Business Council of Australia 2010 Annual Dinner: President’s Address

Address by BCA President Graham Bradley to the Business Council of Australia 2010 Annual Dinner on 26 October 2010

Your Excellencies, Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Mr Michael Bryce.

Fellow members and friends of the Business Council of Australia.

Let me add my thanks to Allen Madden for his warm ‘Welcome to Country’. Thank you also Richard Goyder for putting our 2010 Indigenous engagement survey into a real-life context that demonstrates how business interests and broader community interests can be aligned on this issue of national importance.

The survey shows what can be achieved when committed people work in partnership to pursue shared objectives. Their creative alliances can go beyond a project’s objectives to deliver uncommon results.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Business Council of Australia’s annual dinner is an opportunity for our CEO members to meet people whose work intersects with our policy reform agenda across many sectors of the Australian community.

In this room here tonight, we have people from education, the arts, Indigenous organisations, peak bodies in the community sector, think-tanks – both Left- and Right-leaning – the union movement, the public service as well as business organisations.

This broad convocation illustrates the key theme I wish to highlight in my remarks tonight. We must all work together to build on, and to build, common ground across our community if Australia is going to make the most of the tremendous opportunities we have before us. Opportunities to continue to be a standout success among the economies of the world.

The Business Council of Australia approaches its reform agenda on this basis. Our goal is to secure a stronger Australian economy to underpin continued community prosperity – prosperity that will both engage and benefit all Australians.

Our reform agenda is not a narrow economic one, however. It embraces broader community issues such as health, education and Indigenous engagement, all of which feed into a strong economy and community prosperity. Our CEO members recognise that being a successful business leader in Australia today means taking on leadership responsibility in the community more broadly.

One group that is not well represented in the room here tonight is our federal political leadership. Our dinner falls on a federal parliamentary sitting day, as it has often done in the past, but pairing restrictions in the new parliament now make it difficult for political leaders to travel during sitting weeks. Problems like this will not help our leaders deliver the consultative approach to policy making they have promised and that we believe the Australian people are looking for.

The Business Council of Australia welcomes the Prime Minister’s commitment to a more consultative style of government and we have put our hands up to contribute positively to this new approach. Australia’s capacity to realise its opportunities at this high point of opportunity in our nation’s history depends, we believe, on the success of a new style of inclusive leadership that builds on, and builds, common ground.

Necessary reform just won’t happen without it.

We must build on common ground where it exists, and where it is lacking we must make the effort to cultivate it.

I believe that, in a wide range of policy areas, there is a great deal more common ground across the community than was indicated by our recent election campaign and by media headlines that so often emphasise adversarial differences.

For example, I doubt there is widespread disagreement on the need for government to provide better-quality transport and water infrastructure to our major cities, to improve the health, education and employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians, to help remove remaining attitudinal roadblocks to greater participation by women in business and community leadership roles, to remove tax disincentives for the long-term employed to return more quickly to the workforce, or to encourage older Australians wishing to remain in active employment.

All of these objectives will boost national productivity and prosperity, as well as create new life-changing opportunities for individual Australians. On objectives such as these, there is much common ground, though we may debate the most effective way to progress them.

There is also much common ground between the interests of big and small business, although it seems fashionable for politicians and the media to highlight the tensions between these two highly interconnected sectors of the Australian economy.

There is another far more compelling story to be told that reflects the reality that the long-term success of one level of business depends on the success of the other, and that the two groups will benefit from many of the same reforms.

Of course, there are policy priorities where community consensus is not so evident. It is here that political leaders, business leaders and community leaders must make a greater effort to build common ground in the interests of the nation as a whole.

I believe there is a lack of understanding in the community at large of the connection between the social and political choices we are making, in some cases unwittingly, and the goal, supported by almost all of us, that Australia should continue to have a strong economy.

This is a surprising disconnect in light of the very clear finding from Business Council of Australia research on community attitudes conducted late last year in which 85 per cent of Australians said they believe our country can and should pursue both a strong economy and socially and environmentally responsible policies at the same time.

Business has a special responsibility to help the community understand the interconnectedness of our prosperity and the policies we need to secure economic growth. Not economic growth for its own sake, but the kind of growth that results from policies directed at improving community prosperity without using our resources wastefully.

Population growth is one example of this, and discussion during the federal election was a lamentable display of the lowest common denominator populism.

We were once a country that understood and widely embraced the importance of continued levels of skilled immigration to support our nation-building aspirations and to underpin our long-term national security. These imperatives are just as important today as they were in 1946 or 1976 or 2006.

We need to listen to and understand the community’s concerns, and work to rebuild common ground on the merits of necessary, but properly planned-for population growth.

Members of the Business Council of Australia are realists about the challenges associated with minority government and its ability to progress the kind of meaningful reforms to which our political leaders have committed themselves. But we all need to keep our eyes on the prize – good government to support a productive and strong economy which offers all citizens the opportunity to be part of and enjoy the benefits.

With strong terms of trade, falling unemployment, rising workforce participation and a return to corporate profitability, it would be all too tempting for government to lower its sights, to focus on the easy and peripheral issues, rather than do the hard work of building community support for the reforms that really matter. It must not be allowed to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight marks the halfway point of my presidency of the Business Council of Australia.

It has been a great privilege, and it has been a most extraordinary year. I might wish for the second half of my term to be less eventful! It is unlikely, however, that our reform agenda will be any easier or any less important.

In this context I would like to thank my BCA Board colleagues, in particular retiring Vice President Greig Gailey, and the members of our BCA Secretariat for their enormous support and professionalism during the past year.

My message to fellow BCA members here tonight is that we must continue to press for the important reforms our country needs with confidence that, despite its minority status, the federal government will want to hear and respond positively to our voice. We must also listen carefully to our employees and our community stakeholders, and contribute constructively to the task of building common ground. We must also speak out, when necessary, more clearly and more forcefully. I believe that is what the Australian community expects of us.

My message to the Prime Minister and her team, although unable to be here tonight in person, is that we trust you are genuine in your commitment to a more consultative approach to policy formulation and implementation. You can count on the Business Council of Australia to contribute constructively to that consultation process. We trust that you are also sincere about progressing policy reforms to lift our flatlined national productivity and to ensure that we do not fall further behind in our national competitiveness. As you go about that task in earnest, the Business Council of Australia will help you build the common ground needed for the necessary reforms.

To other political leaders, including the Opposition Leader and his team, my message is that we expect you to do your bit in embracing sound policy reform and to contribute constructively to its development. You, too, can expect the Business Council of Australia to contribute forthrightly to your understanding of policy options.

And in closing, to all of you here tonight, guests from different parts of the Australian community who share our goal for a better Australia but come with a range of individual perspectives …

My message to you is that we should all look for common ground, with a positive, problem-solving, optimistic view about the potential of our nation to solve our problems. And we should be guided by our national values of fairness, equality of opportunity and social equity so that, through the ‘give and take’ of mature and informed debate we can arrive together at good policy outcomes for Australia’s long-term prosperity.

Thank you.
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