4 April 2023

Address to COSBOA National Small Business Summit, Melbourne

I’ve had the honour of meeting some amazing small business people in recent months.

That includes small business owners in Lismore where they’re getting back on their feet after a difficult stretch.

The traders at the Adelaide Central Markets where they’re a community within a community.

The team at WA Small Business Development Corporation where they’re willing and wanting business to succeed.

And, of course, the small businesses at home on Hobart’s eastern shore, where you always get a warm welcome.

These businesses might be from different corners of Australia, they might be selling different products and services, yet they share common goals and concerns.

And, for me, that’s what this national summit is all about — talking about the key issues and the pressure points for small businesses across the country.

Better deal for small business

It’s been a busy first year for the Albanese government.

As promised, we hit the ground running on our plan to get a better deal for small businesses.

One of our first actions was to strengthen unfair contract terms protections.

We introduced civil penalties outlawing the use of, and reliance on, unfair terms in standard form contracts.

And we expanded coverage so more small business contracts will be protected.

We also announced $18.6 million in funding for a new round of the Digital Solutions – Australian Small Business Advisory Services Program.

Earlier this week I announced the three successful providers who will deliver advisory services to small businesses for the next three years.

Unlocking online opportunities, the funding provides grants to service providers for every state and territory.

It means small businesses wanting to get online can access high quality advice at low cost, no matter where they’re located.

We also announced $62.6 million in funding for an energy savings grant program, which will be delivered in two rounds.

It’s about supporting small and medium‑sized businesses to upgrade to energy efficient technologies.

We made good on our commitment to update government procurement rules to open the door to more opportunities for SMEs.

The rules now require that 20 per cent of procurements by value are sourced from SMEs, up from the previous target of 10 per cent.

And we announced Dr Craig Emerson – no stranger to COSBOA as a former Minister for Small Business – is leading an independent review of the Payment Times Reporting Act 2020.

The review matters because better payment times matter.

There’s a potential to not only improve cashflow but provide more certainty around planning.

We’ve also kicked off a new era of governments working together.

Late last year, I hosted a roundtable with my small business state and territory counterparts – the first meeting of its kind in eight years.

Taken together, these actions deliver a better deal for small businesses now and in the longer term.

Cost of doing business

Laying this groundwork is crucial because the small business community continues to face a range of challenges.

That is evident from COSBOA’s budget submission which listed 29 priorities.

One of the big challenges we face is inflation.

We know that small businesses are feeling the effects.

Inflation is driving up your business costs.

And these price hits are occurring when many are still finding their way following the pandemic and natural disasters.

We’re following a three‑point plan for tackling the inflation challenge.

First, we’re providing responsible cost‑of‑living relief.

As the Treasurer has already flagged, ‘the centrepiece of the May Budget will be direct energy bill relief for struggling families and businesses.’

Second, we’re removing some of the obstacles holding back the growth of our economy.

And third, we’re managing the budget in a responsible way.

You can expect to see that plan underpin the Federal Budget handed down in a few weeks.

Worker shortages

We also know that many small businesses are struggling to fill vacancies in an already tight labour market.

We understand the importance of skilled labour for small businesses and we’ve acted on several fronts.

We’ve increased the Migration Program, from 160,000 up to 195,000 places in 2022‑23.

We’ve accelerated the delivery of 465,000 additional fee‑free TAFE places.

And we’ve established Jobs and Skills Australia.

Jobs and Skills Australia will have two major roles as an independent agency.

First, it will use data, evidence and analysis to bring a sharper focus on workforce planning and forecasting.

Second, it will have a mandate to forge closer partnerships with:

  • state and territory governments
  • industry, business peaks, unions, and
  • training and education providers.

Reflecting that approach, a consultative forum – including a COSBOA representative – will advise Jobs and Skills Australia.

On top of that, Jobs and Skills Councils will give industry – those on the ground – a greater say on Australia’s vocational education and training needs.

Workplace relations

Last year, the government delivered its first tranche of workplace relations reforms to improve job security and wages.

We’re pleased our changes:

  • improve bargaining and workplace relationships
  • increase job security and gender equality
  • improve workplace conditions and protections, and
  • restore balance to workplace relations institutions.

We’re also pleased the changes incorporate measures specific to the needs of small businesses.

For example, there’s an exemption from being compelled into the single interest bargaining stream if you employ less than 20 employees.

The Fair Work Commission can provide greater assistance to help you navigate the bargaining system – if you choose to go that way – including through the cooperative bargaining stream.

And there’s support for small businesses around the 10‑day paid family and domestic violence leave entitlement.

Looking ahead, we’re working to deliver our remaining election commitments as well as several outcomes from the Jobs and Skills Summit.

Cyber security

Cyber security is another huge issue, especially following some major data breaches.

We know digital technology delivers many benefits, but it can also leave businesses – big and small – open to cyber attack.

In 2021‑22, over 76,000 cybercrimes were reported to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, an increase of nearly 13 per cent from the previous financial year.

The average loss for small businesses per reported cybercrime was almost $40,000.

From the government’s perspective, we know we need better national laws.

My colleague, the Minister for Cyber Security, Clare O’Neil is taking the lead on that.

She says, ‘Australia has a patchwork of policies, laws and frameworks that are not keeping up with the challenges presented by the digital age.’

To fix that we’re developing the 2023–2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy.

It will outline the government’s long‑term vision for cyber security.

And it will identify the concrete steps required to get there.

The small business community is encouraged to have a say as part of the process.

In developing the strategy, we’re asking ‘What assistance do small businesses need from government to manage their cyber security risks to keep their data and their customers’ data safe?

I know COSBOA is rolling out the Cyber Wardens program.

And I know this is a crucial area for many of your members and I will continue working with my colleagues to progress this important work.

Resilience and natural disasters

Unfortunately, natural disaster is a term we’ve heard all too often in recent years.

The government is actively working to improve the delivery of disaster supports for the small business community.

We are providing significant funding for recovery.

We are streamlining small business disaster recovery assistance.

And we have established reviews to improve the disaster support system.

Since the start of last year, over $3.2 billion has been provided under the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment to support impacted communities and $233 million in Disaster Recovery Allowance income support payments.

The National Emergency Management Agency has developed a streamlined process for activating assistance for small business under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.

And the government has announced an Independent Review of Commonwealth Disaster Funding, undertaken by Mr Andrew Colvin AO APM.

The Colvin Review will consider how Australian government disaster funding can better support our wellbeing, productivity and economic security.

At the same time, we’ve turned our attention to preparedness.

We set aside $1 billion in the October Budget over the next five years to establish a Disaster Ready Fund.

This fund will provide up to $200 million each year, to invest in disaster risk reduction projects.

This could include projects such as flood levees, sea walls and firebreaks to reduce community risk to disasters and help build community resilience.

Small business wellbeing support

I want to finish by commending COSBOA for putting mental health support for small business owners high on their priority list.

Treasury’s report, published last year, found a significant number of small business owners are struggling with mental health challenges.

In fact, more than one in five (22 per cent) small business owners surveyed said a doctor or health professional had diagnosed them with a mental health condition in recent months.

That’s why we committed more than $15 million for tailored programs to support small business owners' mental health and financial wellbeing in the October Budget.

We extended funding for Beyond Blue’s NewAccess for Small Business Owners program – it’s free and all the coaches have backgrounds in small business.

The funding also extends Financial Counselling Australia’s Small Business Debt Helpline – a national phone service offering free and confidential financial counselling.

Thank you for spreading the word about these services through your networks.

Saying yes to small business

Our government’s wider agenda will also benefit Australia’s small businesses.

Again and again we have said ‘yes’ to helping support Australia’s small businesses.

This is all about setting small businesses up for success whilst acknowledging the serious challenges they face.

But after the historic result here in Melbourne over the weekend it is worth reflecting on who is saying ‘no’ to small business.

On so many of the practical measures our government has proposed that will support small business, the Opposition Leader and the Liberal party have said ‘no’.

In December they said ‘no’ to the Energy Bill Relief Fund which I spoke about earlier.

This Fund will provide up to $1.5 billion in targeted relief to families and small businesses to shield them from the impact of rising global energy prices.

I know just crucial this support will be for small businesses who tell me about cost pressures.

This year the Opposition Leader and the Liberal party said ‘no’ to the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.

One of the key functions of this Fund is to improve supply chain resilience which I know is critically important to Australian small businesses.

In February I introduced legislation to help address Australia’s housing challenges.

This includes the Housing Australia Future Fund which will deliver thousands of new affordable housing properties.

One of the issues that I hear raised again and again by small businesses is the lack of affordable housing holding them back.

But on this issue the Opposition Leader and the Liberal party again said ‘no’.

The Opposition Leader has pointed to small business as a key constituency for his party in the aftermath of the Aston by‑election.

But small businesses are smart.

They know when it matters the Opposition Leader and his party have said ‘no’ to them.

Support for small business is about much more than words.

It’s about saying ‘yes’ when it matters.

I want to assure you today that the Albanese government is listening, and we will keep saying ‘yes’ to small business.

Closing remarks

Thank you again to COSBOA for inviting me to speak to you today.

The government has moved quickly to deliver a better deal for small businesses.

Better unfair contract laws.

Better digital training.

Better energy efficiency.

Better access to government procurement.

Better payment times.

I’ve mentioned some significant pressure points.


Skills shortages.

Cyber threats.

Natural disasters.

Mental health.

And that’s why I’m grateful to be part of today’s crucial national summit.

It’s a welcome opportunity to work through the challenges, share experiences and objectives.

The issues we discuss here matter to small businesses in every corner of Australia.

Thank you and all the best for tonight’s dinner and your small business champion awards.