David Gonski interview with Ross Greenwood, Sky News

Event: David Gonski Interview with Ross Greenwood, Sky News Business Weekend

Speakers: Ross Greenwood, host Sky News Business Weekend; David Gonski, chair The Biggies judging panel

Topics: The Biggies awards, workplace diversity

E&OE

Ross Greenwood, host Sky News Business Weekend: Welcome back to Business Weekend. Look there's little doubt that David Gonski is one of Australia's most respected business leaders. He's the former chairman of the ANZ bank, Coca-Cola Amatil and the Future Fund. And he'll shortly take on the chair at Sydney Airport. He's also the chancellor of the University of New South Wales and chair of the Sydney Theatre Company. He was formerly chair of Film Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW. But he's found time for one more role. The Business Council of Australia has created a new award series in association with The Australian newspaper. It's called The Biggies and it celebrates the best of the people and the businesses they're a part of who have gone above and beyond to help the community. I chatted with David Gonski this week and asked him whether a company's real role though should be to employ workers, to create business for suppliers and to create returns for their shareholders.

David Gonski, chair The Biggies judging panel: I think definitely it's their business to get involved in the community. What you've summarised is obviously what traditionally we've always said about businesses. But businesses who ignore their stakeholders basically ignore the lifeblood of what keeps them going. And these awards are designed to also look at companies that go that extra step. And by the way, you might ask well why should they go that extra step? Well, firstly it's right. Second, I think it makes staff so proud and I think that's wonderful. And I think it's great for the community and the other stakeholders to see that corporations are worthy of trust, that corporations can mobilise and do wonderful things, and that they do care.

Ross: But I've seen plenty of examples that I believe where companies are window dressing. They're doing what they seem to be community activities for publicity. Not necessarily because they believe in it. But because they either have a crisis or they're reputationally trying to repair themselves.

David: Well there have been situations such as that. But there's been an awful lot of situations where companies have quietly done amazing things. And by the way, the staff of companies do amazing things. In my time I've seen people staying back way past the hours for keeping a branch open or a shop open in order to do good things because their community is under some threat that day. I've seen it myself. I saw banks during the covid period do amazing things. Working from home, helping their customers, and keeping the economy going. I think these are things that deserve some recognition. Let's not go overboard but I think these prizes are well worthwhile both having and aspiring to.

Ross: But you talk about doing these things that are good for the community but should those efforts in the community absolve companies from any wrongdoing? Obviously, we've had a royal commission into the banks. You were the chairman of one of those big banks that went through that royal commission process. There was wrongdoing and yet banks, if you like, are some of the biggest contributors to our community especially in times of crisis. 

David: Well firstly I'm not sure when you asked me the question about absolution. In my opinion when you do good things you're not looking for absolution. You're doing what you think is right. You're doing what you think people expect you to do and indeed what your staff and your customers and indeed your communities would want you to do. So it's not absolution at all. It's going on a positive side. In terms of the more profound question perhaps if people do good things does that absolve them? Well, that's for the community to decide. Not for the company or for me. But I would hope that people realise that these big employers and companies employ a lot of people, do good things. When they do something bad? They should be penalised and not absolved. But on the other hand, we must not forget the good things they do as well.

Ross: Does it often come down to the individuals inside these companies that do the right thing? I mean some of the finalists here have done some incredible things. The doctor who was working for EY goes back to work in an emergency department during covid and to also do a lot of tests out there. The Coles workers around Batemans Bay when the bushfires were on who went to extraordinary efforts when they were cut off to make certain their community was fed. I mean these are incredible efforts. So as you say these types of awards is acknowledgement and will hopefully encourage others and other businesses to help their employees to do the same thing.

David: I think you're absolutely right. But coming back to it, it's about people. The interesting thing is that corporations after all are just people. The owners are people in the end when you go through the super funds or whatever, or the individuals who own it, they're people. The people who work in there are people. And they're doing in many situations above and beyond. I keep thinking as you tell me those things, I keep thinking of the Coles guy who slept in the store. And he wasn't sleeping there for his own protection he wanted to keep his store open and ready for the community.

Ross: We've heard this week, and I can't really let you be here without having a conversation about this. You've been a champion for women becoming chief executives and directors of many Australian company boards. There's no doubt about that. You're one of the great champions of that. But this week we've seen the response to the report to government by the sex discrimination commissioner. Do you believe now is the time that we need to be seeking quotas inside our companies for directors and for executives to try and even the gender balance?

David: Let me start by saying I absolutely believe that the concept of having women in the workforce is an essential. To choose who is good in 49.9 per cent of the population because you're only choosing men is ridiculous and indeed I've seen the benefit in the last 10 to 20 years of having many women around the board table. The issues that we've just talked about these things in terms of communities and so on would not at all be able to be dealt with around the board table as well if we didn't have both men and women working together to work out how to do it. In terms of quotas, I believe in some circumstances quotas are good. I don't believe in all circumstances. I'm very concerned for example in listed public companies if one has quotas that indeed it may not work the way one wants it to work. On the other hand, I strongly believe that for example subsidiaries of government, companies that are owned by government, it's absolutely the right thing for a shareholder like government to say let's have quotas on those boards because we're the shareholder, that's what we want etc. I believe in terms of moving this debate on, it is essential that we do so. If I'm critical I think it's taken us too long to recognise the importance of looking at 100 per cent of the population and the brilliance that exists right throughout rather than confining ourselves just to the gender that I happen to be part of.

Ross: And do you think in the past there have been women who have been disheartened by what they've seen as genuine discrimination? Or indeed because of the fact that they've got to go and have families that they find gaps in their work history discriminates against them as well? That really there's got to be a maturity inside our organisations to be able to make certain we keep the very best talent pool inside those businesses as we can?

David: I think the answer to your question is simply yes. And one of the things I would love to see, by the way, being a bit proactive, is that I think a lot of women who decide, and that's perfectly legitimate, that they'd like to go and look after their children for a period of time believe that they can't come back because they see men who haven't done that getting to be CEOs at 45 or 50. We need to actively go out there and by the way as someone older than 50 now, there is life after 50. And we have to say to these brilliant women by all means take time off with the kids, don't be a stranger to the company, just keep a link and come back. And yes you might be the CEO at 60, not 50 so be it. They're still brilliant, there's still time, and we have to help them design their careers with pride and so on. So they can have it all. And I strongly believe that will be for the betterment, not just for them, but for the business community as a whole.

Ross: David Gonski many thanks for your time.

David: Thank you Ross.

Ross: David Gonski there with some blindingly obvious observations I would suggest to you. Now the winners of the Biggies awards will be announced at the Business Council of Australia's annual dinner in Sydney on Monday April 19. You can find out more about the awards and also the finalists by going to the website thebiggies.com.au.