Interview with Deborah Knight, Afternoons with Deborah Knight, 2GB

19 August 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Deborah Knight, Afternoons with Deborah Knight, 2GB

Speakers: Deborah Knight, host Afternoons with Deborah Knight 2GB; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Topics: Qantas, covid management, vaccine roll out


Deborah Knight, host 2GB: Jennifer Westacott is CEO of the BCA. She's on the line for us now. Jen thanks for joining us again on Afternoons.

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

Deborah: Did that announcement from Qantas come as a surprise?

Jennifer: Not at all. Not at all. And it's not in contrast to what we were saying. So I think let's get this into perspective. What we were saying with the ACTU is this, overwhelmingly we need to make this a positive and voluntary thing. But we did signal out that there are some sectors which are very high risk and they run the risk of system risk which is aviation. In other words, the whole system, all the work that everyone's doing around quarantine and around vaccination can all be undone because someone comes through that quarantine system or the aviation system and spreads the virus. And we were saying the best way of doing that is public health orders and what we want, all of us want, is consistency. The National Cabinet on Friday agreed on things like the WorkSafe authorities around giving more consistent guidance to employers about what they can and can't do. And the meeting yesterday was very much an affirmation that the top issue here is supply. We have got to get supply. We have got to get a positive message to the community about this. We have got to get access and business is working really constructively with government about opening up access to people.

Deborah: There's no doubt that is absolutely the way forward. But isn't the best way to get consistency in that there's one law that's presented to the community by the federal government?

Jennifer: I don't know if it's the federal government. Let's just take aged care. The states got together, and they coordinated their public health orders in a way that meant that you had a consistent approach across each state.

Deborah: We've had so much toing and froing with that. We've had to have mandates issued and deadlines by the PM. It hasn't been cut and dry.

Jennifer: No it hasn't been cut and dry. But it's also not impossible to do I guess is my point. And you sort of say well can't the states all agree that their WorkSafe instructions to employers be consistent. That's not rocket science. Why can't you have public health orders that are consistent? So let's just take Qantas, a great example. Only two states have issued public health orders about aviation workers which was New South Wales and South Australia. So I guess what we're saying is, what we really want Deb is consistent and practical things that say to employers what you can do, what you can't do, what are your legal liabilities. That needs to be coordinated by the federal government, but we don't necessarily need the federal government to try and introduce a whole lot of laws into parliament. We've got the tools to work with, we just need people to get their act together and give employers and employees a consistent set of rules so we can get this done. But I keep coming back to this, and this was a very important point at the meeting yesterday, the most important thing is to give a positive message to the community about getting this done and our fundamental goal has got to stay let's get as many people vaccinated as possible and end these lockdowns.

Deborah: Absolutely, no argument from me there. But we are hearing from the small and medium businesses who don't have the financial means of the bigger companies like Qantas or a lot of the bigger businesses that are a part of the Business Council. They can't afford to get legal advice or to mount legal challenges in court. So they say they're stuck in limbo here.

Jennifer: Well that's why we're saying can we have a consistent set of WorkSafe guidelines from each state. Where you've got to get people vaccinated because as I said something like aviation was pretty self-evident wasn't it? Something like aged care workers. That was pretty self-evident. We've taken a long time to make that decision. Can we get ahead of this and give small business a bit of guidance here. Make sure that we're really clear about liability and indemnity. You're absolutely spot on, small business can't, and I've been making this point for weeks, employers can't be expected just to sort of work this out themselves. Because inconsistency Deb will be our peril here. Because as we've seen, all you need is one thing to go wrong and suddenly you've got case numbers ballooning and you've got people back in lockdown again. So I don't think it's too much to say to our leaders can we get our act together on WorkSafe directions. On public health orders, can we look at those sectors where we've got very high levels of risk. And to be fair to Qantas they had to take action and they've done that. But they did that in a way that was really constructive. They worked with the union, they worked with their teams. But I keep coming back, the debate about mandating versus trying to get some national consistency around the tools that we've got to work with, I think the debate about mandating is not really helpful to be honest. Because we want this to be a positive conversation, we want to get supply right, access right, get as many people done and get ourselves out of these crippling lockdowns which are just putting such a dent in our economy but also to your point they're just a dent in people's wellbeing at the moment. I just talk to people who say, ‘I can't go on like this.’

Deborah: It's hitting everyone hard there's no doubt about that. What about the Fair Work Ombudsman's idea about this tiered system for mandatory vaccines which would then obviously if you're at the front line in aviation or aged care or a health worker or a border or quarantine, then clearly that's top of tier and it should be mandated and working your way back through there depending on the amount of exposure that you've got to customers or for staff within their workplace. I mean that's a practical way of moving forward isn't it?

Jennifer: Absolutely. Yes absolutely. And again, making sure that then there's a consistent set of rules that follow that hierarchy. And what we can't have is seven different approaches to that. That would be hopeless. And that's what we keep saying well okay yep that's a really sensible way of doing it. What's the best way of doing it, is that the federal government which would probably take quite a bit of time, or do we use the existing mechanisms we've got which are the state's public health orders or the WorkSafe guidelines, get them lined up and follow that system that the Fair Work Ombudsman's outlining which would make a lot of sense.

Deborah: And you're saying that the ACTU is willing to work with the Business Council and with government to achieve this end result that we all want to get to at the end of the day? But what are your thoughts about paid vaccination leave which is what the ACTU is calling for? Do you agree that paid vaccination leave is something that should be considered?

Jennifer: Look I think it's going to come down to individual employers. I think it's very hard on small business. So I'm not sure that you can mandate that because if you've got two or three people it's very hard to have one system. What we're saying is employers whether you're big or small should do everything we can to get people vaccinated. And now obviously the companies I represent, the big companies, can do things like paid vaccination leave. It's much harder for small business. So I'm not sure there is just one approach to this. I think all of us agree use whatever incentives, if it's giving someone an afternoon off because they feel a bit crook having had it, giving them Uber rides which a lot of companies are doing. It's got to be what works for your team and what works for your environment. Look I think it should be on the table, but I think at the moment the main thing is particularly just getting supply right, access points right and giving companies and employers and small business the flexibility to do what works for them and their teams. But let me just say that the ACTU has been very constructive about: let's try and work together to all get a positive message. And Sally McManus yesterday made the point she's really keen to work not just with the BCA but with COSBOA and other employer groups on things like liability for employers. She understands that is an issue and we've got to get that solved.

Deborah: Well let's hope that there is some consensus there. But clarity as you say and consistency we've got not much hope have we when you've got the states that can't even work it out together with WA Premier Mark McGowan saying he's not ruling out border closures and lockdowns even after his state and other state and territory leaders agreed to that 80 per cent benchmark, once we reach that with vaccination then the lockdowns will be gone. But he's saying well actually we might just backtrack on that. Having that clarity we've got no hope when you've got the state and territory leaders willing to go it alone.

Jennifer: Yeah look I couldn't agree more. This sends me into a bit of despair I'll be frank with you. We have this really important work done by the Doherty Institute that showed those pathways, 70 and 80 per cent. We've got people working to that timeline. We've got people working frantically to get as many people vaccinated as possible. We've got the business community and in particular us saying, ‘here's how business can play a role in getting the vaccine out to people in the way that we do on flu injections and things like that.’ We're working really well with the government on that. And then everyone is working towards that on the understanding that when we get to 70 these restrictions move. When we get to 80 there's no more of these lockdowns. And when so people go to a meeting and agree to something and then walk out and then two days later and say, ‘oh we're not going to do that we'll do something else.’ That is crippling for business confidence. That is crippling for community confidence. And the simple reality that you and I, I'm sure both agree one, the longer this country is in endless lockdowns and is a fortress to the rest of the world, the more damage to our reputation, to our exports, to our comparative advantage, projects that can't get done, things that don't happen and I get reports all around the world that people are getting on with things, they're opening up, they're moving on, they're getting their international students back. If we take too long to do that Deb we are going to fall behind. And it really makes me quite distressed that people go to a meeting and agree one thing and business says, ‘okay well we can plan for that’ and then walk out and say something completely different.

Deborah: Yeah it's not good enough. They're meant to be leaders of these states and territories and they're not showing leadership in any shape or form. Jennifer Westacott it's always good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

Jennifer: Thanks so much Deb.


Latest news