Bruce Billson began his appointment as Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman in March 2021. As a member of the Australian House of Representatives from 1996 to 2016, Bruce was active in roles connected to business and the economy. These included Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy; Shadow Minister for Sustainable Development and Cities; and Shadow Minister for Small Business, Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs.
After the 2013 election he became Minister for Small Business. He retired from politics in 2016 and held board roles with the Franchise Council of Australia and Judo Capital.
BiziNet Media sat down with Bruce to discuss his interest in assisting small and family businesses, and the future in his role as Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO).
Interest in helping businesses
Throughout his public life, Bruce has been interested in the vital role that SMEs play in the Australian economy and the challenges that they face. He says, "My interest came about through the recognition through my own life journey and also in my early years in public life that small business and family enterprises were bringing vital energy and opportunities to the community that I was a part of. It's been very much a part of me and run through my veins for my adult life."
His experience gave him an admiration for small and family businesses, and he says, "I wanted to do something that was to try to remove the headwinds and unnecessary roadblocks, and help enterprising people achieve their objectives because that was good for the community, good for the economy and good for the livelihoods of the people that relied on them."
As Minster for Small Business, Bruce was instrumental in passing the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bill 2015 which set up and defined the activities of the ASBFEO.
The Role of the ASBFEO
The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman focuses on three areas:
- Being a concierge for dispute resolution
- Informing government in making policy and program decision
- Advocating for small and family businesses.
In explaining the dispute resolution role, he says, "We use the word concierge quite consciously. There's some dispute resolution processes that we have a direct role in, whether it's administering mediation for
some of the industry codes or it's something involving a business that trades across borders and, therefore, state-based small business commissioners who we work very collaboratively with. It might be beyond their scope and we can provide some help there. It may even be with government and how do you navigate that.
"Our office has some direct roles and some tools to encourage early dispute resolution. That's a key part of our work and part of what we call our assistance function. If we're not able to provide the best support, we can connect people with those that are better placed than we are. For instance, if it's a financial services matter, then AFCA (Australian Financial Complaints Authority) is the right place for that."
Regarding the Ombudsman's role in policy development, Bruce says, "Often, government departments didn't have strong connections, good consultation mechanisms, and ways of getting practical field evidence from people living and breathing the policy area that they're contemplating to feed into their decision making to ensure it's as good a step as it can be."
"We might be able to provide some direct insights from our experience or be able to introduce policymakers to those bodies and industry players, and small business owners and leaders, who can give those policymakers the insights to make the best possible decisions."
On advocating for the role small and family businesses play, Bruce says, "We are storytellers. We bring to life the practical experience, the evidence of small business people, and enterprising men and women in family businesses so that the policymakers, decision makers and the broader public understand the challenges, contributions, opportunities and upsides of being involved in small and family businesses."
Bruce notes that he would like to see more people considering becoming entrepreneurs and being attracted to the idea of shaping and running and growing a small business. "We'll be able to do that by making Australia the best place to start and grow a business. Our advocacy role is to define what that looks like, to identify those unnecessary headwinds or needless obstacles. Here's an opportunity to do something practical that will be supportive of our national interest, as well as those enterprising men and women. There are challenges in Australia, but it's probably already the easiest place to do business, especially to start a business."
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business the Hon Stuart Robert MP and Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson
Raising the image and prospects for Australian small business
While there are many positives about doing business in Australia, Bruce sees that there's more to be done to help businesses access equity finance to scale up. "I've met many entrepreneurs who's felt the need to travel to the west coast of the United States to get the funding that they feel they need to get the uplift to take a great idea and scale it and bring their entrepreneurial vision to life. They often say it's a bit hard doing that here," he says.
"Well, maybe that's an opportunity for us, and I've seen some government initiatives around the Growth Fund and other initiatives that are aimed at that goal. Maybe we can bring some really crystallised thoughts about how to make those program initiatives work the best they possibly can."
Another challenge is getting more people interested in starting businesses. As Bruce notes, "I've been to many a graduation ceremony and I would have liked to have heard more young people saying, 'My aspiration is to be a business owner. I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to create opportunities for myself and others. To write my own chapter have a purposeful contribution through my adult life.' In your own business, you can do all of those things, yet that wasn't an instinctive response in many cases."
Bruce understands the type of person it takes to start and run a business. "It's not for the faint hearted - it's for the courageous. It's for those that have self-belief and a clear sense of their capacity to contribute not only to their own livelihood, but to that of others and the community that they are a part of and the economy. That's a big responsibility. And that's why I think my role is to help make that responsibility as doable as it can be."
He also believes that entrepreneurship will continue to play a crucial role in the future economic development of Australia.
"For our future, we need to find new ways of creating wealth and opportunity so that we can pass on a better living standard than we enjoy now to the next generation. That's going to require some clever people coming up with new ways of creating wealth and prosperity. For these people, shouldn't we be wanting to put wind in their sails? Shouldn't we want the wind at their back rather than in their face uphill?"
"I think that there's a contribution we can all make there. But it builds on believing in the importance of enterprising men and women in small business and family enterprises, and the central role they play in our national story and our national opportunities. That's why I'm excited about my role."
(l-r) Mark Kagan (FBA Chairman), Bruce Billson (incoming Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman), Kate Carnell (Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman), Greg Griffith (FBA CEO)
Focus on supporting small business through local procurement
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's a growing focus on supporting Australian-based suppliers. Bruce says he's noticed a more sophisticated appreciation that value is
more than price and a growing focus on sourcing products and services locally. "There are multiplier benefits from local procurement and support with local content on major projects, whether they be military or infrastructure projects," he says.
"So, I think there's a realisation that the domestic supply chain capability is a real important aspect of sovereignty that you need to make sure you have under your influence in your ecosystem. You need critical supply chain capabilities to keep the economy ticking over, so I think there's been a gradual awakening. It's not quite as mandated as you'll see in some other countries, but I think there's a shift there."
Bruce notes that small and family businesses can find it challenging to compete with bigger businesses when it comes to government procurement.
"Most small businesses I speak with are not wanting a free ride - they just want a fair chance to compete for the work. So one of the things that we've put some time and energy into, and I will continue to do so, is around government procurement."
"It's one thing to say Australian small business and family enterprises are welcome to compete for procurement opportunities from government. But if the systems to select them are so overwhelming that you need to be an enormous company with all sorts of specialist government relations expertise to have a chance to win that work, then we still have some work to do to make sure that procurement is small business friendly and that there's every opportunity for small businesses and family enterprises to deliver what's required and demonstrate good value."
Improving input for policy decisions
One of the core aims of the ASBFEO is to enable policymakers to understand the experiences and needs of small and family businesses. As Bruce says, "There were decisions being made that might have made perfect sense in Canberra but made much less sense out in the main streets, industrial estates, and those areas where enterprising men and women were trying to create opportunities for themselves and others. Senior bureaucrats recognised they didn't have deep connections in the small business community and we're essentially saying, 'We can be the dating service so that you can actually road test what you're thinking about - think out loud with the people that live and breathe it.'"
"When you're thinking about a new regulation or a new policy measure, it's so easy to consult with the big end of town. But when there are tens of thousands of small businesses affected by that, how are you tapping into their wisdom? How do you factor their perspective into your policymaking?"
"I always used to say I'd like to think government did its policy work from the ground up - thought about the impact and the plight of small business and family enterprises first and got that right - because I'm sure the big corporations will be able to navigate whatever you know the outcome is. They have the resources to do that. When creating policy, start with small business and family enterprises, not the big businesses. Many policies are created with big business in mind. Then we try to and adapt it to a small business, as if it's some shrink-wrapped version of a big business. That's not the case."
(l-r) Deputy Commissioner Deborah Jenkins, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker, Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson, Commissioner at ASIC Danielle Press, Deputy Chair of the ACCC Mick Keogh ACCC
Post-pandemic outlook for 2021
Bruce notes the positives as business recovery, but ongoing challenges remain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's very encouraging to see how many businesses have come back, often not in the same shape or to the same degree, but they're up and about again," he says. "If you look at indicators like deferred loan payments, they really have reduced dramatically, so there's a lot of businesses that are back that are active. They may not all be at the same scale that they were at previously, as customers are behaving a little bit differently."
"There are parts of the economy that have to wait for international travel to return. It may be in CBDs that don't have the foot traffic that used to be there. Maybe they're in the function and events industry where some of the restrictions are really impacting them, and there's a need for some tailored thinking about those particular segments. But economy wide, there are some encouraging signs. Some businesses have turned the corner, but the headwinds are still very real for some and we need to understand that."