Business Council of Australia 30th Anniversary Dinner: President’s Speech

This address by BCA President Tony Shepherd was made to the Business Council of Australia 30th Anniversary Dinner, held on 4 December 2013 in Sydney.

Check against delivery

Let me thank Richard Freudenstein and the team at Foxtel for such an insightful and generous contribution to our anniversary. It is a quality [video] production, Richard.

Acknowledgements

I join with Jennifer in welcoming you all here tonight.

It’s a great honour to have Prime Minister Tony Abbott with us, along with Minister for Small Business, Bruce Bilson.

The ascension to government has not been without difficulties, and there are many challenges. So we really appreciate your presence here this evening.

We’re looking forward to hearing from the Prime Minister in a few minutes.

I would also like to welcome the Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen.

I want to particularly acknowledge former presidents and chief executives of the Business Council of Australia, and former members of our Board, CEOs and staff.

We could not be here without your efforts.

Or those of the current team, of course, led by the incredible Jennifer Westacott.

You’ll forgive my bias in saying today’s secretariat is the best the Business Council has ever had!

Thank you all for coming to our 30th anniversary dinner.

30-year reflection

At the time the Business Council was created, this country had a very different economy.

Paul Keating once described the Australia of the late 1970s and early 1980s as a “moribund inward looking industrial graveyard”, and he was right.

Compared with today, on just about any measure, our economy was rigid and inward-looking.

  • we had a fixed exchange rate
  • tariffs were still high
  • we were frightened of Japanese investment which subsequently became a cornerstone of our economy
  • 30 years ago, our financial sector was tightly regulated
  • our industrial relations system was centralised, complex and unproductive
  • just about every service was provided by the public sector
  • state ownership extended to banks, insurance, telecommunications, airlines, ports, shipping, dockyards, electricity, gas, etc.

In the early ‘80s, when the Business Council was born, Australia was beginning to recover from a severe recession.

  • Growth was at a half a per cent over the year
  • Unemployment was at around 10 per cent
  • The interest rate on the standard variable home loan was 12 per cent.

This experience shook us from our deep and self-satisfied slumber, and gave us the impetus we needed to embark on a bold reform agenda.

An agenda that transformed our economy and our society.

Over the last three decades, we have had average annual GDP growth of around three and a half per cent a year.

This has seen our economy almost triple in size.

GDP per capita has almost doubled.

It is a remarkable, inspiring story of growth, supported by thriving businesses, large and small, that have invested a staggering three trillion dollars into the economy.

It is also the story of the effectiveness of competitive markets.

Most importantly, this is a story of how growth lifts the prosperity of a nation by giving its people real choices and opportunities.

Over those 30 years, more than five million new jobs have been created.

The strength and growth of our economy has afforded a fourfold increase in funding for education over the past 20 years, with around a quarter of working age Australians now holding a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification.

Over the past 20 years, investment in public infrastructure – roads, railways and utilities – has also quadrupled, while the population has increased by only around one third.

And while the public sector used to develop most infrastructure itself, today more than half of the work is done by the private sector.

Over the last 30 years, it’s been businesses – small, medium and large – operating in open and competitive markets, who provided that prosperity.

Today, business employs ten and a half million people, pays 70 billion dollars in company tax and have around six million so-called “mum and dad” investors.

But statistics don’t convey the human significance of what’s happened.

The sense of dignity and purpose and belonging that comes with five million new jobs.

The choices and opportunities, the social cohesion that comes from more and better education.

Business is central to the communities we operate in.

Raw statistics don’t convey how business innovation has changed our way of life.

A few weeks ago, Jennifer and I were in the United States. We had the opportunity to visit the operations of some of our member companies.

Standing at Thomas Edison’s desk at GE, we were reminded of how much innovation came from the ideas and enterprise of one individual.

More importantly, the culture and enterprise of the United States let one man and his vision create a world leading corporation in so many industrial fields.

At the Boeing factory, we saw firsthand the incredible innovation of design, but also the groundbreaking global manufacturing system by which Boeing sources components from across the globe, including Australia.

In Silicon Valley, we met with companies at the centre of the digital revolution.

  • IBM, which developed the first personal commuter
  • Microsoft which changed our way of connecting, communicating and working.

We were guests of Andrew Liveris at the US Business Council roundtable in Palo Alto.

We were proud to hear another of our member companies, Telstra, honoured as a great innovator in the application of digital wireless technology

Many people we spoke to had great regard for the CSIRO and what its achieved in partnership with business.

These stories help people understand the contribution of business as the major driver of human endeavour.

BCA contribution

It’s at the heart of what the Business Council is about. We work to promote the conditions:

that create and nurture a vibrant business sector.

and help to realise the economic and social aspirations of all Australians.

These were the organisation’s foundation objectives and they haven’t changed.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is that the best work of the Business Council has been done in collaboration with other groups.

We are working more closely than ever with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia.

We work with the Australian Council of Social Service, the ACTU, Reconciliation Australia, the Foundation for Young Australians and many other organisations, all of whom are represented here tonight.

The next 30 years

It was with the next 30 years in mind that the Business Council developed our Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity.

Because the time has clearly arrived for the next wave of structural reform to prepare Australia for the future.

Our action plan has benefited from the input of all of the organisations I’ve mentioned.

Organisations we continue to work with on key aspects of the plan which is a dynamic, long term agenda.

As we sit here and look to Australia’s prospects over the next 30 years, it is clear to us all that we need, once again, to square up to the difficult task of structural reform.

The opportunities open to Australia are greater than ever.

The challenge to stay competitive is also greater than ever.

We must lift our productivity and competitiveness.

We must practice stringent fiscal discipline as we provide for an aging population.

We must focus government support on people who are most in need of it.

We need less, not more, government in our personal and business lives.

On the World Economic Forum’s index measuring burden of government regulation, in 2006–07 we ranked at 52. We now come in at number 128.

On global competitiveness, Australia comes in at number 21, down from a high of 15 just four years ago.

Australia’s standing on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking is also down – we currently sit at number 11.

The actions put forward in the Business Council Action Plan are aimed at improving Australia’s position across the board.

A number of our suggestions have been taken up by the government in its reform agenda.

  • The commission of audit
  • The white paper process on tax reform
  • The deregulation agenda.

To name a few ...

This is enormously encouraging.

Because this reform agenda - if it’s started now and done well – will drive ongoing prosperity that benefits the nation as a whole, and each and every Australian.

But it will involve some tough debates and decisions.

For our part, the Business Council accepts its responsibility to keep doing what we’ve been doing for 30 years.

Not by asking government to solve all our problems but by working in partnership with them.

By laying out in detail what good economic policy looks like.

By explaining why that matters for everyday Australians.

And by putting our shoulders to the wheel in helping the government to make necessary change for the benefit of the nation.

Introduction to the Prime Minister

Prime Minister, your government has sent a clear message that Australia is open for business and that you want business at the table, along with other groups, as part of a decision-making, reform-driving team.

For government to speak with business in this way should be seen as normal, just as it’s normal for government to speak with other important stakeholders.

I said last year and I will say again, structural reform is very difficult without a team approach and community support.

Prime Minister, the Business Council believes that your government understands the need for reform, the nature of that reform and the best way to get it done.

We stand ready to support you, to encourage you and to work alongside the different groups of Australians, with their different views and perspectives, to get done what has to be done.

Prime Minister, you grace us by your presence tonight, welcome.