Interview with Hamish Macdonald, RN Breakfast

Event: Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott interview with Hamish Macdonald, RN Breakfast

Speaker: Hamish Macdonald, host RN Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Austalia

Date: 27 May 2020

Topics: COVID-19 response, workplace relations, skills

E&OE

Hamish Macdonald, host RN Breakfast: That's Scott Morrison speaking at the National Press Club. Well we're going to explore this extensively this morning. Later we will be joined by Christian Porter, the Industrial Relations Minister, and by Sally McManus from the ACTU. But first, Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of Australia's peak business lobby group the Business Council of Australia. Good morning to you.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Good morning Hamish.

Hamish: Is business prepared to put down its weapons in the Prime Minister's terms and seek a way forward on industrial relations?

Jennifer: Well we are absolutely ready to work with the unions, with government, with the community to get the job done. What do we mean by that? To bring us together, to get people back to work, to get businesses back on their feet, to create new jobs, to give Australians the skills that they need so that they can keep working all their lives. We stand ready to work and I've been saying this as you know for a long time that we are ready to put everything in the past behind us and start again, and make sure that we can get Australians working again.

Hamish: What are you able to say this morning that indicates that you want to do this reform? Not just for the employers but for the workers to?

Jennifer: But we are all doing this for the people who need their jobs back. We are doing this so that a small business can get up and running again. This is the thing Hamish we have to remember, who is at stake here? It's the young people you were just talking about who think I'm never going to get back to work or get a job in the first place. It's the people over 55 who think I'm never going back to work. It's the small business person who spent their whole life building their business who thinks I can't get this thing going again. That's who's at stake and so we all have to leave everything at the door and say, 'how do we create a new job? How do we get people back to work? How do we give people the skills they need?' And make sure that this is a win-win. But make no mistake, you can't do anything if businesses can't be successful.

Hamish: Sure but it's the shape of that job that counts isn't it?

Jennifer: Absolutely and we want people to be in good jobs, well paid jobs, secure jobs. And that's absolutely crucial that we sit down and say 'how do we get the sort of jobs, not just the jobs of today but the jobs that we are going to need in the future so that we can keep people working and we can keep our economy growing, keep things strong.' That's the task at hand and all of us I think have to go in and remember who is at stake here. It's not us, it's those young people you were just talking to.

Hamish: So Scott Morrison has shelved the Coalition's union-busting bill, the Ensuring Integrity legislation, the business community was a strong backer of that legislation as was the BCA. Did the Prime Minister speak to you about that before? Did you have input on that?

Jennifer: No, not on that. But I think it's the right thing to do. I think we need to focus on the task at hand. I think it's important that we say, 'what's the problem that we're trying to solve here?' We're trying to solve that the system has become too complicated, that we've lost sight of its principle purpose which is that an employer and an employee sit down together and they work out how do they make that business more successful? How do they grow it, expand it, make it more efficient? And how do they share the benefits of that in higher wages and better conditions for workers? That is the task at hand.

Hamish: Let's talk about the specifics then because you've suggested there are too many conditions in workplace pay deals. You've suggested removing some to improve business productivity. You've indicated, as you have just now, that you believe that might lead to higher wages for workers. But the unions are very clear they don't want the removal of the better off overall test. What are we talking about specifically when you say this stuff?

Jennifer: Well I think getting to the list straight away is not the way to deal with this. I think we've got to say, 'what are we trying to solve for?' I think complexity is a big issue. We've got 122 awards. We've got multiple clauses in each of them. We've got an enterprise agreement system where it's too hard to make changes. And what's really interesting Hamish, is what has happened over the last ten weeks is that people have had to very quickly changes those enterprise agreements so that people could stay working. And the unions have been fabulously cooperative in that. But isn't that your window into ‘what's not working?’ That we're not able to change things fast enough. But we need to make sure that in doing that we protect...

Hamish: So what's been adjusted within those agreements?

Jennifer: Things like hours worked and things like that. I mean that's obviously in a crisis. But you've got to be able, if you're a business, to be able to ramp up quickly if you get extra demand. But you've got to make sure that a safety net stays in place. And that's the principle that I think we should try and start with. If we start with the list I don't think that's the place to start. I know everyone wants to get to the list. But to me we've got to start with 'what are we trying to achieve?' We want Australians to have good jobs, safe jobs, well-paid jobs, secure jobs.

Hamish: I just want to be clear though because you've mentioned these arrangements during the crisis and you've referred to hours worked, is that the sort of thing that you want to keep in place going forward?

Jennifer: That's as I said, that's a particular thing that's happened as people have tried to keep people working. I think there are different things going forward. But how do you change rosters more quickly for example. There's a really concrete example. When things have to be ramped up, ramped down. How do you actually get training done more quickly? How do you bring in new technology more quickly? If the EBAs have got so many things in them that to just make basic adjustments to the way people are working requires a renegotiation of the EBAs. In a very complex system that means people can't adjust. And also we all know from his period that people want to work more flexibly. So how do we get them to do that and make sure we protect them at the same time?

Hamish: To that very point though, from having spoken to you and to Sally McManus frequently over recent months, it would seem that you don't necessarily agree on what secure work actually is. Is it possible for you to come together and actually identify what secure work is going forward?

Jennifer: I think we absolutely have to do that. Because I think it does mean different things to different people. I think that is a really important part of it. We have to remember that casuals, more people want to work casual.

Hamish: So what do you see as a secure job?

Jennifer: Well I think secure work is where you can keep working all your life and that's where the skills issue is so important. But secure work is predictable work, it's work where you have a safety net, it's work where you are able to negotiate your terms and agreement. Now I want sit down and Sally and the ACTU and get a common definition of what we mean. It doesn't mean that there won't be casuals in the workplace because many people want to work like that. And that as we know from the data hasn't changed, the percentage of casuals in the workplace hasn't changed for the last 20 years. What's happening in this crisis -

Hamish: But if there's going to be more of that should they get things like more sick leave?

Jennifer: Hang on, what's happening in this crisis is that the people who have been most affected are people who are casuals in the industries where they have taken the biggest hit. So look I think all of those things Hamish have to be on the table. And what I don't want to do is start a process by ruling things in and ruling things out. What I want to do is sit down and say, 'what are we trying to achieve here? What do we mean by secure work?' And I think the ACTU has to come to the table similarly saying, 'how do we get businesses to be more secure?' Because you can't have secure work, you can't have higher wages, you can't have a prosperous country if businesses constantly fail.

Hamish: We've got to get to the news in a minute and a half but I need to ask you about skills. The Prime Minister says there's a big problem here. It seems everyone agrees. Labor lays the blame at the federal Coalition for they say dismantling the TAFE system and slashing funding. Who is responsible for this mess?

Jennifer: Look I think this has happened over a long, long period of time, this decline in particularly the VET system. And I think playing a blame game isn't going to solve a problem here. What's the problem to solve? First of all, we've got to in the short-term be able to get people skilled up much more quickly. So this whole point of short courses, micro credentials. In the longer term, we've got to get VET back up on its feet. We've got to restore the status of the VET system. We've got to remove the cultural and funding bias that sends some people to university when they would be better doing a VET qualification. We've got to get the quality of VET up and we've got to make sure that industry is absolutely embedded in the process of working out what courses we need, what curriculum we need so that we're training people for the jobs that are going to be in the market.

Hamish: Jennifer Westacott thank you very much for your time.

Jennifer: You’re very welcome. Thank you.