Michelle Melbourne.

Michelle Melbourne. Photo: Lyn Mills

The Canberra business community is likely to get a shake-up with a proposal to replace the ACT Chamber of Commerce and the Canberra Business Council with a single new organisation.

Staff and members of both groups were told on Monday, and late in the day a public announcement, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was brought forward after questions from The Canberra Times.

Some potentially tricky issues still need to be solved, not the least who becomes chief executive of the new organisation and what to call it.

Julian Barrington-Smith

Julian Barrington-Smith

The boards of both groups are behind the plan, but it won’t happen without a yes vote from members. Deloitte has been appointed to work up the detail, which will go to members later in the year. At meetings of each organisation, at least three-quarters of people present will need to vote yes for the plan to become a reality.

The chairwoman of the Canberra Business Council, Michelle Melbourne, stressed a final decision, issues of timing and even the name of the new group would be in the hands of the members. But the old board members could move fairly quickly to appoint a new board after a positive vote, she said. It would be up to the new board to appoint a chief executive, and staffing decisions would follow from there. At the moment, each organisation had “about a dozen” staff.

Ms Melbourne, who runs software company Intelledox, said the proposal was “a great potential outcome for the private sector and the community in Canberra”. But she acknowledged the loyalty that exists for the longstanding groups.

John Hindmarsh.

John Hindmarsh. Photo: Elesa Lee

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of history to respect,” she said.

Asked about the cost of membership to the new group, she said, “We’re absolutely focused on our members and we will be absolutely determined to preserve what they love about both organisations. There will be no losers.”

Between them, the ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce and the Canberra Business Council have about 800 members. Their roles overlap. Both groups lobby government on behalf of business, but the council is said to take more of a big picture approach to business policy and economic development, and the chamber focusses on advising members on industrial relations and other aspects of running a business. Their membership overlaps, but not to a significant extent.

ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce chairman Julian Barrington-Smith, owner of The Good Guys homewares store in Tuggeranong, said that by coming together the two groups could provide stronger leadership and a sharper focus on the needs of businesses.

The chamber had more than 500 members, stretching well beyond Canberra’s borders to regional towns including Jindabyne, Yass and Bungendore, and ranging from big national organisations to owner-operators. Its job was to advise business, provide training and industrial relations support, speak for business and lobby on its behalf.

The council was set up in 1981 by a group including John Hindmarsh, chairman of the Hindmarsh group. It was originally called the “committee of 22” because it represented 22 business organisations, including the likes of the Chamber of Manufactures, Master Builders, and the Property Council. Mr Hindmarsh said there was no self-government at the time, so business groups had to speak directly with the federal government and bureaucracy. Given the then small size of the Canberra business community, a strong collective voice was vital.

The Chamber of Commerce was already operating then, but dealt more with areas like industrial relations rather than broader policy, such as airport and transport development, including the high-speed train, an issue long on the council’s agenda, property development, business taxes, and infrastructure.

“What we wanted to do was talk about the big picture, the totality of the economy and the levers the government could pull which would enhance the non-government areas of growth," Mr Hindmarsh said.

“The Chamber of Commerce were an established organisation, particularly involved in handling industrial matters …  We didn’t want to handle that, we didn’t want to go into their patch.”

Mr Hindmarsh is the only original member still on the board. He didn’t want to comment on the plan for a new body before announcement of the detail on Tuesday.