Jennifer Westacott - Fran Kelly, ABC Breakfast

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast
Jennifer Westacott
16 November 2017
Marriage equality, company tax, business reputation and workplace diversity

Fran Kelly: Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer Westacott, welcome back to Breakfast.

Jennifer Westacott: Thank you very much.

Fran: We spoke to you earlier in the campaign. You told us how important this vote was to you personally and your partner Tess. How did you feel when the vote was announced yesterday?

Jennifer: Fantastic and proud. Proud of Australians. You know, proud of their capacity to see beyond the noise to kind of do what's right, do what's fair, do what's decent and, you know, it was a great day for Australia.

It really shows that people have a kind of progressive and enlightened view overwhelmingly and I would say this to the people who voted no, you know, this decision is not a threat to their way of life because, you know, we have always been there. We were the people who looked after people in hospitals, we are the people who have served you in a restaurant, we were your brothers, your sisters, your daughters, your mothers, your friends, your colleagues at work.

All we have ever wanted is for our relationships to be seen as legitimate and for people to accept them and the Australian people, overwhelmingly, yesterday said yes to that.

Fran: So you feel that that legitimacy comes with that vote. That is what happened yesterday.

Jennifer: It was for me. It was for Tess and I'm sure it is for many, many other people. That sense of acceptance from having felt like an outsider all my life. That sense of, hang on, the majority of Australians recognise the legitimacy of my relationship and I thank them for that.

Fran: And to bring it back, you are the head of the BCA. What impact is that likely to have or change do you think in the workplace? Is it important? Is there an upside in this do you think for workplaces around the country?

Jennifer: Absolutely, because you know people kind of use the expression, people need to bring their whole selves to work to be productive, to be effective. But I think it's kind of more of a moral issue.

I mean, Australian businesses in the region, many of them spoke out, want to have inclusive and diverse workplaces. They want to have decent places for people to come to work. They want to feel part of a community and that's why so many corporate leaders spoke in favour of this, because they feel very strongly about a non-discriminatory and inclusive, fair workplace.

Fran: You spoke out about this, Qantas chief Alan Joyce spoke about this. It was not without risk. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton suggested all those, some 800 companies, that got behind the yes campaign should 'stick to knitting'. Was it risky for you? Did you feel like that was a risk to take?

Jennifer: Look yes it was. But you know I have tremendous support from people within the Business Council, tremendous support from our board. Many, many corporate leaders have sent me wonderful emails, wonderful text messages saying how much they support our stance because they believe in a fair society and I think business really shone the light on one of the great aspects of corporate Australia which is their sense of corporate social responsibility and a sense of being more than just a profit earning entity but a really central part of the community.

Fran: So more than just a marketing ploy. More than just reading the tea leaves and getting on the side of the majority.

Jennifer: Absolutely. I mean, people forget that corporate Australia has been doing tremendous work for years in Indigenous communities, in making their own workplaces fairer and more inclusive.

Perhaps they should talk about it a bit more. I think this is an opportunity for them to speak out and say, look we stand for a fairer and better Australia.

Fran: I mean I would have said that big business in particular doesn't often get involved in social campaigns like this. Do you think corporate leaders should get more involved? Should speak out more in these social debates?

Jennifer: Well they do. Perhaps they don't speak about it enough. I mean we've had the Male Champions of Change, have been fantastic leaders around gender diversity. We've had people like Andrew Forrest who have been incredible champions of Indigenous employment, Indigenous economic advantage and I think that if you really looked at what corporate Australia was doing in communities, doing in Indigenous communities, doing in disadvantaged communities, doing stuff in schools, people I think would be really taken aback with the level of activity that corporate Australia is engaged with. They often don't talk about it because they don't want to spruik it and they don't ever want it to be seen as a marketing ploy. But it's a deep commitment and of course corporate Australia and business across Australia is at its best when it employs 10 million people every day in this country and gives them hope and a better future.

Fran: It's eighteen to nine on Breakfast, our guest is Jennifer Westacott. She's the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. What about this debate? The James Patterson Bill with the conscientious objective classification is now dropped but that doesn't mean, and we've heard already from the Anglican Bishop Michael Stead and others that some still want these protections for the florists, for the bakers, for the wedding singers, all sorts of businesses to be able to say no to providing a service for a gay marriage. What's your view on that? Should businesses have this right of exemption?

Jennifer: Well I'll make a few points about this Fran. The first is that Australians yesterday voted for less discrimination not more. They voted overwhelmingly for a fairer and more inclusive society.

The second point I'd make is the point Dean Smith is making which I agree with. We have 13 pieces of anti-discrimination legislation in this country. What gap exists in that legislation now that we feel we have to fill? You know, often people are talking about things that have nothing to do with marriage. For example, you've just given [inaudible].

But the third and most important point is how on earth would this actually work? I mean, this to me is just like opening the door to a quagmire of red tape, of confusion, of vexatious litigation. How on earth would this work? Do I need to turn up to the shop with my little equality badge on so someone can pick me out in the queue and refuse me service? How would this actually work? We don't need to give business more confusing legislation, more confusing things to interpret. I know at the Council of Small Business yesterday, they came out yesterday saying very strongly, you know, that they do not support this. There is a very important principle here. Are we now going to extend this to the right to refuse people of a broader set of religions? In which case we are going to take our country backwards a long, long way or are we actually going to say “no, no this is just for gay people” in which case that is an extraordinary prejudice and the Australian people yesterday said they didn't want that.

Fran: The Bishop we spoke to earlier said, no it's not just for gay people it's just for gay marriages and seemed to, in fact we've had a response from one listener who said if a cake is ordered, it's really not the baker’s business what the occasion is for, the job is to create the cake to argue that refusing to take an order for a same-sex wedding cake differs from refusing to serve gay people is disingenuous.

Jennifer: You can see my point about how on earth would this actually work. I mean we do not need this. Businesses are not religious institutions and I understand that issue for religious institutions. But, you know businesses don't need another piece of confusing, complex sets of rules that will take forever to interpret. That will open up a Pandora's box of vexatious litigants and then the idea that well if I turn to the shop and say I'm buying a cake for a party, that's fine but if I say I'm buying a cake for my wedding, someone says well now I've got the right. I mean how on earth will this actually work on the ground? Australians yesterday said no to this. They said yes to an inclusive and fairer society. Not, let's have more discrimination. They said let's have less of it.

Fran: Can I just ask you finally on another issue, nothing to do with this, but you've been in the news as the head of the BCA because the former Prime Minister Paul Keating lobbed a big rant at the BCA this week. He described your campaign for company tax cuts and lower penalty rates for low paid workers as quote "profoundly lazy and backwards", "the laziness and backwardness of it is profound" was the quote. How do you respond to that?

Jennifer: Well I think he is completely out of touch with our broader agenda. It's interesting Paul Keating reduced company taxes and he did that to keep Australia competitive with the OECD and that's what we are arguing for now. That we are not competitive. That the Americans moving to a 20 per cent rate will have a big impact. That's not lazy thinking, that's forward thinking. That's about making our country more competitive.

On penalty rates, you know, that's responding to an independent umpire who took a lot of evidence to say, actually, if we go forward, the way that penalty rates are interpreted is actually an antiquated interpretation of unsociable hours. I think Mr Keating is just not on top of our agenda. You know, I gave a Press Club speech weeks ago arguing for a complete transformation of our tertiary system so people could train and work all of their lives but this is the person who reduced company tax to keep us competitive. This is the person who said our lower company tax and our dividend imputation will encourage investment and jobs. I think he's out of touch with what we stand for. He's out of touch with the competitive pressures on our economy and we'll continue to fight for a more competitive Australia because that will mean better jobs and our capacity to actually invest in these new technologies to get ahead of what's happening in our workplaces, what's happening in global markets and supply chains, if we don't have a capacity to invest, Australian business will not be able to keep up and we will be a poorer country for it.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott thanks very much for joining us.

Jennifer: You’re welcome, thank you.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia.