Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast

Event: Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast

Speakers: Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Austalia

Topics: Paid pandemic leave; COVID-19 response

E&OE

Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast: Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer Westacott, welcome back to Breakfast.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Thanks very much.

Fran: So the Commonwealth government will pay $1,500 to Victorian workers who are ordered to stay at home for a fortnight if they've got no sick leave to fall back on. Is that going to be enough to stop infected people heading into work, which has been the major source of infections?

Jennifer: Exactly. Look I think on balance this is a really good scheme. I think it's the right start, for this. I think the point that people keep missing is that it can be claimed multiple times. It's hugely important Fran because people may have to be tested multiple times. It makes a huge difference in encouraging people or removing the disincentive for people to stay at home if they're tested or if they've come into contact and they've got to quarantine. I think it takes the burden off particularly small businesses. But there's always going to be arguments about can it go further?

Fran: Well the argument is really should it be a subsidy or should it be a replacement wage. As Sally McManus and the ACTU pointed out, $1,500 a fortnight, the average wage is more than double that. For it to be effective, does it have to be equal to a worker’s wage which is what sick leave is?

Jennifer: Well It's the same as JobKeeper and I think we're just going to have to monitor this. Because you're talking about a pretty big array of wage levels there. And look we're going to continue working with the ACTU to monitor it, see if it's working, see if it's having the desired effect. I mean governments, of course, have to draw the line with these things in terms of what they can afford. One thing it has to be which the ACTU and I talked about last night, it's got to be easy to get and it's got to work hand in hand with the guidance around, both from employers and from governments about quarantining, about testing, about all of the work safe stuff that's got to work in tandem. Let's monitor it. I think it's a really good start. And people during this crisis Fran, as you and I have talked about time and time again, government has shown its willingness to change stuff. I mean we've got to be patient and we've got to understand there are limits to these things. Let's monitor it and we're going to continue to work really closely with the ACTU to say, ‘well, is it working?’

Fran: I understand what you're saying. Everything is new but when you say it's got to be easy to get, should it be for instance as JobKeeper is rolled out through the payroll or should people have to dial a 1800 number which is what they have to do for the model which is based on what the bushfire disaster relief was?

Jennifer: Yeah.

Fran: What's your view?

Jennifer: It's been declared a disaster. Look our preference would have been to do it in the same way that JobKeeper is done so it's paid by the employer and the employer is reimbursed. But again government is doing this incredibly quickly. I think it's important that they declare that they're in a disaster package. But let's monitor that and that's what we'll continue to work with the ACTU and with the government to say, 'hey is this the right way to do it? Would it be better if it was done through the JobKeeper arrangement so it's easier to get?'

Fran: And if we're learning as we go, as we all are, should we be learning from Victoria here, seeing the spread of the virus there happened mostly through workplaces and therefore roll out this pandemic scheme now across the country as a preventative health measure?

Jennifer: Well I think the most important thing is that we don't get into a state of emergency in the other states

Fran: But that's what brought us into a state of emergency wasn't it?

Jennifer: Well no I don't think it's just that. I think it's the, well we know the sorts of things that have happened. We know the quarantining didn't work.

Fran: Sure.

Jennifer: We know the tracking and tracing didn't work as it should of. We've got to now step up in every single state to say, 'Let's make sure our quarantining is working. Let's make sure that we are absolutely super vigilant on our COVID safe work practises. Let's make sure that we're super vigilant on social distancing, on hygiene. Let's step up a notch because we don't want to get into a state of emergency in the other states.' Because this is an economic disaster for Victoria. It's a health disaster, it's an economic disaster. And I think the national cabinet will look at these things about, 'is this got to be part of a package to prevent this thing from worsening in states like NSW?' But the top focus Fran has got to be to get the containment and suppression right.

Fran: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Jennifer Westacott is our guest, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. We just heard Wesfarmers there saying, acknowledging that many thousands of workers won't be paid, they'll have to look for JobSeeker, they'll go onto JobSeeker through this lockdown. That's Wesfarmers. That's a big company with a pretty good balance sheet. There's going to be massive unemployment through this. These 250,000 workers who are being stood down. Many of them will be with nothing, won't they?

Jennifer: Look I think, first of all I should declare that I'm a director at Wesfarmers for transparency reasons.

Fran: Oh thank you I didn't know that.

Jennifer: Yeah. Look I think as I said is an economic disaster. There will be many people stood down. There will be many people on JobSeeker. There will be many businesses Fran who do not get up and running again. And that's why we've got to do a couple of really important things. And Rob Scott was mentioning some of these things. We have got to make sure that government works with industry now to monitor this daily and be willing to change things when we can see that the health risk has been minimised.

Fran: I'm sorry to interrupt you there but as a director of Wesfarmers too, it's relevant to ask you, I think some people listening will think well a big company like Wesfarmers should be able to for six weeks pay their staff.

Jennifer: Well I think Rob was making that point that we've got a better balance sheet and it will be see as we go.

Fran: But there's only a commitment to two weeks. He made that clear.

Jennifer: Yeah but that's why I think we've got to make sure that we get back up and running as quickly as we can and this is where it's crucial that governments work with industry to say, 'Well let's monitor this. Let's check our supply chains. Let's make sure that we haven't got unintended consequences. Let's see whether we can get things back up and running faster.' I'm more concerned, I'll be honest about it, small businesses who have said to me, 'We just can't do it a second time. We don't have the balance sheet like a Wesfarmers, or another big company does. We don't have a capacity to keep going.' I'm very concerned about those people and I think it's really crucial Fran that the Victorian government works daily with industry to monitor this, to check for unintended consequences to see if we can get some things back earlier where the health risk is under control. And importantly, we've got to paint a way out of this. We have got to say to the community what coming out of this looks like. Because there are many people today who just must be wondering, 'When am I ever going to work again? When is my business ever going to get back up and running again?' And that's crucial to Rob Scott's point, that business, government and the trade union movement work together hand-in-hand to say, 'How do we start paving a way out of this?'

Fran: And you're right in the middle of that. I mean is there any words of hope or optimism that you can offer anyone listening? Because we know, I mean I know from talking to close friends and family in Melbourne, people are feeling hopeless, some are.

Jennifer: Yeah I think of course they are and why wouldn't they? A couple of really important things that I think we just forget all the time in Australia but they are important things. First of all we have, notwithstanding what is happening in Victoria, we have managed this better than most countries in the world. And we continue to have a very responsive set of governments who've put their politics aside and got stuff done, like pandemic leave yesterday. Now it may not be perfect but it's a great start and people did that very, very fast. So people should be confident that governments are listening, they're responding. We had a stronger economy, we had a stronger budget, we've got a much better health system. And the point that I think is lost on many people in this country is that having a stronger social safety net allows us to manage the health stuff. If you look at the United States where they don't have a social safety net they can't manage the health stuff. And you've got 56 million people last week who registered for the unemployment benefit. So there is a much stronger base and if we get the health stuff right, if we get the protocols right, if we work with industry to make sure we don't get unintended consequences in sectors like construction or in the supply chain, we can paint a way out of this and give people the confidence that they'll be getting back to work.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott thank you very much for joining us.

Jennifer: You're welcome thank you.