2021 John Monash Oration - We can and we must: securing Australia’s economic future

03 November 2021

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott, Business Council of Australia chief executive

Venue: Online event, Sydney 

When: Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Topics: Securing Australia’s economic future; decarbonisation; skills; China; state border restrictions


***Check against delivery***

Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we're meeting on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Can I acknowledge the wisdom and custodianship of the oldest continuous culture in the world.

I also acknowledge the hurt.

I believe recognising the First Australians in the Constitution and ensuring that they have a voice in the running of this country would deliver dignity for all Australians.

An act where every Australian, now and in the future, will benefit from their wisdom.

Can I thank the General Sir John Monash Foundation for the invitation to speak today and acknowledge his family members.

And I thank the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for sponsoring this event.

Today I've been asked to speak about leadership in the age of COVID – in particular the role of business in driving our recovery from this crisis.

The last two years have been game changing.

More than five million people around the world have died.

Each of them was someone who mattered in someone else's life. They were not a statistic.

We've had a rolling series of natural disasters, here and around the globe.

And we’ve witnessed seismic shifts in the world order.

We have seen people, governments – and businesses – step up in profound ways.

Step up like never before to demonstrate the best of human nature and good leadership through:

  • kindness
  • collaboration
  • innovation
  • alliances and partnerships, and
  • through a surprising coming together to solve problems – indeed – to save our economies and save our humanity.

We’ve seen unusual heroes and incredible bravery.

Not just by our doctors, nurses and emergency services workers but:

  • our retail workers
  • our telecommunications technicians
  • our bank tellers
  • our posties and delivery drivers, and
  • our food producers.

Day after day, they kept us safe, our shelves stocked and our essential services running.

We owe them our unwavering gratitude.

I am incredibly proud to represent the business community, especially during this period.

Never before has it been more important to have profitable, successful businesses with committed leaders and robust balance sheets.

Business wasn’t asked to step up – they ran at this.

Anybody who thinks that companies making ethical profits is a bad thing needs to search their soul and ask where Australia would be now without:

  • strong banks with strong balance sheets
  • retailers managing supply chain bottlenecks
  • businesses digitising, some overnight, adopting new technologies and finding new ways of working
  • companies like Resmed and GE switching their production lines to make ventilators, and
  • the essential providers who maintained our critical services.

In Australia, governments also stepped up.

They acted quickly. They were decisive.

They put ideology aside. They put a floor under the economy to preserve the livelihoods of Australians.

As we emerge from the worst of this crisis, we find the world in a very different place.

Now the role of leadership is to task ourselves with the job of shaping the future.

That task has a horizon of 30 years, not six months.

It must begin by asking the question: what kind of society and country – indeed world – do we want to shape?

In shaping the future, leaders must do two things:

  • firstly, give people hope by inspiring them about what could be, and
  • secondly, build trust and confidence by demonstrating that things can get done.

Three examples come to mind.

If I think about inspiration, I think about John F Kennedy.

In 1961, he promised to put a man on the moon within a decade, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

In July 1969, when Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon's surface he unleashed an astonishing era of imagination and innovation.

Great companies then harnessed that technological age which continues to define us today.

When I think about building trust and confidence, I think about US President Franklin D Roosevelt in World War Two.

By 1944, the United States was building nearly 100,000 planes a year and producing more than three warships a day.

But it’s often forgotten that this was the combination of a great leader and the brilliance and innovation of America’s industrial titans.

It was the industrial infrastructure they had put in place that allowed the United States to unleash a wave of unprecedented production.

That production spurred the military and industrial complex that drove the huge expansion of the United States economy after the war.

During our darkest days, the private sector stepped up and helped rewrite the course of history.

Just as business working with government did during the pandemic to keep our societies and our economies intact:

  • whether that was developing vaccines, or
  • the banks, like the one I’m standing in today, having the infrastructure and capacity to defer someone’s loan to keep them in their home and keep them in their business.

And if I think about inspiration, trust and confidence, I do think of General Sir John Monash.

It is often said that his troops sometimes didn’t know what was in front of them but they were confident about what was behind them – support.

They knew he had their backs.

One of the things that made John Monash so unique was his incredible blend of mindsets.

The mindset of the engineer who when faced with enormous physical obstacles brings their precision and skill and says we can.

And the mindset of the general, who when faced with overwhelming odds brings unwavering purpose, meticulous planning and total commitment and says we must.

Today, we can – and we must – find those great leadership attributes again.

We must inspire. And we must build trust and confidence by getting things done.

We must take hold of our future.

And the private sector must now take the baton from government to recover from this crisis but most importantly to build the next golden era of prosperity.

But this era will not come automatically.

It will only come with a greater sense of purpose, precision and meticulous planning because post COVID we find ourselves in a very different and more difficult world.

What do I mean by that?

Our world order has dramatically changed.

The rise of a more aggressive China with an economic and geopolitical agenda that is not benign.

But make no mistake.

For Australia to prosper, it is essential that we have an economic and strategic relationship with China.

But this should not have to come at the expense of our sovereignty or our values.

At the same time as China’s rise, the United States – for so long a great force for stability, prosperity and peace – has become more inward looking.

The west now looks to America to be that compass once again. Now more than ever, we need the United States to step up, find its voice and lead.

Our world is more difficult because it's more complex.

Global forces – technology, digitisation, disruption, and climate change – mean that our assumptions about how we grow, how we prosper, how we produce things and how we trade have all changed.

Our world is more indebted than at any time in human history with $93 trillion (USD) of public debt.

That places huge challenges on governments and will require a laser focus on how we grow through private sector activity.

Finally, the world is more difficult because we are still deeply divided.

The deep divisions that put Donald Trump in the White House and drove Brexit remain.

These are not the views of the so-called deplorables.

These are the views of the disenfranchised.

The people and the communities who think that no matter how hard they work, the system is stacked against them.

And the job of leadership is not to paper over these divisions but to understand them.

False prophets and false promises will never heal these divisions.

This job cannot be left to governments alone.

It is our collective responsibility to make sure that opportunities and advancements are available to every Australian.

For Australia to respond to the challenges of a more dangerous, difficult and complex world, we can – and we must – do two things.

We must take control of our economic and strategic future and we must regain our sense of nationhood.

Securing our economic future means reimagining it.

Building a more innovative, more diverse and more advanced economy.

Business must lead this.

To scale this up we must:

  • build on our strengths, and
  • enthusiastically seize the early mover advantage in new and emerging industries.

It’s through these actions that we can be the leading economic power in the Indo Pacific and strengthen our clout as a global middle power.

  • This is how we will get more money into the pockets of Australians.
  • This is how we’ll grow our living standards.
  • This is how we will pay for our vital social safety net.
  • This is how we’ll pay down debt.
  • And this is how we remain a strong and stable country.

The best way to think about this task, which is fundamentally about unleashing the private sector, is to apply the mindset and discipline of the private sector.

When leading businesses, large and small, think about their future, they ask:

  • what are our opportunities, adjacencies, targets and milestones?
  • what are we good at?
  • who do we partner with?
  • how do we skill up our people, and
  • how much do we need to invest?

Australia is already doing much of this.

In resources and mining, we are world beaters.

We are the most productive, the most efficient in the world and the demand for our resources will only get stronger. It will also be different.

We are sitting on the stockpile of resources that will power up the modern economy.

Tesla, a trillion-dollar company, alone could soon consume more than $1 billion a year of Australian lithium, nickel and rare earth minerals. That’s just one company.

In respect of food, we are sitting on the doorstep of the world’s largest emerging middle class in Asia – estimated to reach 3.5 billion people by the end of the decade.

They already buy our clean, green premium products at premium prices, whether its dairy, meat, wine or grains.

Their appetite will only grow as we further expand into high-end food manufacturing.

In the world of advanced manufacturing, we have to dispel the myth that we don’t and that we are not going to make things in Australia.

There are enormous opportunities here.

We can be the defence industry superpower in the Indo Pacific.

We can be part of the space economy producing the high-end electronics for rockets.

We can be part of processing new composite materials and 3D printing which will be how everything is made in the future.

We can be part of the explosion in global healthcare services.

In digital, if we consolidate our global advantages in quantum technology we can be at the forefront of how the world will work.

In computational analysis, why would you do something slowly and sequentially when you could do some simultaneously and at warp speed?

We can be world leaders in services by developing and exporting our expertise in clean energy projects, engineering, ICT, consulting services and education.

And off the back of the AUKUS deal, there’s enormous potential for Australian industry to develop new capabilities if only we would drop the ideology about not having a nuclear industry.

Of course, I’m not talking necessarily about nuclear power but all the adjacencies that having a nuclear capability bring like nuclear medicine and complex electronics.

We are in the box seat to respond to changing global demands.

We already have the early mover advantage in the emerging industries and capabilities that are going to dominate the global economy.

But the challenge is how we supercharge it.

We can – and we must – drive business investment through our tax system and a world class regulation system so we are a magnet for capital.

We can – and we must – unleash the power of our university sector with a world class research translation and commercialisation fund.

We can – and we must – drive national precincts that scale up new industries in key parts of Australia.

We can – and we must – turn around our poor performing skills system which I’ll talk about later.

We can – and we must – harness the collaboration we found during COVID to encourage workers, their unions and employers to sit down and transform our economy together through a modern industrial relations system.

We can – and we must – drive infrastructure that builds the nation, links us from coast to coast, unites cities and regions and positions us for this golden era of prosperity.

And finally, we can – and we must – decarbonise our economy.

Failing to do this will be the single biggest drag on our ability to compete in the new world.

The worst false prophet is someone who says that by doing nothing, nothing will happen.

And the worst false promise is that there aren’t trade-offs or hard decisions.

The science is in, financial markets are moving and the global momentum for action is now unstoppable.

Australia faces two choices:

  • we can either be overwhelmed by change and left to play a costly game of catch up, or
  • we can take control and coordinate our efforts.

And the government has rightly made the commitment to net zero and we congratulate them for this.

But it is the private sector that can, that is – and that must take the lead.

Just like the other transformations I’ve spoken about we are in the box seat.

We can – and we must – seize the early mover advantage.

But the task is substantial.

I think that people forget that achieving net zero by 2050 is not a slogan.

It will require a permanent change to our economy – meaning that by the second half of the century on a permanent basis we are producing no net carbon emissions.

This is at the heart of reimagining our economic and strategic future.

While we have a role and responsibility as part of a global economy, make no mistake this transition is squarely in Australia’s interest.

The worst mistake would be to delay.

Unchecked climate change is an economic as well as an environmental disaster.

The world is moving. Business is moving.

Regardless of what happens in Glasgow, our trading partners are demanding greener products.

Australians get this.

From Townsville to the Hunter, from Launceston to Geelong, from Whyalla to the Pilbara, they are organising themselves to seize that opportunity.

They are not going to be driven by fear; they are taking control of their futures.

But the challenge is how.

The principal task of the how is bringing forward the technologies that can be scaled up to reduce emissions now and drive investment in the new technologies and new opportunities.

And the how must be about the private sector.

So, the Business Council has put forward businesses’ plan to achieve net zero emissions.

It is:

  • driven by business
  • backed by business
  • written by business
  • written by:
  • the miners
  • the generators
  • the retailers
  • the consumers
  • the manufacturers, and
  • the financiers.

This is businesses’ plan because it is business that must lead this change.

It is business that will create:

  • the new industries
  • the new jobs, and
  • the new export opportunities.

And our plan unleashes the private sector by putting forward a comprehensive architecture which:

  • commits to net zero to give certainty
  • introduces 10-year carbon budgets with five-year reviews
  • lifts the ambition of our 2030 interim target
  • changes the safeguard mechanism to deliver a strong carbon investment signal to bring forward new technologies
  • deepens our offsets markets
  • drives investment in technology and innovation
  • creates a low carbon regional roadmap
  • constantly updates our adaptation strategy, and
  • empowers the Climate Change Authority to drive policy integration and coordination.

We can – and we must – do this to secure our economic and strategic future – and we are doing this.

The architecture I have outlined builds on the architecture that is already in place. We don’t have to start from scratch.

We are forecast to exceed our 2030 emissions reduction target.

Businesses like BHP, Fortescue, BlueScope and Rio Tinto are on the case.

They are leading the world by expanding into new energy sources and reducing their own carbon footprint by making their operations and processes more efficient.

The giant industrial companies here and around the world are taking action, not because it is easy – they know it is hard.

They are not taking action for symbolic reasons; they are doing it so they can survive and thrive.

The risk right now is that business runs faster than government policy.

This is why our plan calls for greater coordination.

This is why our plan calls for the things that will attract and drive the right private sector investment.

And make no mistake, if we plan and coordinate properly we will create those new jobs in the regions because the simple reality is you can’t do it anywhere else.

A reimagined economy and a more secure nation requires a more skilled society.

We have to reimagine our talent attraction, our skills system and our education system.

Migration, because it brings ideas and innovation, creates jobs, it doesn’t destroy them.

We need a skills system that allows industry to lead.

Employers tell me they want it to be easier to retrain and reskill their people, especially when they introduce new technology. They are happy to step up and do this.

Employers want to be able to do this through a blend of university and TAFE short courses or microcredentials that allow people to balance working and learning.

Rather than three-year courses that will be out of date when the last module is written, industry wants to co-design and co-deliver:

  • short
  • sharp
  • specific, and
  • relevant training modules.

People and employers want to be able to update courses quickly as circumstances change.

And employees want their credentials to be stackable, widely recognised and portable.

So, I believe the best way to solve this problem is to adopt a lifelong skills account – to put people and employers in charge of what they learn, what they buy and how they learn.

This is the missing link in our skills system and we must address it.

Of course, fixing our training system only works if young people make the right choices in the secondary system.

We need a revolution in careers advice.

We need students to have a certificate that is like a skills passport when they leave school.

So, employers know that a school leaver:

  • has work-ready skills such as team work and communication
  • has worked or volunteered which should count for something, and
  • has achieved academically in numeracy, literacy and digital skills.

And this will allow people to leave school and potentially work and learn at the same time.

More and more employers, here and overseas, will take workers straight from school.

But perhaps as I stand here today our most urgent task, is to help students catch up after the disruption of COVID.

Are we seriously going to wait for the NAPLAN test in two years’ time to tell us what we already know – that some kids have fallen terribly behind.

Some kids did not have laptops, and their parents didn’t have the time or the capacity to help them with online learning.

Many have missed out on basic socialisation skills.

Some didn’t have homes that were happy or safe.

We can’t wait.

We can – and we must – intervene now.

The year 2022 cannot see the school system ever shutdown again.

The year 2022 is when we use our imagination and our resources to help those kids catch up and if that’s one-to-one tutoring, so be it.

Because in the same way we put a floor under the economy we have to put a floor under those young people’s lives so that they can reach their full potential.

In conclusion, we cannot be a secure country, if our economy is fragile and vulnerable to other nation’s fortunes.

We absolutely cannot achieve what I have outlined today if our sense of nationhood has collapsed and if our federation is not functioning.

As a proud Victorian, John Monash did not fight in World War One for Victoria.

The 1.4 million Australians who fought in the World Wars – did not fight for Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia or for Victoria.

They fought for Australia.

They fought so that we could be one and free.

They fought so we could move freely across our country.

The erosion of liberty is rarely an overnight revolution.

It is diminished incrementally – bit by bit.

It disappears when Australians are subjected to a bewildering and contradictory array of rules about:

  • what is shut down
  • what is open
  • whether people can move around, and
  • whether you can actually leave your home.

In many cases, those decisions were seemingly contracted out to people who we did not elect. 

It starts when police visit to see if you are home three times a week.

It starts when we lose a sense of public accountability and transparency.

We must never give up our freedoms without question.

In wars and in a crisis like COVID, we accept that some freedoms may need to be sacrificed temporarily so we can fight to secure our freedoms in the long run.

But we can never take our freedoms for granted because they are hard won and easily lost.

We can – and we must – turn a corner.

Because a country where our freedoms are diminished is not a country that will drive entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity.

It is not a country that can reimagine its future.

We can – and we must – tear down the fortress and reopen to the rest of the world.

We must allow Australians to move freely around their country again.

And we must always allow them to come back home.

Australian citizenship is something I am so proud of and I know for so many migrants it is the proudest day of their life – and we have to value it and cherish it.

We must signal to the world we are open for business.

And we must make up the shortfall of the half a million workers we need to drive our economic recovery.

If we attract skilled people back, we can power up the new industries I’ve spoken about today.

We can drive the big projects we need to get off the ground and attract the investment to make all of this possible.

As we come into an election year, my challenge is how do we start thinking about shaping the future?

Thinking about what Australians want and what they need.

They want to put their trust and confidence in a vision for the next 30 years.

They want to put their trust and confidence in institutions that are going to get the job done.

They want a sense that we are going to look forward and we are going to take control of the future.

I believe Australia is the greatest country on earth.

I believe we are the lucky country.

I believe, just like John Monash, we can have the backs of all Australians.

To really take advantage of our luck, we can – and we must – once again be inspired to seize control of our future and go forward with purpose, precision and planning.

If we do this, we’ll achieve the anchors of a truly great society:

  • strength through prosperity, and
  • fairness through opportunity.

Thank you.


Latest news