An interview with Australia's first small business ombudsman Kate Carnell

Margaret Paton

This week, Kate Carnell steps down as Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, and commences her duties as Australia’s first Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

The former ACT Chief Minister has also held a slew of senior positions spanning CEO of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, CEO of beyondblue, and executive director of the National Association of Forest Industries.

ShortPress: How has your role at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry surprised you?

Kate Carnell: It’s incredibly broad based. The number of issues we deal with: industrial relations, workplace health and safety, as well as obvious issues such as economics and tax, but also gender equality and workplace mental health. We have fewer than thirty staff and that very small group of people manage to deliver extraordinary work, such as submissions to inquiries or government. It’s an enormous output.

ShortPress: What would you identify as your three legacy achievements in the role?

Kate Carnell: We’ve lifted our profile, rebranded to be more forward-looking and modern, and we’ve repositioned the organisation more to the centre of the political landscape.

We’ve also significantly increased our membership. We used to have twenty-nine association members - now we have close to sixty. We’ve also implemented the new Australian Chamber Business Leaders Council. We run events to offer lots of opportunities for our members to listen to high-profile politicians and regulators.

ShortPress: Highlights and lowlights of your time at Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry?

Kate Carnell: Last year’s federal budget with the government’s focus on small business was a highlight. We worked closely with the then Small Business Minister Bruce Billson to lobby for the $20,000 instant asset write-off for small business.

Other changes coming through are tax issues (the corporate tax rate down from 30 per cent to 28.5 per cent) and the new law allowing small businesses to restructure without having to pay capital gains tax immediately. They seem little, but they really matter.

Lowlights? We’ve not been able to get industrial relations reform on the agenda for business in general. Industrial relations is complex, difficult and stifling for growth. It’s not very well understood by small-to-medium-sized enterprises. We’ve not managed to get either side of politics to really take hold of the IR system and make it work for SMEs.

In my new role, I’ll be looking to raise the issue with government because I’m quite sure small business will raise it. You can’t get the economy powering if you don’t get small business powering.

I definitely do not want to live in the bubble of Canberra. It’s important to really understand what’s happening on the ground.

ShortPress: Your key messages for the small business sector?

Kate Carnell: I’ve run my own small business and I know it can be pretty isolating. It’s really important that small businesses join their local chamber or industry groups, or both. Get involved – you get lots out of it and meet people who are doing the same as you – you can help each other have a strong voice. A big business can walk into the Prime Minister’s office, but it’s hard for small businesses to do that. They’re too busy making ends meet.

It’s amazing how hard it is to get businesses to tell us what their problems are. Get the things that are bugging you about small business off your chest and tell people about it – not just your family and friends. We [at the chamber] can’t change the system unless we know. The reality is we can do something about it. I definitely do not want to live in the bubble of Canberra. It’s important to really understand what’s happening on the ground. And, in my new role, I want people to get on the phone and email me with their feedback.

ShortPress: Reflecting on your time as a small business owner in pharmacy, what would you do differently?

Kate Carnell: Now I understand the industrial relations system and know there are a range of flexible options available although not as many as we’d like.

ShortPress: What do you enjoy most about being a business lobbyist?

Kate Carnell: The most interesting thing about lobbying on behalf of small business is that most people have a very soft spot for small business. They’re very positive. Small business is 95 per cent of Australian businesses yet the tax and Industrial Relations systems are [mostly] the same for big and small business – for BHP and the corner store.

When I was visiting northern NSW, the local business chamber, one of their representatives told me about a problem small businesses had with superannuation payments. Under the legislation at the time, when you get behind with your payments to staff, the penalties were huge and a disincentive to get back on track. We heard it was a real problem and lobbied the government and others so the legislation has now been changed.

It’s amazing how hard it is to get businesses to tell us what their problems are.

ShortPress: More recently you’ve been lobbying for more government support for small businesses to harness a global network of customers. Tell us about that.

Kate Carnell: People think exporting is for big business, but with the services industry space there are opportunities. A couple of mining-engineering workers in Western Australia who had lost their job asked their adult children to set up a website. Those workers now consult into China and other places. Also, Bellamy, a Tasmanian organic company, has taken their organic baby milk and food products to China and beyond and are still manufacturing out of Launceston. The agrifood space is big – people around the world want quality products that are green and clean and Australia does that well.

ShortPress: Are small businesses taking up export opportunities?

Kate Carnell: Free Trade Agreements are just a bit hard to understand for small businesses. This is why the Chamber of Commerce comes into the space as well as others such as the Australian Export Council and Austrade.

There are smart ways to go about exporting. Business Australia (formerly the NSW Business Chamber)  has set up a showcase for SMEs in Shanghai. For about $2000 you can showcase your goods and services for six months there and have someone who understands the culture based there to explain it. The opportunities for exporting are increasing; it’s just about thinking outside the square.

ShortPress: What are you looking forward to the most about being Australia’s first Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman?

Kate Carnell: I’m looking forward to setting up the office, to really making it work the way I know Bruce Billson and [Federal Minister for Small Business and Assistant Treasurer] Kelly O’Dwyer have indicated. The role is about advocacy and assisting small business, undertaking research, inquiries in legislative policies, and of course giving advice to the Minister to make sure what they’re doing is small-business friendly. The aim is to get small business a higher profile within government so they know what small business is thinking and needing.


Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe.

Image: Kate Carnell Facebook page