What I've Learned: Brendan O'Connor

Federal Minister for Small Business, Brendan O'Connor, stopped by our offices last week to chat about all things small business. But first, we asked him a little about himself.

Thanks for coming in today. First up, I’ve got a very easy question for you. What was your first job, going back to your teens?
My first paid job was delivering papers. Getting up early, dodging dogs, making sure you got the round done. And gave me a sense of independent income, which was good. And I think that’s what I learnt about getting up early. So yeah, that as my first job.

So it was really about being reliable and turning up to work on time?
Yeah, that’s it. You couldn’t miss a paper round because there would be enormous complaints, so you’ve just gotta get up and do it, regardless of rain, hail or shine -  and you had to watch out for some of those canines. 

I'm sure a lot of people relate to that! So tell us, what was the worst gig you’ve had?
I think all jobs, I’ve learnt something from. Probably some of the tougher ones physically were when I worked on building sites when I was young. I’ve worked in hospitals cleaning toilets. I’ve worked in factories on assembly lines. When I was at university I worked on factory assembly lines. So they were quite mundane. The thing though for me was I always probably knew I was going to get out. I knew a lot of those workers were probably going to stay there. If they weren’t going to acquire skills, they were going to be there for 40 years. So however hard it was for me by working in those types of jobs, I knew I had opportunities for me because I was getting an education. So I was lucky. I never felt I was unlucky doing a job. My parents were factory workers and I was glad to sort of understand their experience by doing it myself.

You would've met a lot of people in those industries?
You talk to all walks of life as a politician, whether you’re a local member or a minister and you talk to a lot of young people and one of the things I like to impart upon them is education is a passport out of mundane oppressive jobs, ones that have got no variety and there’s not a lot of fulfilment necessarily. And I try to impress upon them they must acquire skills, knowledge so they can have an interesting life. Particularly now with the mobility of people, whether they own their own business or whether they work for someone, they just need skills. Keep upskilling and acquiring new skills so you that you’ve got a place in the market. It’s as simple as that, so that’s my message to young people in this ever changing world. 

So what is the best job you’ve had so far in your career?
Probably what I do now. Being a member of parliament is a great honour and when the Prime Minister asked me to take on this role, and also appointed Cabinet, she did a number of things. She elevated the portfolio and therefore the constituency of small business around the cabinet table. That was really great and I was honoured to be in that position. I really get a great sense of fulfilment getting out across the country, talking to literally hundreds of small businesses, so this I have to say is one of the greatest honours. One of the most interesting jobs. You meet so many amazing people. People who put their life savings on the line to create a business make for quite inspiring stuff.

My final question for you today Minister, is if you were to quit politics for whatever reason and you were to start a business, what industry would you go into and what skills do you have today that would help you succeed?
I’ve had the great benefit of meeting a lot of people who have great skills themselves and certainly my 11 years in the Federal Parliament has given me great opportunities and insights into not only this sector, but other walks of life. I haven’t got a firm view as to what I might do if and when I’m to leave at Parliament. Obviously it’s going to be at some point, at this point, I’m committed to running at the next Election. But I tell you one thing, whatever I do, it will involve being closer to my family, spending more time at home. You’re literally away half the nights a year when you’re a federal politician and look you’re a volunteer, no point in...but it means you sacrifice a lot with your family. So returning home more often or being at home would be essential and whatever else I might do after politics, but I’m too busy at the moment to even contemplate what I might be doing beyond this professional career.

What did you fancy you were going to do when you were younger? Did you think you were going into politics?
I wouldn't have at that point and even then, I was looking at law, I studied law. Look whatever I do, I’m sure it will be informed by the skills I’ve acquired in the last 10 years. There’s no doubt in the last decade, It is a rewarding job, there are sacrifices, but it is a job that you feel privileged to serve the constituency. And certainly serve as a Minister, it’s just a remarkable honour. So it’s very hard to beat this, after this.

But I’d like to do something a bit smaller, a bit more flexible, a bit more balanced work and family. That would be my preference. Even if I had to work considerable hours, I’d like to spend more time actually in my own home state and in my home. If that’s possible, then it will be that sort of path I take. But at this point, I’ve not really planned ahead beyond the Parliament, I'll think about that as I get closer to the end of my parliamentary career.

What are your top skills?
I would hope would think that I had capacity to present a case and to advocate on behalf of a constituency and to engage people fully, that’s the skills Parliamentarians should have, I guess it’s up to others to judge whether I do have them. But they’re the sort of things you get to refine and develop as a politician, the ability to present an argument, the ability to listen to people and respond to their concerns. And hopefully those types of skills and experiences will allow me to find a new path after Parliament.

I think today, with the expectations on people in public life, people won’t spend as long in Parliament as they once did historically. I don't want to be there for years and years, it’s just not something I want to do. I also think there will be another phase in my life. I think I’m like a lot of people. There was once where you hit 50 and you start to slow down, but I think now we do think we’ve got more opportunities for longer, because we’re living longer and we want to be more productive for longer, but I have to say, I wouldn’t probably pick something that was as intensive as this opportunity.

For the younger generation, I’m thinking my children’s age who are 7 and 9 now, I wouldn’t recommend they go into the public sector, which is where my wife works, at all. Would you recommend that as something to your offspring? Would you encourage her into small business?
I’ve only got one daughter and she’s even younger than your kids. I’m not sure I’d encourage her into public life or public office. I just hope she has many options available to her and she does something she loves. In the end, the best thing people can do if they’re picking a career or picking a job or creating a business is do what you love. If you’ve done that, one you’re probably in the minority of people, but you’ve found the answer to having a happy life. In the end, that’s what people should be thinking about when they choose a career.

[Check back tomorrow for Part II of our interview, when we stick your questions to The Minister. Don't worry, nobody gets hurt.]
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