Doorstop interview, Parliament House, Canberra

Event: Doorstop interview, Parliament House, Canberra

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott; chief executive, Business Council of Australia

Topics: COVID-19 response, workplace relations, skills

E&OE

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Well today the Prime Minister has outlined a bold vision for the country. A bold and ambitious plan about bringing us together to get our country moving again, to get people back into jobs, to get businesses up and running again, and to get the skills system that we need to make sure that Australians have got the skills that allow them to keep working. On skills, the Prime Minister has rightly acknowledged that the skills system is too clunky, it's too difficult, it's too hard to work, it takes too long to get skills. The Prime Minister's plan today is an incredible step in the right direction to get our skills system working again. On industrial relations, we have to find a way of business and unions working together. To get a system where workers and their employers sit down together, make an enterprise or business stronger, and share the benefits through higher wages and better conditions. We stand ready to work with the government, to work with the union movement to make sure that every single decision we make over the next six months is about whether a business will get back up on its feet, whether someone will get their job back, whether someone will get a new job, and whether each Australian has got the right skill set and the right skills system so they can stay working all of their lives.

Question: Is there any workplace change you think should be a priority and can you say that changing it would definitely lift wages?

Jennifer: I think if the enterprise agreement system went back to the original thinking of the Hawke and Keating government, where employees and employers were sitting down together. How do we make this business more successful? More productive? How can we expand? How can we get into new markets? How do we become more efficient? We know from history that system created higher wages and if we could get back to that system then I believe Australians will have more secure jobs, better workplaces and higher wages.

Question: Why isn't it working that way at the moment? And what specific changes would be needed to get back to that place?

Jennifer: Well the system has become too complicated, it's too hard to get enterprise agreements done. There are too many things in them. We've lost that focus on a system that's about how do we work together to make sure that the enterprise is successful and that workers share the benefits of that through higher wages and better conditions. We've lost sight of that. We've got multiple clauses, we've got very complex negotiation arrangements, we've got lots of time that is taken to get an EBA. It's very hard to change an EBA. Even though circumstances for companies change very dramatically, very rapidly. We've got to find a way of making it easier to get the EBAs done and to get back to that purpose of working together to make sure the enterprise is successful.

Question: But isn't that because the unions don't want the flexibility that you seek? And therefore if they don't want that there's not going to be a consensus here to get any change?

Jennifer: Well I think it's all in our collective interest to get this system working because we have to say, ‘who is the stakeholder at the end of this?’ It's a person who can't get their job back. It's a business who can't get back up and running again. It's a business that can't employ extra people and that means we do need flexibility and people want to work differently. And nothing other than this crisis has shown how much people want to work differently than the way people have worked over the last 8-10 weeks. So we have to find a system that puts a strong social safety net in place, puts a strong basis for negotiation but gives companies and employers and employees the flexibility so that they can do things like work from home, pick up their kids, work an extra shift. That is the system that is going to make the country more successful.

Question: What are the most important changes you want to see in the skills system? What are the priorities there?

Jennifer: We want to see a skills system that breaks the cultural bias of sending everybody to university and making VET and TAFE a second-class citizen. We want to see those two systems put on and equal footing. We want to see a system where a kid gets as equal opportunity and an equal status by going to do a TAFE course as well as a university course. We want to make the system easy to use. We want to make the system where I can get onto one database and look at all the courses that are available and find out in one place, what can I do? How much will I earn? What kind of job would I get? What would my loan be? What would I have to pay back? And most importantly we need a system that makes it quicker to get skills, to get skilled up. At the moment we're going to have a lot of people who need to get new skills. And they cannot take three years to get them. So we need a system to go to things like short courses that give people the capacity to get those, stack them up into some kind of set of credentials so they've got the skills and they can show employers, 'I've got a set of skills that allow me to keep working.'

Question: Do you have a sense of where the most acute skills shortages are? Where you'd most like to see a bit more action?

Jennifer: The evidence is pretty clear that particularly in the IT world and the IT development world we have a lot of skills shortages. In our whole digital space, as the economy moves into more and more digital territory, we're going to have a big skill gap there. And we know we've got skill shortages in key sectors but that skill gap is particularly in areas like IT and IT development.

Question: And one last follow-up if I may, I guess one of the key drivers of that decline in quality compared to higher education has realistically been funding cuts. Do you think that there essentially needs to be more taxpayer money behind VET?

Jennifer: I think the first priority in VET and higher ed is to make sure we're spending the very substantial amounts of money properly. But there's no doubt that TAFE and VET has been underfunded for a long period of time. It's been the second-class citizen to universities. And I'm hoping that off the back of the Prime Minister's plan today that we get that system back on track. Because it is going to be absolutely essential to many young people and to many existing workers to make sure that they can keep working.

Question: Are you concerned about the amount of fiscal supports that cut off in September and particularly the JobKeeper wage subsidy? Is that something that should be continued?

Jennifer: Well I think there are some sectors that are in distress and they are going to be in distress for quite a long period of time. Tourism of course and hospitality, through no fault and no control of their own, continue to be in some difficulties. So there may be a case for some kind of modified JobKeeper for that sector. But I think as the Prime Minister said today, we have to switch our focus to job creation and that's got to be the sorts of things that he outlined today. How do we get businesses back up and running? How do we get new jobs created? How do we get people back into their jobs? And how do we make sure they've got the skills to stay working? That's got to be our focus from here on in.

Question: On industrial relations Jennifer, and apologies if you answered this earlier, but is there a top one or two measures that you'd like to see implemented that fit within the Prime Minister's criteria that he laid out today?

Jennifer: I think the principle one for us has always been the enterprise agreement system, making sure that we go back to that system's original intent where employers and employees sit together, they work out how they're going to be more productive, how they're going to expand their operations and then they share the benefits of that increase in operation, increase of expanded business by higher wages and better conditions. If we did that, I think that would be crucial. The second would be the complexity of awards. There are 122 awards, there's too many, they've got multiple clauses, they're incredibly confused. I think if we could get back to a simpler awards system then we would be starting to get on the right track.

Question: Sally McManus has said she's onboard for the discussions with a couple of guiding principles. One is that once the economy has recovered workers have got to get a share of the gains and the other one is job security. Does the BCA have any sort of guiding principles or benchmarks?

Jennifer: I think we all want Australians to be in secure work. The best way to get secure work is to get companies and businesses that are successful and are secure in themselves. And so we absolutely have to have as a focus that we want people, we want companies to get back up on their feet. We want people to have secure work. We want them to have secure jobs.

Question: So security and prosperity...the same guiding principle.

Jennifer: Because they're the same guiding principles that have underpinned the enterprise agreement since the Hawke and Keating governments introduced it. We want that. We want to make sure that we all share the benefits of a more successful economy. But you can't do that, as the Prime Minister said today, if you don't have successful businesses.