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Meet Kate Carnell: Australia's first Small Business Ombudsman

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Kate Carnell says big business "can look after itself" as she prepares to step into the role of Australia's first small business and family enterprise ombudsman.

It's a change of tack  for the woman who is leaving her role as the head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to take up the job.

Ms Carnell's appointment was announced on Monday by small business minister Kelly O'Dwyer  who described it as "a major win for small business owners" giving them access to advice and support, and an "independent advocate to ensure the government creates the right conditions for small businesses to grow".

Small business background

Kate Carnell started her career as a small business owner, running her own pharmacy in Canberra before joining the Liberal party and entering politics rising to be chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory.  From  there  she went on to head the Australian Food and Grocery Council and then took over as chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry along with chief executive of national depression organisation Beyond Blue.  

It's her small business roots that Ms Carnell is keen to emphasise as she prepares to start as small business ombudsman in mid March.

Ms Carnell says the government approached her and offered her the role and says "I hope it is because I have a background in small business".


She bought her first small business at 25 and says she has owned "a number of pharmacies over the years".   Her  father started a small building company the year she was born, her brother runs his own business and her son bought his first business, a restaurant, 12 months ago.  "We are pretty steeped in small business,"  she says.


Ms Carnell's time as chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory was marred by the tragedy  of 12-year-old Katie Bender who died when a flying piece of debris struck her during  the  implosion of the Royal Canberra Hospital. Ms Carnell  described that day as the "worst day of my life".

In the end Ms Carnell resigned shortly before a vote of no confidence following a financial scandal over the cost to the taxpayers of Canberra's Bruce Stadium development which blew out by about $30 million.

Despite her background as a Liberal politician Ms Carnell says the independence of the small business ombudsman is key.

"This is an independent role," she says. "I hope if you ask the Labor party about that or cross benchers about that they would say that I have always worked closely with them." 

For her part Michelle Rowland, shadow small business minister, says she congratulates Ms Carnell on the appointment and "I look forward to working with her to further the interests of Australian small businesses". 

She knows the small business community would just be in shock if she went in there and became a big business sop.

Peter Strong

Peter Strong, chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia, says Ms Carnell has been critical of the government in her role at ACCI.

"Of course she has a leaning towards the Liberals but I don't think that affects her performance in any way, shape or form," he says. 

Big business "big and tough"

Ms Carnell says the time she has spent at the AFGC and the ACCI will be of assistance in her new role.

While the ACCI has in the past been seen as representing the interests of the top end of town, Ms Carnell stresses the industry organisation's membership is "predominantly SMEs".  

At the ACCI  she headed campaigns to bring in an effects test and reduce penalty rates and Mr Strong says she was focused more on the small business side of the membership than previous chiefs.

"She knows the small business community would just be in shock if she went in there [as ombudsman] and became a big business sop," he says.

Ms Carnell says her focus on SMEs at ACCI was driven by the sheer weight of numbers with Australia estimated to have two million small enterprises.  

"If we want Australia to grow and for us to address unemployment rates we really need to enable the SME and family enterprise sectors to grow," she says. 

"There's an element of truth that big business can look after itself. They're big and tough."

In contrast Ms Carnell says the SME sector is "a broad church" with a wide range of interests to address "and on the whole they are busy running their businesses". 

"We want them to get on with running their business and making it easier to employ and not letting government rules and regulation get in the way." 

Her agenda 

Ms Carnell is still determining the make up of her office and staff along with the policy areas she is going to focus on.

"Whatever is the most efficient way to do that is what I will do," she says.

 Her first step, she says, will be to talk to Mark Brennan, the outgoing small business commissioner, and she will also work closely with O'Dwyer, Rowland and the cross benchers.  

While the role of small business ombudsman replaces that of small business commissioner she says "we don't want to reinvent the wheel here.  I am hoping to be a very strong advocate for the sector to work closely with industry associations and small business generally." 

MS Carnell says small business needs a "one stop shop" to go to with issues.

"I'd like to make sure that small business has a very strong voice inside all parts of government not just the small business ministers office but more broadly," she says.

The solution according to Ms Carnell is to "press the flesh".

"A lot of this is about going and listening and talking, I hope I can convince [government] departments to run regulations and laws past us to ensure that they are small business friendly," she says.  

Patience pays off

Mr Strong says patience has paid off after COSBOA first called for a small business ombudsman when it was first formed in 1977.  

He says some big businesses have used their money, resources and political influence to stop any policy that may provide fairness for small business at the expense of their bullying business models.

"COSBOA also has bitter experience with ideological policy makers who see small businesses as unimportant in economic terms and show our sector scant respect," he says. "Finally COSBOA knows that government agencies still design tender processes and business communications to make their job easier rather than get the best business outcome for government. Hopefully all this can change."

Former small business minister, Bruce Billson, who conceived the role of a small business ombudsman, says Ms Carnell is exactly the sort of person he envisaged for the job with "a deep and enduring commitment to enterprising people and a comprehensive understanding of the workings of government". 

He says Ms Carnell will act as a concierge for self-employed, small businesses and family enterprises seeking to fairly resolve disputes quickly and to get back to business by making best use of the range of State, Commonwealth and industry-led schemes.

"Making sure that the Commonwealth and its agencies are fully informed about the needs and aspirations of smaller enterprises, and ensuring these interests are 'front of mind' in policy development, program design and procurement, is another key aspect of the role that Kate is uniquely qualified to deliver," Mr Billson says. 

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