Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity: Fourth Column in The Australian

This opinion article by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on 3 August 2013 under the title ‘Prosperity the Best Way to Ensure Fairness’.  It is the fourth in a series of columns exploring the Business Council of Australia’s economic action plan for Australia.

When I first took the job at the Business Council of Australia, some left-leaning friends told me it was a bad decision. They questioned how I could reconcile the role with my keen social values.

My response: I don’t believe you can have a fair society without a strong economy.

The essential connection between economic and social policy objectives was writ large on Wednesday when the Business Council released its economic action plan for enduring prosperity at a cross-sector roundtable.

The event involved people from the community sector, government agencies and business, and we were agreed that it was in all our interests that Australia should now undertake the next big wave of structural reform.

Why? Because without economic growth Australia will not be able to solve many of the problems the people in the room want to see solved.

Anne Hollonds from the Benevolent Society was one of those people. She made the point that the Business Council plan was an opportunity to work together at building Australia’s understanding of how we could do more to translate economic growth into social prosperity.

Our action plan tries to bring together these policy strands because the business leaders who make up the Business Council of Australia passionately believe in the essential interconnection between economic and social wellbeing. They know their success depends on it.

I want to give the broader community an understanding that this plan isn’t corporate Australia flexing its muscles or protecting narrow self-interest.

Many BCA members are like me, like our president Tony Shepherd – they don’t come from privileged backgrounds. They’re not remote from, or oblivious to, people’s everyday challenges.

We share a commitment to this country and our discussion could have been held under a banner that carried any of our organisation’s logos. We were there to talk about the kind of country we wanted and that was going to override any of our differences.

I’m not going to go over the content of the plan in this column though I will return to it in subsequent articles and dive into some of the areas we believe Australia has to get right to achieve broad community prosperity.

What I want to talk about today is what it means in terms of the way Australia thinks about some things. Our plan is more than a collection of the policy actions it recommends. It’s about how we look at the future.

The first thing we talked about on Wednesday was the need for Australia to look at what we do from a different perspective.

We need to think about every policy through the lens of whether it’s going to drive the growth and investment that will underpin Australia succeeding in a very competitive world.

Every policy, every decision needs to be considered in terms of whether it will support Australian businesses, large and small, to invest and grow.

If it’s not going to help create a job or a dollar of investment, then we need to question why we’re doing it.

Our discussion centred on the fact that this was not, and must not be, a reversal or distraction from good social policy.

Growth affords us good social policy and good social policy leads to growth. Everyone in that room – very smart, very influential and very committed people – really gets this.

Toby Hall from Mission Australia put it simply when he said the social compact business signed up to was to create employment.

Where we have policy settings that are failing to support business to do that, it’s the poorest people in society who miss out.

The second conversation, and much of what we talked about overall, revolved around the plan’s focus on realising the potential of people.

Leah Armstrong from Reconciliation Australia had a big impact on our thinking when she suggested that the plan shouldn’t talk about “closing the gap” between indigenous and other Australians.

We should instead use the language and the spirit of realising every person’s potential. Fundamentally, this is what our plan is about.

The third conversation we had was about innovation and creativity.

A conversation about big structural reform ultimately leads us to the challenge of how we innovate and change business models, how we embrace technology and the digital revolution.

How we equip people and enterprises to realise their potential by being able to adapt to an environment of constant change.

The three conversations we had are conversations for the country to have. To help carry the momentum we started on Wednesday, the request I make to political leaders and others is this:

  • Please read our plan before reacting to what you think it might be.
  • Please come and talk to us.
  • Don’t rule things out from habit or fear.
  • Try to come to terms with what we think are a very practical set of ideas for getting important things done for a country we all wish to prosper and thrive. Because, as the editorial in this newspaper pointed out during the week, the economic reform holiday is over.

We have to find a way to do what needs to be done. Gradually, each sensible step at a time, as our action phasing suggests.

You can’t fix the federation without fixing the tax system. You can’t fix a whole lot of things without fixing the national budget position.

The most important thing is to think long term and think as leaders. When it comes down to it, this is all about leadership. Seeing the big picture vision, the long-term vision.

Not carving out actions because they’re easy or popular. Anyone who tells you that difficult things don’t involve winners and losers, making trade-offs, is not telling the truth.

Behind closed doors, people in the position to make the right decisions will tell you they know it will have to happen at some point, but are not prepared to do it until circumstances give them no choice.

Surely, Australians don’t need a crisis as other countries have. Crises are particularly cruel on the people least able to protect themselves.

Big change is far better serviced by taking it in bite-sized chunks when you’re still in good shape. We’ve seen this kind of leadership from previous governments. Paul Keating knew that markets were as important to low-income people as they were to companies.

John Howard understood and respected enterprise. He was keenly aware of how each and every policy would affect small-business people who were the backbone of the economy.

These leaders were prepared to be honest with the electorate and prepared to make tough decisions.

Their governments left a strong economic legacy and set this country up for the standard of living we have now.

Our plan is a plea to end the cynicism and end the complacency so we can take the required actions now, for our own benefit and that of future generations.

For me, this is personal. Through my work in the public service and in my own life, when I saw despair and dysfunction not far behind, I saw poverty and a lack of choice. My own story is a story of how a prosperous country, good institutions and a circuit breaker in the family can change a person’s fortunes.

I want that for every Australian.