Jennifer Westacott and Peter Strong - Interview with Jodie Gunders, Country Hour ABC

Event: Interview with Jodie Gunders, ABC Country Hour 
Speaker: Jennifer Westacott and Peter Strong
Date: 7 March 2018
Topics: Company tax, regional economies, regulation, investment, red tape, Adani

Jodie Gunders, host: The Business Council of Australia represents the interests of the nation's biggest corporations. So, what was it doing in North Queensland this week? A very long way from Macquarie Street and Collins Street. Chief executive Jennifer Westacott has been travelling in Cairns and Townsville along with Peter Strong chief executive of the Small Business Council of Australia. They joined me from the ABC studios in Cairns to explain why they’re focusing on regional Australia in 2018.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Well Peter and I wanted to come to Cairns and Townsville because we're very concerned that the national policy debate whether it's about tax, whether it's about regulation, whether it's about the role of business. It's just being framed up by the Melbourne/Sydney community and we're forgetting about regional Australia and we're forgetting about these hugely important parts of Australia - Cairns and Townsville. Big centres, big parts of our economy, big parts of our national identity and we wanted to come to talk to people and listen to small and big businesses, what's working, what's not working, how can we work better together?

Peter Strong, chief executive Council of Small Business Australia: Yeah and the other thing we're promoting is the fact that big and small businesses, Jennifer just said, do work well together. A lot of people out there do think that there is a wall between us and maybe sometimes there is but in the main we need each other and that story is told best out in regional Australia where you can actually see it happening.

Jodie: That's interesting, can you expand on that a little bit? Because, it's working together, small and big business but also even when you talk about big business in the regional context, you've got the smaller communities but contributing whether it be with mineral resources or agriculture to very much the big business picture.

Peter: Well that's right. And big business need us and we need them. What has happened in the past is that most people talk about the wall between big and small and they've been talking business down big time over the last couple of years which is just completely false. Most Australian businesses are fine. There are some that do the wrong thing and we've got regulators to fix them and what we want to do is have people understand that it's a very good relationship in the main. It can be tough at times, it's supposed to be, and in the main it's good but we have brought to the attention of the Business Council through them, big business, that there has been a problem that has developed in Australia over the last decade of late payments of invoices to small businesses and they reacted very quickly once we brought that to their attention. And the Business Council has developed a code with their members.

Jennifer: Yeah and that code will require businesses to pay small businesses in 30 days. I think the other kind of core message that we are getting on this trip is, how much big business and small business need each other. So, we went to, in Townsville the other day, we went to Lendlease's big development at Elliott Springs, a $4.7 billion development. A forty year project. And there was a big global company, Lendlease, working with local contractors, local providers. Then you come to Cairns, you know, the importance of the big mining industry, the importance of the big tourist operators. All kind of creating a ripple effect through the economy with small business - cafes, mining services. And we've got to get that message across to Australians that business is one system. It's all about people.
It's all about jobs. It's all about a better living standard for Australians and if we have this anti-business agenda or we pit big and small against each other. We are actually just going to kick an own goal for the country.

Jodie: And there are perceptions though aren't there of that two speed economy? And which even Brisbane is left off, let alone regional communities. Is that what people are saying to you? Are they raising those concerns or looking beyond them?

Jennifer: I think they are looking beyond them but clearly there's a concern. So if mining drops off, the ripple effect across the economy is obviously very serious. I think what people are saying is that they want diversity of local economies. They want to back the things that they are good at. They want support for that. They want to see the red tape cut. And interestingly not a single person has opposed the company tax cut up here. Everyone says, we need that tax cut for big and small businesses because it's vital we get investment into our areas. So I think there is a bit of a concern about that two speed economy. But the kind of the opportunities that we can get investment from big and small companies, diversify economies, diversify local communities, we can actually get some of those unemployment figures down and there is a lot of, kind of, optimism - that's the other kind of takeaway. Meeting people with tremendous optimism and incredible knowledge and talent on the ground. And you know we're just not, kind of, aware of that in Canberra and we are not harnessing it.

Jodie: You spend a lot of time, both of you, lobbying in Canberra. When you do have those lobbying meetings and discussions, to what extent would they now be informed by the experiences you've heard from regional Queensland?

Peter: Well Jennifer has summed it up by saying that people in regions are not stupid, they know a lot of things. I learn a lot of things as well sitting here. That's why I love coming out to regional Australia or to big cities and towns in the regions - is you learn so much. It's not just a brains trust in Canberra. They know about Canberra. They might understand some international ideologues but when it comes to the local world and the way the world works it's locals that understand that.

Jennifer: That's right and I think our core message will be, you know, we need to be open for business as country so we can be open for business in Townsville, in Cairns, in other parts of regional Australia. And that all of this is about people and communities. People talk about companies as if they're bad or businesses if they're bad. They're people. They're shareholders. They're workers. They're suppliers. They're, you know, they’re contractors. They're customers and we keep sort of talking about companies as if they're some kind of abstract concept. It's a group of people and in a local community they work together, they come together, they try hard together and they want more support for Canberra and they want more recognition from Canberra. And Peter and I will be going back to Canberra and saying we've got to wake up to ourselves as a country because people in regional Australia, they want jobs, they want business because it is the lifeblood of their community.

Jodie: Speaking of jobs and business, the federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten, has said that he, has indicated a lack of support or waning support for the Adani Coal Mine. This is certainly a big issue in the places you've been visiting over the past couple of days. Was it raised? Has it been discussed?

Jennifer: Oh yeah, yeah. It's been raised a lot because leaving aside the kind of, you know, the particular issues around Adani itself, it's one of these things that says we are not open for business. It's one of these things that sends a really inconsistent message to international companies that Australia's not an easy place or a predictable place to do business. And I think the kind of point that a lot of people have said it, why don't people ask us? Why don't people ask the people who are going to benefit from this project? Instead of the people of Batman that have got nothing to do with it. And, you know, we forget, you know, lobby groups or protest groups in the inner cities of Melbourne and Sydney should not be dictating the opportunities of people in regional Australia. It's just not fair and that's a big message we've heard.

Peter: And it's an absolute message and the fact is that what you hear, you hear in two different stories about what's going on with Adani, well not just two but probably a lot more than that. So, I think we as a nation are obliged to get the facts out there properly about what is actually happening about Adani and what's actually going to be missed if it doesn't happen.

Jennifer: And this thing has been through a rigorous environmental approval. Now either we accept those approvals or we don't but you know this thing has been approved through a rigorous process. You can't now decide that you don't approve it because you want to win a particular by-election. That is a very very patronising message to people in Northern Queensland who need jobs and need investment and as they've said to us, why won't people ask us what we think?

Jodie: Alright, it's been a positive trip to the regions, will you do it again?

Jennifer: Absolutely. We will be doing this one a very frequent basis because we've really heard a lot of creative, brilliant people who've got create ideas, who can really get these areas thriving and we need to give them a voice but also to get behind them in a practical way. I need to bring big companies here and remind them that these regions are open for business so yeah, we'll be back on a very regular basis.

Peter: Yeah and we're going to be working much more closely with the Chambers are here. They are very good. They're not highly resourced, they never are but gee they understand what's going on and we're going to help them get that back to Canberra.

Jodie: Jennifer Westacott chief executive of the Business Council of Australia and Peter Strong chief executive of the Small Business Council of Australia.