Canberra thinks it's doing enough to help small businesses navigate digital

Nearly two years after a report on the impacts of global internet-based competition on local businesses in Australia, the government has summarised work it has been doing in the small business space.

The Australian government has responded to a report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science, and Resources that in March 2018 asked for further support from Canberra in assisting small businesses navigate the digital era.

The report [PDF] resulting from the committee's inquiry into impacts on local businesses in Australia from global internet-based competition made a total of six recommendations, seeking mainly education material and more involvement from government in helping bring small businesses up to speed.

Information provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in June showed that while 97% of Australian businesses have an internet connection, only 54% have a web presence, 45% a social media presence, 62% place orders via the internet, and 41% receive orders via the internet.  

The first recommendation, which the government subsequently "noted", was that it establish a digital grants program for small business that would provide small businesses with grants to assist them take advantage of digital economy opportunities such as online retail.

"There are a number of initiatives already underway aimed at providing opportunities for small business to take advantage of digital economy opportunities not only through grants-based programs but also through other support," the government said in its response [PDF].

It pointed to the Australian Small Business Advisory Services (ASBAS) Digital Solutions program, which provides AU$18 million over three years to give advice to small businesses on websites and selling online, social media and digital marketing, using small business software, and online security and data privacy.

Advisory services are delivered through group workshops, online training, and one-to-one coaching.

See also: How small businesses can deal with getting regulated (TechRepublic)  

It also pointed to the government's Small Business Growth Package that provides 100 small businesses with a "comprehensive digital transformation" for their business. Up to AU$18,500 in digital support is up for grabs, and the recipients will be used as "interactive" online case studies.

Another recommendation was that the government establish a digital retraining fund to provide a small, means tested subsidy to Australian workers to undertake training to "improve their competency in digital skills that will assist them to find or maintain employment in the future".

In its response, the government said it is currently implementing initiatives to help address this issue.

"The government supports this recommendation in principle," it said. "The government recognises the importance of skills and lifelong learning for workers of all ages. Supporting workers to re-skill and upskill so they can move quickly into new jobs is fundamental to responding to technological change."

Likewise with a recommendation asking for the development of a forecasting capability to determine future digital skills needs, Canberra said it supports the idea.

It pointed to the future establishment of a National Skills Commission (NSC) under the Skills Package initiative that was announced in the 2019-20 Budget.

The NSC, the government said, would play a central role in skills demand forecasting in the future, driving research, and the analysis of future skills needs across industry, to ensure the VET system addresses national labour market priorities, including those arising from emerging technologies, such as automation, artificial intelligence, and new industries.

The committee also called for the development of educational materials aimed at encouraging small business to participate in the digital economy, covering emerging technologies and opportunities to collaborate with universities; the risks and benefits of using digital platforms and how to access and use the data; cybersecurity information; and other case studies.

"The government supports this recommendation and will continue to identify channels to ensure small businesses have the knowledge to successfully participate in the digital economy," it wrote.

The report from the committee was published prior to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launching its Digital Platforms Inquiry, which made a total of 23 recommendations.

As a result, the remainder of the recommendations the committee made -- consideration in reforming competition law and that digital platforms should not engage in monopolistic or anti-competitive practice -- were handled by the ACCC.

"The government accepts the ACCC's overriding conclusion that there is a need for reform," it wrote.

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