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Opinion: Why do so many claim to represent small businesses?

Opinion: Why do so many claim to represent small businesses?

Peter Strong, COSBOA

I am sometimes asked why there are so many associations and individuals claiming to represent all small businesses in Australia — not just a particular industry sector, but all small businesses — and why can’t we just work together, writes COSBOA chief Peter Strong.

My organisation, COSBOA (The Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia) is an organisation that exists only to advocate for small business. But we have never claimed to be the only voice or to represent the views of all businesses. However, it’s still a very good question — just why are there so many and why can’t we better work together?

Government-appointed business champions

Before I start on the non-government organisations and the privately run businesses that claim to represent small business, let me acknowledge the very important and effective government-appointed champions for small business.

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At the federal level, we have the Office of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO). Who is currently Kate Carnell. At the state level, we have a range of small business commissioners in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. And we have a government-appointed small business champion in Queensland.

These positions, and the people in them, are great champions for the self-employed and have achieved many changes needed and have assisted thousands of self-employed people confront and resolve issues and problems. More power and resources to them. The economy will be better off if these government agencies are further empowered and consulted.

The non-government organisations that claim to represent small business in the main do exactly that. Disappointingly, there are a minority of people who claim to be THE champion of small business who are only in it for the fees they charge small business people or for political gain; they don’t actually advocate in any real sense.

Membership, fees and body structure

One major difference between associations can be found through membership processes. Some national associations that claim to represent small business are set up with members who are self-employed people. Peak bodies, such as my organisation COSBOA (set up in 1977), have members who are industry associations and who represent particular groups of small business people.

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Thus, in COSBOA, we have the Pharmacy Guild whose members are obviously pharmacies; the Australian Human Resources Institute that has members who are either employees of medium and large companies or are contractors providing a service; Family Business Australia have members who are the true family dynasties of our country; and so the list goes on.

Given that these business associations provide support and services directly to business people, we here in COSBOA have one aim and that is to advocate at the federal political level to get a fair go for small business people. We concentrate on big-picture issues or assist members on particular industry-related needs, but the end aim is to make business easier, less complicated and stressful, and more rewarding for small business people. 

There are other peak bodies who operate in a similar way although those other bodies will often represent big and small business which we believe can make it somewhat difficult to argue for small when your big business members have the money to get their way. But that aside, we are more often than not going to agree on issues and sometimes even have the same members.

The associations who claim to represent small business who have direct membership of business people are more or less networking models that provide access to events and business advice to its members.

All of us need and seek the publicity to give us the clout that will open doors into important offices and give us more members.

We also seem to make our income differently. COSBOA survives on membership fees and sponsorship of our national small business summit and our council events, where the CEOs and directors of our member associations come together to discuss policy. We leave the advice giving and individual support to our member associations who are much better placed to deliver services and information.

Other national associations often make their income from networking events for small business people or through providing business advice directly to business people and charging as they see fit.

Some associations may have up to 100 staff, while we at COSBOA and the other smaller associations have very few staff.

So why don’t we cooperate more?

We often do, but the differences and the need for members drives some of the disconnection.

For example, we at COSBOA may have a view on competition policy which is driven by the needs of small business, whereas other associations may have a view driven more by their big business members. Other peak bodies may concentrate on different sectors or on industry groupings rather than the individual business people. Some focus more on general workplace relations and some on more specific issues to do with, say, manufacturing.

These differences probably reflect the fact that we live in a democracy and we have a diverse business community. It’s hard to imagine just one group representing all small businesses in Australia. Indeed, no one group or person can possibly claim to represent every small business person as there are over 2 million of us out there with a whole range of differing views on different issues.

Sadly, there are the few who claim to be everything for small business and to be the only organisation or person capable of doing anything for the small business community. They are probably in it for the money, the political clout or to push a particular policy issue that is close to their policy heart. They normally don’t survive very long.

Determining who to turn to

So, to make a judgement on who to listen to and who should be consulted, it is probably best to review media of the last few years and see who has been quoted and on what issues.

It is also good to see what is on the different websites to see if it is the organisation that you want to deal with. Checking the size of membership is always a good indication of value. There are some associations who have very few members, or in some cases no members at all, but still claim to be a representative of all small business people.

In my case, and the situation of all peak bodies and true associations, we report to a board who report to members. The minority of “iffy” associations seem to have executive officers or chairmen that basically report to themselves.

We know the difficulty that this myriad of groups can create for consultation by government agencies and even by media. Who do governments trust? From whom do media seek comment? Who has the experience and background to provide informed comment or give worthy advice? We all claim that ability, but is that true?

Our solution to this is to make sure agencies seek support from the ASBFEO and the state small business commissioners on who should be consulted. In our instance, if I am approached by an agency for advice, I will nearly always recommend they talk to representatives from associations who would have deeper expertise in the area of concern.

For example, if an agency is seeking information on small business financing, I would refer them to the Commercial Asset Finance Brokers Association (CAFBA), among others. But if the issue was to do with point-of-sale processes and the GST, I would refer them to the Master Grocer’s Association, the Lottery and Newsagents Association, the Hairdressing Council and the Pharmacy Guild, among others.

In the end, the ASBFEO and state commissioners are independent and probably best placed to recommend who to consult and should be consulted regularly by government agencies. So, there is no one person or association that is the sole champion for Australian small businesses. If anyone claims to be the only champion of small business, dismiss them as impudent.

In fact, there are a number of not-for-profit membership-based organisations, and peak bodies like COSBOA, that work hard to listen and understand the concerns for small business people. We maybe disagree from time to time and compete for members or publicity, but as always, a bit of competition serves to keep us on our toes and provide real services and advice.

We aren’t perfect, but as a group we serve the community well. We all advocate to ensure our politicians deliver policy that allows SMEs to get on with the job of running their businesses, being healthy in the process, and hopefully growing and employing more Australians.

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Opinion: Why do so many claim to represent small businesses?
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