Interview with Pat Hession, ABC North Queensland

Event Interview with Pat Hession, ABC North Queensland

Speaker Jennifer Westacott

Date Thursday, 28 March 2019

Topics Strong Australia, Newstart and skills  

E&OE

Pat Hession, ABC North Queensland host: Of course, a lot of local issues have been highlighted by the business community in recent times and yes, there's this thing called a budget next week, and then following that there's going to be an election. In case you missed any of that. Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business Council of Australia is here in North Queensland at the moment as well. Good morning.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Good morning.

Pat: I guess we've had a few visitors, all along similar lines, with individual issues being raised at different times. What is it that you're here for primarily though?

Jennifer: Well we're here, we were here last year. We're doing the same thing this year basically as part of our Strong Australia Network. Going out, talking to people in the regions, talking to small business, talking to the community more broadly. What is it that it's going to take to get Townsville, to get other communities across Australia really firing? Getting their economies going, getting unemployment down, giving kids a reason to stay in their local communities. What can we do to both get big businesses more motivated to invest in places like Townsville? And what can we give governments as a kind of to do list a that says, "look, if you just did these things, this would actually really re-energise a place like Townsville. A place like Busselton, a place like Ayr”, where we were yesterday.

Pat: Of course, in places like North Queensland we've got for example, the Townsville Chamber, all very active promoting the interests of local businesses and the things that can make life a lot easier for everyone. I'm really interested to know how as a national organisation, how much capacity you've got to highlight some of those individual localised issues?

Jennifer: A fair bit, obviously. I mean you get a kind of national voice if you run a national organisation, but the thing that really strikes me is that we have these conversations in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne and then you get out to the regions as we do once a fortnight, and it's a very different conversation. It's a pro-enterprise, pro-business agenda. People say we want investment, we want big and small working together, we need the big companies back so that they reinvest. Very different conversation to the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney and I guess we're trying to amplify the voice of people in the regions so that they get their say in the national debate. The other kind of opportunity we've got is to go back to the large companies and say, look, "we really need you back in these communities, we need you to invest". And then saying to governments - state, federal and local - actually, if you did a couple of really simple things, you'd make it easier for companies to go into places like Townsville.

Pat: I guess we've heard in the past 24 hours about some updated population information. I'm not sure if it's been on your radar but essentially the takeaway from it is that the regions are growing, especially the major centres are growing, but overall the growth is still much faster in the capital cities. That's got to make that job harder, doesn't it? If they're thinking, well if we invest in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, we can get "X" amount of growth. If we invest in the regions, which are so much more spread out, possibly higher overheads with that geography coming into it, there's a smaller amount of growth to tap into there. It's got to be tough?

Jennifer: Yeah it is but surely, we need a regional development strategy across Australia because Sydney and Melbourne are-

Pat: You don't think we've got that? I know we get a lot of talk about it.

Jennifer: Well, I'd love someone to show it to me if we've got it because I haven't seen it. You know, what are the top places in Australia where we are going to prioritise infrastructure? What are the places in Australia where we're going to set up what I call economic development zones, where we say we are going to make it easier to do business in this area?

Pat: Does that play out politically though? I mean you've got 150 odd local MPs around the country and they all want theirs.

Jennifer: But what is the purpose of people in public life? I mean, is it to just constantly win elections, or is it to do something to benefit the country?

Pat: Is mean, is it fair enough for them to play favourites though?

Jennifer: Well, I don't think it is and this is the role of Infrastructure Australia. I mean you can't keep doing this in Australia where people start something and then someone comes along from a different political persuasion says, oh we want to do something else. People have got to listen to the community, I was out at Ayr yesterday, you know, they had a really simple kind of to do list. It was very inexpensive. It would really help people start to really get the economy going there. I think the job of national leadership, whether it's in the business community, whether it's in politics, whether it's in the media, whether it's in the trade union movement, is to take a view of the whole country of what is the right thing to do to get a really clear sense of the kind of 10, 15, 20 year priorities. Get them done. Stop playing politics with some of these big infrastructure projects and remember that we've got to actually put the vital infrastructure in places like Townsville in place, in places like Ayr, in places like Busselton. You know, if not what kind of a country do we want to be? Are we seriously not going to listen to what people are saying?

Pat: Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia here in North Queensland at the moment. So, I guess then looking at some of the things that you're hearing and I know you've got this business event at lunch time today as well, which I've got some more details on here in a moment, but already you've been in the Burdekin as you say. So what are some of the specific things that you think are being highlighted that really stood out to you as someone who I guess has fresh eyes on these problems?

Jennifer: Stuff you hear all around the country, energy prices are really hurting businesses. People wanting to play to their advantages, so in the Burdekin yesterday, play to their advantages in agriculture, a good supply of water, that's not the story you hear in other parts of the country, how can they diversify? How can they value add to agriculture? How can they take advantage of the Townsville airport to get products to Asia? And what do we really know about Asia? So, you know, those sorts of things. I think we constantly hear about young people leaving places and how do we keep young people in jobs? And the final thing we hear all the time, I heard it yesterday, TAFE has got to be restored in this country. You know, we don't want our kids just going off to uni because that's the only choice they've got. That's the only information they had. We want our kids to get trades. We've got to make sure that the TAFE works. Why aren't we kind of doing their old horticulture schools, agri schools because this could be an agriculture powerhouse as it sort of partly is – the whole issue of recycling waste products. I mean, you've heard them all before. It's not a particularly different list, but when you get to the bottom of it, there simple things that could be done that would really get things going. And that's what I'm interested in hearing from people today. Well what, what are some of the kind of steps that we could take and how can we help you take those steps?

Pat: We've heard in recent days from the ACTU they've been active locally as well. We've had the head of the ACTU, the secretary I should say here this week. We've also got the Australian Council of Social Service yesterday talking about improving conditions for people who are on Newstart looking for work within the community. Are these issues that you've got strong opinions on as well? Especially, when we’re talking about workplace-

Jennifer: If was the Business Council who raised the Newstart stuff actually with Cassandra, Cassandra and I've always been-

Pat: Well, that's why I wanted to follow up on here because they said that you're, you're on board and I thought well, I better check.

Jennifer: No absolutely. We've always been on board on this because what do we need for people who are out of work? You need to give them an opportunity to get back in the workforce and condemning them to an income they cannot live on is not a way to get them back to work. Apart from the indignity of living on amounts of money that I think most Australians would be horrified by, how do we get people back to work, how do we re-skill them, re-train them? And they've got to have an allowance that allows them to not become homeless, not to become sick, not to become so disadvantaged they cannot re-enter the workforce. But then we've got to make sure that we give them the right training, give them access to employment. I mean, I've been banging on for years about this idea we've got for a lifelong skills account, where every Australian can either purchase a TAFE module or university module and they get a set of credentials. That is going to be essential as the economy changes, as we adopt new technologies. Why can't we do that for people on Newstart, so instead of sending them off to training courses that are not going to get them a job, why can't they do a module of this and module of that? We get them a placement in a large or small employer. You know, why aren't we interested in the fact that there are 23,000 people who've been on Newstart for 10 years? I mean surely to God, someone can fix this. So, I'm always kind of on about the Newstart allowance because it's one of those things that as a country that we're meant to kind of look after people, you know, this is a group of people who I think need some support and they need some more money.

Pat: I love your optimism that these longstanding problems can be solved and that it's worth looking for solutions.

Jennifer: Well, that's my kind of mantra in life. You know, like in this country, we have so many people who just take a side or a position on something. Well, we've got to be about trying to solve some problems. And when I get around, that's the other message I hear all the time. Why doesn't someone just get on and fix that? And lots of things are unfixable and they're very complex, but that's in the kind of five per cent category, 95 per cent of things, if people just sat down and said, what's the problem we're trying to fix? Okay, here's some ideas. And if people stopped saying, your idea is terrible because it's your idea, well, why don't-

Pat: Or because you come from that party-

Jennifer: Or because you come from that party.

Pat: Therefore, nothing you could say could ever be good.

Jennifer: People just take a position on stuff and you think ‘why are you taking a position on that’, actually there’s a kind of really simple way of fixing that.

Pat: Yeah, couldn't agree more. All right, well, wonderful to hear from you today and I know you've got this event that's happening at lunchtime today at the Ville with the local business community. I know Townsville Enterprise and the Townsville Chamber play a part of it.

Jennifer: Yeah, looking forward to it.

Pat: So, I'll be interested to hear how it all goes.

Jennifer: Fantastic, thanks very much.

Pat: Thanks for coming by this morning. Jennifer Westacott, who's with the Business Council of Australia, here with you this morning on 6.30 ABC North Queensland.