Event: Jennifer Westacott Business Council chief executive interview with Laura Jayes AM Agenda Sky News
Speaker: Laura Jayes, Jennifer Westacott
Date: 20 March 2020
Topics: Coronavirus response
Laura Jayes, host AM Agenda, Sky News: Let's go live now to Jennifer Westacott. She is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer Westacott, extraordinary times as the Australian said right across its front page this morning. It certainly is. What are your members telling you?
Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Well they are extraordinary times and members are doing everything they can to keep people working, to keep people safe. You know the banks are doing an incredible job, extending loan payments, extending loan terms, keeping their branches open, being more flexible on credit. People giving leave, Telstra creating its own category of pandemic leave. Giving people including casuals leave. Wesfarmers giving people leave particularly casuals. Everyone is pulling their weight and that's really great to see but, you know, there's a lot of uncertainty there. There's a lot of anxiety about the longer this goes on, the deeper the impact and what we have to do is basically do two things. We've got to get through the next three to six months and that's about keeping people in work, it's about keeping people safe, it's about containing this thing, it's about keeping money flowing into people's pockets and then we've got to think about the work to bounce back from this as a stronger economy. A lot of that is going to be getting investment happening in the big companies who are going to pull through those big supply chains, who are vital to creating the economic activity that smaller businesses need. But there is no doubt Laura, we are in an extraordinary situation. But I want to always remind people, we are in a stronger position than many other countries. You know, we had a growing economy, we have strong banks, we've got strong financial regulators, we've got a good health system and it's very important that people remember from our base we have a better capacity to bounce back.
Laura: Yes certainly, the GFC was only ten years ago and that is fresh I'm sure in a lot of these business' minds. Yesterday we saw a huge step from the RBA and the government banding together to make sure there's about a hundred billion dollars’ worth of stimulus in the economy and that will not be the end. Is the government, is the RBA moving quickly enough and is that enough?
Jennifer: Look I think that yesterday and the stimulus announced last week is hugely important. You're basically putting a hundred billion dollars of money into the economy. Particularly targeted to small and medium businesses who are really going to do it tough in this phase. There's no doubt more is going to have to be done. Now I'd divide that into two categories. Cashflow, so I don't think there's any doubt that small businesses are going to need more cash just to keep people working. I think we're going to have to do something about sole traders. I think we're going to have to do something about things like at the moment people I think would be surprised about this, companies pay tax on a monthly basis. Maybe we should move that to quarterly to smooth out those cashflow issues. I think we're going to have to do more for low-income people. We're going to have to cut some slack to people on Newstart. People who are really doing it tough. Let's not ask them to turn up every week showing what job they've been for. Turning up into a Centrelink office or a job assist office. Maybe give them 14 weeks. And then Laura, it's really important that we also think about the other side of this which is make it easier to do business. I wrote to every Mayor the other day and it's interesting a lot of people, lots of local governments have now lifted these curfews on being able to deliver to our supermarkets. You know if we want small business to really get going, don't ask them to do a six-month planning approval if they're going to refit their shop. Don't ask people to keep time and attendance records when a lot of people are working from home. Make it easier for people to get their employees to take leave. That's what happened in the GFC, people took leave, they worked part-time, make that easier to do. That will enable us to bounce back stronger. We've got to give companies the flexibility to bounce back.
Laura: Well Josh Frydenberg spoke to us just about an hour ago and said that we will see an announcement from the banks today when it comes to, I guess, underwriting small business loans and really helping out small to medium businesses. Do you have any idea what that announcement will be? If you don't, what should it be?
Jennifer: Well I think that makes a lot of sense. We would also like to see the depreciation announcement that was made last week extended to larger companies beyond $500 million. Because those companies have bigger balance sheets, they've got better risk appetite and they will make some of those investments that are going to really push through to the economy. Like bring forward their maintenance, bring forward their fleet replacement for a car industry in terms of car sales that's really struggling, when I talk to people on the ground. So I don't know the details of the package but I think what is really important is that the government is very focused on keeping businesses going, keeping their capacity to employ people, keeping their capacity to bounce back after this crisis.
Laura: Now we're all looking ahead to how long this crisis may last and simply we just don't know. There's been this idea floated of the need to nationalise some businesses in Australia. Virgin perhaps, some of these critical businesses to ensure competition on the other side of this chasm. Do you think that's a good idea?
Jennifer: Well the first thing we do know though is that this will come to an end and that's different to the GFC where I think everyone was in complete, you know, 'where will this all end up?' We do know from countries that, you know, say in China that we've seen manufacturing start again. So we do know that there will be an endpoint. We're not quite sure how it will play out. In terms of nationalisation, I agree with Peter, the job is to keep companies going. To keep them with the ability to employ people. To keep them with the ability to come back. And the problem with nationalisation is the point Alan Joyce was making about picking winners. I mean what we've got to come out of this crisis is a modern market economy. Not an economy that looks like something out of the 1950s. That is not a way to bounce back from this.
Laura: Jennifer Westacott, if I could end on perhaps a positive in all of this, there's not a lot of silver lining at the moment. But out of this, could we learn to give employees a little more flexibility? I mean if it works with people working from home, different hours, could we see a whole new workforce? And a different way to structure business on the other side?
Jennifer: I think it's a really important question you're raising here. I think there's two aspects to this. How do we actually create permanent flexibility in our labour market? And how do we create permanent change to our overregulated economy? I'm hoping that at the end of this we look at some of these things like, you know, the incredible restrictions on retail trading hours which should just at the moment be lifted totally across the country. South Australia has done these curfews, Queensland, New South Wales today the Premier I know has made a comment about that. It would be great to see that we create a more flexible, more agile economy in respect of workforce and in respect of the heavy hand of regulation that has stifled so many small, medium and large companies from getting on and creating the prosperity that this country needs at the other side of this.
Laura: And how are you sleeping at the moment, Jennifer?
Jennifer: Well I'm not a great sleeper at the best of times but I can say it's even worse at the moment but yes sleep has not been one of my natural habits.
Laura: Okay, I think you and many, many others around the country at the moment. We thank you for your time we'll speak soon.
Jennifer: You’re very welcome. Thank you.