BCA AGM - President's welcome to the Prime Minister

Speaker: Tim Reed, President of the Business Council of Australia

Event: Annual members’ meeting

Date and time: Thursday 19 November 2020, 6.00pm AEDT

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I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which each of us are located today. For me that is the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respect to their elders’ past, present and emerging.

We’re honoured to be joined again tonight by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Prime Minister, on behalf of the business community, can I extend our sincere thanks for your leadership in steering our nation through these most challenging times.

This year we’ve seen business, government, environmental groups, unions and the broader community cooperate as never before. 

In business, rising markets can make lots of companies look good, but in challenging markets well run businesses stand out. 

I believe the same is true of nations, and what we’ve seen this year is that as the world has experienced a one-in-one-hundred year challenge, our nation has, on almost every dimension, out-performed our peers. 

This is not luck. Tonight, I’d like to start by acknowledging five factors that I believe have put us in this position.

COVID Response

It starts with leadership.  Leaders have come forward at all levels across our community, but I believe, Prime Minister, this started with you. 

Your articulation of a unifying objective for our nation: to protect lives and livelihoods, aligned and rallied people, while deceptively simple, created a true north point which guided and empowered others in our community to make decisions. 

Your decision to close our international borders and to create National Cabinet and open communication with the states set an example for all of us to act swiftly to ensure safety and then to cross boundaries we had previously seen as barriers, and to engage in meaningful dialogue with purpose and respect.

Following leadership, the second thing was the quick, monetary, fiscal and regulatory response. Both the RBA and the government through the Treasurer acted with purpose and haste. 

Not allowing the perfect to get in the way of good, JobKeeper and JobSeeker, complemented by payroll tax holidays in the states and temporary changes to the Corporations Act ... all uniquely Australian in their form, and shaped to deliver on that unifying objective of protecting lives and livelihoods. 

The third component I’d like to call out is business’ response to this challenge.

Businesses of all sizes and their teams have supported Australians and their communities on a scale we haven’t seen before to stay safe, to stay in jobs, keep essential services running and the economy going.

Fourth I’d like to mention the ACTU and the union movement.  Without their agreement to allow employers to universally vary the work hours of employees during the pandemic, the goal of protecting livelihoods would have been materially compromised. 

I imagine this decision took a degree of courage – the type of courage that was needed to protect lives and livelihoods.

Finally, I believe it is the citizens of our nation who have collectively played an enormous role in ensuring today we are relatively well placed compared to others.  Of course, this starts with our front-line, emergency response workers, but I’d go further to include the residents of Melbourne, and all of us as a nation. 

Whether it be social distancing measures, face masks, QR code registrations or downloading and opening the COVIDSafe app – Australians have, through their actions, shown that by and large our national culture still includes a very deep-rooted essence of fairness.  We have shown that when we believe what is being asked is fair and reasonable, we are willing to individually sacrifice for the collective good.  This has not been seen in every nation and it is a strength that can be a foundation of our recovery.

The path from here

Either through a vaccine or good management, we are all hopeful that 2021 will see the COVID-19 health crisis ease moving our focus to the economic recession left in its wake.

As always, nations will enter 2021 with a series of choices.  In Australia our strong economic management in prior years, the fact we entered this crisis with the federal budget in surplus, and good management of the health crisis will mean we will have more choices than most. 

At the BCA, we believe, the key question Australia faces is whether we can leverage this spirit of collaboration and re-found sense of national fairness to introduce reforms that will allow us to exit the current recession with higher productivity, leading to accelerated real-wage growth than we entered the pandemic; or whether we retreat to our pre-COVID position of stagnant real-wage growth and real GDP being driven almost entirely via population growth. 

Business, as part of Team Australia, is fully subscribed to your view that the only way to navigate our way out of this pandemic-induced downturn is by staging a business-led recovery.

It’s why we are working overtime to re-hire workers, create new jobs and find improved ways of doing business. The success of our enterprises – our ability to continue adapting, investing, exporting, innovating and growing – will ultimately determine the speed and strength of the recovery. We look forward over the months ahead, to working with your government Prime Minister, and the various state governments and other groups in the community to ensure business is leading our recovery.

The BCA going forward

Prime Minister, 12 months ago I had the privilege of speaking to you for the first time as President of the Business Council of Australia. 

In that address I discussed the role of business in our community, starting with the basics of having products and services that are fit for purpose, representing them honestly and clearly, and acting with integrity, asking first what we should do, rather than what we could do. 

I went on to say that by filling that function we would serve the community in a breadth of ways – providing income to retirees through dividends, supporting families through creating local jobs, and enabling society to operate smoothly by building much needed infrastructure and providing critical services.

Over the last year, the bushfires and then COVID-19 has meant we’ve been reminded of these critical roles more than ever.

From our banks who served as shock absorbers for the economy during the bushfires and COVID, providing breathing space to hundreds of thousands of Australian homeowners and small businesses to companies introducing additional volunteer and pandemic leave and landlords providing unprecedented rental assistance to small and medium businesses.

From supermarkets whose staff were on the frontline as the COVID-19 virus spread to keep shelves stocked, to utility companies that expanded hardship programs while recreating the way they worked to keep their team members safe and our critical infrastructure operating. We saw manufacturers like GE who converted other production lines to produce ventilators, to restaurant owners who switched to take-away and shopkeepers who opened stores while flames threatened their homes.   Through these actions, business has been living its purpose - delivering to our community.

On the back of this, and in line with what we have seen throughout the year, earlier today Prime Minister, I shared with our members a refreshed version of the Business Council’s purpose and mission statement and I’d like to share it with you now.

Quite simply the BCA exists: to ensure Australia is economically strong to support a fair, free and inclusive society for all Australians. This means that everything we do at the BCA, everything we propose, everything we seek … must start from the fact it will drive our economy forward and must also pass the pub-test of fairness & opportunity. 

Only once it has crossed these hurdles can we then ask the question: what is the role of business in achieving this outcome and what policy positions will allow business to thrive in playing that role?  And it is the answer to that final question upon which our policy positions will be based.

Quite simply if we can’t explain something in this light of these tests then we need to reflect on whether we should be proposing it in the first place.

Our statement makes clear that we believe the role of business is to generate returns for shareholders over the medium to long term, and that doing this requires businesses to be good corporate citizens, and for big and small business to work together across our cities and regions.

The second thing I’d like to share with you is that earlier today, the Board of the BCA determined that the capability we built to support bushfire impacted communities last summer, called BizRebuild, will now become a permanent capability of the BCA.  

We were incredibly fortunate that Sir Peter Cosgrove volunteered his time to lead our advisory committee.

BizRebuild has made a huge difference.  We have provided direct financial assistance to more than 1,300 businesses and 7,000 people, built a new pop-up mall for small businesses in Mogo and have approved funding to build new, or significantly improve six community halls from Rappville to Kangaroo Island as well as a new business hub in Cobargo and workers’ accommodation on Kangaroo Island.

All in all, business donated about $70 million in both cash and in-kind contributions to emergency relief efforts. 

We have learned a lot along the way – which will mean the next time our nation face such challenges – we will be in a better position to coordinate our resources and have an even greater impact.  We wouldn’t have been able to start down this path without the support of the Treasurer and your government in passing legislation to allow this to occur, and so again we say thank you.

To the members of the BCA, particularly those businesses that donated cash, goods and your peoples’ time so generously I say thank you.  In these communities, on the ground, your contribution has and is continuing to make a difference.

In conclusion, I’d also like to thank you Prime Minister for the engagement you and your team, including the Treasurer, Health Minister and Attorney-General have shown us.

As I mentioned at the start, the partnership between business and government has been critical to protecting lives and livelihoods.

You have previously remarked that we won’t always agree on everything.  In fact, we don’t always have to.

But it is paramount that we engage constructively in debate, and that the business community can stand tall, and actively articulate our case.

That we own our reason to exist and are proud of the organisations we lead.

I believe that this is best done through actions rather than words, and as we have in 2020, the BCA will continue to be present in the community, to collaborate with a range of other community groups for the good of our nation, and to be a forthright voice in both public and private forums.

By taking a Team Australia approach we can continue to make a significant contribution to an economically stronger country that supports a fair and inclusive society and creates opportunity for all Australians.

And with that, can I please introduce Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Scott Morrison.