Jennifer Westacott, Interview with Matthew Pantelis, FiveAA

22 August 2023

Event: Jennifer Westacott, Interview with Matthew Pantelis, FiveAA
Speakers: Matthew Pantelis, host, FiveAA; Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: Seize the Moment Report; GST; Intergenerational Report; BCA


Matthew Pantelis: Jennifer, good morning.

Jennifer Westacott: Good morning.

Matthew Pantelis: Alright, tell us about this plan. How will it work? What are the six main points?

Jennifer Westacott: First of all, there are three things we're trying to achieve; we're trying to drive higher wages, we're trying to lock in full employment, and we're trying to lift the living standards of this generation and future generations of Australians. So, how do we want to do that? Firstly, we've got to grow the economy faster. That means we've got to become more productive, more competitive by doing things smarter. That will allow us to do the value-added things in the world's biggest supply chains. And that will allow us to broaden the base of the economy. Then we need to skill our people up like we've never done before, focused on the system of lifelong learning from when you're in early childhood, all the way through to when you're working. We need to deepen our relationships with these emerging economies and get more out of our free trade agreements. We need to make sure governments maintain strong budget positions, so we can pay for the services that people need. And we really need to get the private sector incentivised to do all of the heavy lifting. As you say, we do that, what will happen, we hope, and we know from history, is that our economy will grow faster, and if our economy was growing at 3.3 percent, just to use the data, which is what it used to grow at, our economy in a decade will be $200 billion bigger, governments will have $50 billion in extra revenue, and workers will be $7,000 a year better off.

Matthew Pantelis: It sounds like a plan from, with all due respect, and I don't mean this unkindly, but a ‘Yes, Minister’ type plan where they look at it, and then ultimately go, oh, this is too hard.

Jennifer Westacott: It is a bit hard, but we've got a lot of things in our document that are pretty easy to do, it's just people don't seem to get on with them, to be honest. Like, for example, you know, a lot of people are doing it tough with the housing market at the moment. Well, fix the planning system, why does it take years to get, you know, a residential subdivision up? Why is it still taking too long to get your house approved? Fix that. People are doing it tough in energy, we're calling for a really sensible, common-sense approach to how we transition to a lower emissions economy, making sure that affordability and reliability are absolutely key to doing that. We want people's wages to go up because people feel the cost of living because their wages haven't gone up. We've got a practical plan for doing that by increasing our productivity, doing things smarter, encouraging investment, getting companies to do more. A lot of this, to be honest, is just common sense. What we’re trying to do is just put it all together and say if you did all of this, it's the compounding effect of taking action on many fronts that will make Australians better off.

Matthew Pantelis: One of them is lifting the GST rate. I suppose if you’re going to do that, now is a good time because every mainland government is of the same persuasion. So, is that likely? Do you think the Albanese government has a stomach for going down that economic path?

Jennifer Westacott: It’s important to say that we don't call for the GST to be increased, we say it's one option that government consider. But what we do call for is that the tax system needs a big overhaul, you know, it's basically not going to do the work it needs to do, it's not going to raise the right amount of revenue to pay for the services people want, and it's not going to do it in a way that encourages investment by businesses, encourages people to work. So, we're saying we've got to look at the whole thing, because what we've done, as you know, for the last decade, is we do a little bit of tax reform, and then the system is still not really working properly. Again, one of these things that we should have the conversation. And to your point, we don't have an election for quite a long time in Australia, now's the time for government, state and federal, and for everybody, to basically start trying to make sure that we are setting ourselves up so that we've got a stronger future. And that's why we call it ‘Seize the Moment,’ big opportunities in this country, big challenges. We've got to get on and do some stuff.

Matthew Pantelis: And you've released this just a couple of days before the Intergenerational Report comes out. The Treasurer will be addressing the nation on Friday, I think, but I'm not sure what we are expecting in that. But certainly, one thing we do know is we're all getting older, and we need a bigger economy to help support people in their old age in not that many years away.

Jennifer Westacott: Spot on, that's exactly right. The Intergenerational Report will basically amplify what we're saying and goes to your point; we need the economy to be bigger. We can't meet those spending challenges that that report will outline in NDIS, in aged care, in health, if we are not growing the economy faster, because it's growing the economy faster that does two really important things; it puts more tax revenue into government, and it puts more money into people's pockets. And that's what we're calling for. So, you're absolutely right. And we believe that the Intergenerational Report is a wakeup call for the sorts of things that we’re saying needs to be done in this report.

Matthew Pantelis: Okay, the other aspect too, it's not just about Australia, is it? Because the stronger the economy is, the more we'll be able to cash in on what is, as it's quoted in news reports today, a fast-growing middle class right through Asia, and being able to create the demand in this country to meet that is going to be pretty important, pretty paramount.

Jennifer Westacott: Absolutely, there are just massive opportunities from a rising middle class in Asia, people are going to want our clean, green products, and particularly our manufactured food. They're going to want to continue on our resources, particularly things like critical minerals. We have an opportunity to get into those supply chains, and things like manufacturing, because of technology and digitisation, it’s not just going to be the cost of labour that determines whether you can do that or not. So, we need to be integrated with those emerging economies, integrated into those big supply chains because the opportunities for Australia, of that huge middle class growing in Asia, are just really huge.

Matthew Pantelis: Yeah, absolutely. Just while I have you, Jennifer, you're retiring, you're leaving the Business Council. You've been there for what, twelve or so years? What do you look back on that time? What are the achievements? What are your highlights?

Jennifer Westacott: I think we've put things like productivity on the agenda. I think we have done a lot of work on skills, you know, the sort of things that people are talking about with skills now, I remember giving speeches on those six, seven years ago. I think we've also kind of really tried to push that agenda that you can't have a strong society if you don't have a strong economy. And you can't have a strong society if you don't have successful businesses. And I think we've pushed that agenda really hard. And the other thing we've done, which I'm really proud of, is we basically reached out to the community, I've spoken to thousands and thousands of Australians right across the nation, and made sure that everything we say is echoing their priorities, their concerns, and they have all fed into documents like the one we've released today.

Matthew Pantelis: And from here, that document, you'll be selling it over the next little while, obviously, to the people and to politicians, and other business groups. So, what would you like to see happen? The government, will they look at this and respond to it, is that the plan?

Jennifer Westacott: Yeah, I think they will. And we've already had some very positive, constructive discussions with them. We'd like to see governments now take this document, start working through things like National Cabinet agenda. We’d like to see the treasurers looking particularly at the section where we talk about micro economic reform, that is those little things that you and I just talked about that if you add them all up, they have a big impact, things like getting our planning system working. And we'd like to see a national conversation about how do we get the country moving forward. This is a very positive document. It's meant to be a positive contribution. Other people might have better ideas now, but let's get the country focused on how we actually seize the moment and make sure we get better living standards for the next generations of Australians.

Matthew Pantelis: And certainly broaden that economic base as well. That's got to be key, doesn’t it?

Jennifer Westacott: Absolutely. We're very vulnerable, you know, ten companies pay 30 per cent of all tax. That means our fortunes are tied to other people, so we need to take control of our own destiny.

Matthew Pantelis: Indeed. All right. We'll see where it goes. Jennifer Westacott, thank you so much for your time.

Jennifer Westacott: You're very welcome.


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