GE employee townhall

14 August 2020


Jennifer Westacott, Business Council cheif executive


Online event


1.30pm, 13 August 2020

***Check against delivery***

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land we are meeting on today, for me that is the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and pay respect to their elders’ past, present and emerging.

Thank you, Sam. It is great to be talking again to the team at GE.

Your company has always been – and continues to be – synonymous with innovation.

I’ve been lucky enough to stand next to Thomas Edison’s desk in New Jersey.

I’ve stared down the microscope at one of your labs undertaking life-saving research.

I’ve seen you use composite technology to produce 3D-printed fuel nozzles to help power the next generation of wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 777X.

And I’ve visited the site where you are constructing one of Australia’s largest windfarms near Toowoomba - in partnership with AGL – which will generate renewable energy for more than 250,000 homes.

All these facets are the story of your company.

Over the decades you have relied on creativity and thinking outside the box to evolve, adapt and remain a mainstay of our daily lives.

Now more than ever as we battle this virus, mount our recovery and rebuild the economy we need focus and innovation, like yours, to leverage what Australia is good at and play to our strengths.

But first can I spend a few moments on the absolute importance of getting our health management under control.

This starts with re-describing to people what the end game is here.

In many respects, we are victims of our success and suddenly anything above zero cases is seen as a serious policy failure.

It’s not practical or sustainable.

Nor is losing control of the health situation practical or sustainable, especially when 56 million people in the US registered for unemployment benefits a couple of weeks ago.

So, what are we trying to do here in Australia?

  • we're trying to suppress community transmission
  • we're trying to contain local outbreaks
  • we're trying to manage the health system so it can ramp up when needed
  • we're trying to ensure vulnerable people are protected, and
  • underlying all of this – we’re trying to develop treatments and vaccines.

This will be the ultimate test of problem-solving.

And in this vein, I want to commend GE for converting its machinery to ventilators at the speed of light.

This demonstrated that we can actually get product approvals done quickly as well as illustrating the true definition of innovation.

Once we have the health impacts of the virus in check, we need to drive economic activity to support jobs and job creation.

Our social and economic recovery cannot lose sight of the fundamental elements that have made Australia so successful.

We are often referred to as the lucky country but ours is the story of opportunity meeting good planning and good management.

We need to recreate that environment.

Let’s never forget our fortune has come from:

  • being open to the world
  • having the right products at the right time that people wanted to buy
  • having a skilled population, and
  • being attractive to foreign capital.

As we recover, we cannot sit back and wait for new opportunities to come knocking.

We are in a competition for access to new markets, new products and new services.

Our nation faces two choices.

We can allow things to play out and we can wither.

Or we can take purposeful and decisive action – like a company would – to get our act together and take a series of deliberate actions to secure our future prosperity.

Our single most important focus has to be on creating jobs.

This involves creating a business, creating a service, creating a product and capturing a market - that’s what the private sector does.

And it starts with having the right environment.

The first thing we need to do is cut some taxes to encourage people to spend so we can create jobs.

Let’s bring forward the next stage of personal income tax cuts and reduce state payroll taxes which will deter some companies from getting going again.

It is also crucial we focus on getting companies to invest.

Investment before the crisis was already weak. Now it is diabolical.

We have to get people engaged in activity and making the most of this opportunity to automate, to go digital or to upgrade.

Whether it is companies buying equipment, expanding what they're doing, buying that extra truck or a big business bringing forward some of its activities, this type of investment creates jobs.

And it’s why we believe a 20 per cent investment allowance would provide the added incentive for companies to invest especially at a time when confidence is at historic lows.

We also have to get the skills system working so people can upskill to get new jobs.

We need to get the workplace relations system right to give the economy the agreed flexibility it needs to ramp up quickly.

Businesses and workers need to be able to sit down together and agree on the best ways to adapt, scale up and grow in response to rapid change.

How quickly and strongly we can recover will fundamentally depend on how quickly and easily businesses can create new jobs.

We need to remove any hurdles that stand in their way and make it harder to do business.

Now is also not the time to re-regulate the economy.

Unnecessary regulation was one of the first things to be jettisoned during the pandemic in areas such as delivery curfews for supermarkets. Let’s not be tempted to bring needless red tape back.

Every dollar of taxpayers’ money we spend from now on must be geared towards getting people back to work or making it easier to create new jobs. 

The government will also have to use its balance sheet to invest, not just in the projects that create jobs today but the ones that will set us up for the next 30 years of economic growth.

Quite simply, we cannot tax our way out of this predicament - we’ll need to grow our way out of it.

So, it’s clear that business as usual won’t cut it and we need to create jobs and find growth in new businesses, new industries and new places.

Let me start with new businesses and new industries.

The challenge we all face is getting this conversation unlocked from its historical stranglehold of picking winners.

We can go around and around in circles having an argument about this but the reality is that there are a couple of things we do have to pick.

First of all, we do have to pick what we are going to spend taxpayers’ money on.

And this should be in the areas where we are trying to

  • accelerate investment
  • incentivise, and
  • drive creative collaboration between universities and businesses.

We can’t choose one thousand things – we really do have to narrow it down to about 10.

And we have to be focused enough to say – if these are the 10 things that the country is the best at or can be the best at – we can’t put roadblocks in the way of getting even better at them.

Then we need to get the policy settings right to encourage the investment, collaboration and incentives I was talking about. This will drive commercialisation.

We will need to take stock and decide what the competitive reality of focusing on our areas of strength and comparative advantages really means.

Your company makes these choices every day.

You’ve been doing this for well over one hundred years.

GE was one of the original 12 companies when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was created.

Twenty years ago, you were the world’s most valuable company.

You’re now ranked 33 on the Fortune 500 rankings by revenue.

And your current market cap means you are bigger than the GDP of more than 100 countries including Serbia, Azerbaijan and Bolivia.

You make decisions every day to play to your strengths and comparative advantages.

Decisions on what to invest in, what to innovate, what to create, what to accelerate and what to commercialise.

You are a company with purpose.

You make purposeful decisions, not always the best ones, but everyone makes mistakes.

But because you are willing to take risks, it means you are a storied company that is responsible for some of the greatest innovations in history.

You have a sense of what you are good at and a sense of what you are going to do to play to win.

You get out of things where you can see the market is disrupted, where you can’t win or beat your competitors.

And you get into things where you can see a market opening and where you have the right capabilities and the right supply chains.

So, my question is – why can’t countries think and act like that?

Why can’t countries strike the right balance between government intervention and policy settings.

Too many people say: ‘We’ll just set the macro framework and everything else will work itself out’.

But right now, we are in a state of disruption and disintermediation.

Government just a taking a holding position doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.

We do have to have more purposeful interventions by government.

The challenge is making the right ones.

This should be based on data and based on evidence.

And it should be based on a proper diagnosis of:

  • what we’re already good at
  • what we could be really good at, and
  • what can we get at scale
  • as opposed to vested interests
  • wishful thinking, and
  • naive assumptions.

Australia is never going back to manufacturing cars end-to-end. But then nobody is.

But we can be the biggest supplier of a particular part in the global supply chain.

And that's the challenge for public policy makers – to make the right call and back in our strengths.

So, what I have been talking about effectively is industry policy.

And it’s a pretty simple equation.

In the areas where we excel and there’s massive demand for our products and services let’s not erect barriers to get to market and ensure enabling infrastructure is in place.

In the areas where we should be ahead of our competitors or could be, let’s invest in them, concentrate on them, skill them up and build supply chains to service them.

And then there are the more complex conversations we need to have about the industries where we are not competitive in the world but at the moment it would be tricky not to have them.

It’s important we approach industry policy by asking the right questions, which is something companies are very good at.

And the final point I want to make today is about places.

To create the extra jobs and growth we need – we need to do more than just think outside the box about what we produce and make, we also need to think about where we do this.

Which brings me to the Western Sydney Aerotropolis, where you are a foundation partner.

We will have a site bigger than most of the CBDs around the world that has nothing on it.

It will be next to a 24/7 international airport that will now have an underground railway driving connections to the Sydney CBD and across Western Sydney.

We will have a capacity to bespoke some of the best buildings in the world.

We will have the CSIRO setting up its Sydney headquarters and a space agency.

We will have the UK Satellite Catapult located there.

We will have BAE systems and Hitachi to name just a few of the powerhouse companies coming to the Aerotropolis.

We will have a university that will change the way people are trained.

It will be industry-led and centre around micro-credentials and bespoke learning around a particular industry sector.

So, my request to you is to just think about the opportunity of having this astonishing site.

When you make investment decisions, it doesn't have to be a choice between Singapore or Sydney.

It can be Singapore and Sydney.

There aren’t too many sites in the world that can so easily service the South East Asian market.

There aren't too many places where you can have more experimentation.

There aren't too many places where you can have such an attractive lifestyle.

There aren’t too many places where you can take a risk and engage in some calculated trial and error.

And there aren’t too many places better in Australia – or the world – where you can do all of those things.

We’re so excited that you're one of the foundation partners of the Aerotropolis.

And we are determined to work with you to realise your growth opportunities.

So, what’s our collective leadership task?

Well, it’s about looking at the art of the possible which is something your company has been doing ever since Thomas Edison took on Westinghouse.

And it’s about belief.

These are the ingredients that create a company like GE that lasts from more than 100 years and more importantly, has transformed the way we live.

As a business community we need to lead the way in purpose and belief.

Doing so will ensure Australia is in the best possible position to take advantage of the circumstances that life has dealt us.

Throughout history we have seen monumental innovations born out of challenging times like these.

By creating the right environment and attracting the right collections of people, we can use this period of upheaval to draw on our ingenuity and problem-solving creativity.

This will then allow us to unleash our little Edisons everywhere.


Latest news