of the Australian Booksellers Association since 2013 and was Chairman of a Canberra based Bendigo Community Bank as well as a Director on associations involved in business, education, employment, training, disability employment and community development in Canberra and in many NSW rural towns such as Inverell, Goulburn and Albury.
Peter sees as important the fact that COSBOA was established in 1977 to be an unambiguous voice for small business in Canberra. There are other groups who claim to represent big and small, but COSBOA members believe that isn’t possible, that when push comes to shove the needs of big business will always win out.
Peter also believes firmly that the strength of a community lies with the strength of its small businesses. Yet despite this, he realises that that the importance and reputation of the many can be tainted by the few, as he explains:
“What we also argue is that small business people have a big impact on community health and social welfare. We have got gymnasiums, doctors – mainly self employed, pharmacists, traditional medicines – they’re all small business. So that’s your health, but then you also think about the charities of a community – who sponsors the local netball team? Or if you look on the board of a golf club or a soccer club, it’s the self-employed so often who give their time. So we make up society and we also employ a lot of people. But lately we have been hearing too much that small business people are hopeless, it appears we are the worst employers in the world Of course, it’s not true – some small business people are letting the rest of us down (let’s go get ‘em and make them follow the rules) but the majority of us are doing well.”
Without small business people, Peter believes, Australia wouldn’t be in the healthy position it is. He says the interaction between big and small business is also very important. He talks about signing the agreement with the BCA recently, a great move forward after they had previously they’d been at odds over the effects test in competition policy. Despite long being a vocal opponent of the giant retailers like Coles and Woolworths and the biggest landlords, Peter maintains that “besides a few of the biggest companies the relationships are actually okay. The process might be tough, but it should be so that the consumer and society gets the best products and the best prices. ALDI is a good example – they’re tough, but you talk to their suppliers and they also pay on time. They pay their invoices on thirty days – every time. They actually show small business people a lot of respect.”
Along with the BCA, COSBOA is working on highlighting that the history of business in Australia has been positive. Despite Peter opposing the interests of big business where he sees it necessary, he admits that overall, “Australia’s a pretty good place.” For instance, despite some Unions who claim otherwise, Peter draws attention to the fact that Australia offers the highest minimum wage in the world.
When turning to the future for small business in Australia and what he believes will be most important, Peter shares a number of ideas. He believes business associations will play a large part, for one. With the rapid rate of change, he says working with the different business associations is crucial: “They’re going to be the ones who can advise their members quickly on changes that are happening.”
In his additional role as head of the Digital Business Council, Peter has also spent time looking at improvements to the e-invoicing process. Their aim is to have every business and government department in Australia using technology that enables the user to automatically populate the invoice, send it off and for the balance to be paid straight away. This stands in contrast to the widely used current format where an employee has to manually type an invoice, send it off and then wait for payment from the recipient. He then moves on to the subject of workplace relations – what counts as a contractor, and what doesn’t count as a contractor? He envisages having a single small business award to make it easier for employers to be compliant, and to change how employers handle super. Instead of a superannuation collection, he advocates to make it a PAYG system –“We could save a billion dollars a year in costs!” Lastly, there’s contract law, and Peter wants to make it easier for small retailers when it comes to dealing with landlords.
As a man who inhabits the circles of influence in both small business and government, Peter Strong is better equipped than most the understand how helping smaller businesses succeed is of benefit to both them and to Australia as a whole and what needs to be done to ensure this. When it comes to the strength of the nation on economic terms, Peter reiterates how small business plays its part:
“Small business is the backbone of the economy, we all know that. But it is also the base of our culture. For example, a person from Bondi may go to Balmain because it’s got lots of nice restaurants and has that village feel to it, so even though they’ve got nice beaches, there’s stuff in Balmain that they like. Nobody drives somewhere to go to a big shopping centre, they go to the nearest one. If you live in Edgecliff you wouldn’t drive down to Miranda Fair, but you’ll go to Cronulla because you want what’s there. Country towns are also different, Albury has a great main street with some nice restaurants, or you may go to Wellington because it’s got a great winery or relaxing environment. So, the reason people will visit a town or community is based around small business, we make up the culture.”
In a high-tech, increasingly globalised community where the importance of productivity has (in the minds of ideologues) replaced the need for authenticity, there are still plenty of people who love to deal with businesses who know them as more than a client number or a name on a screen, who could argue with that?
*YouTube ‘Peter Strong Red Tape Nation’