Jennifer Westacott interview with Anna Moulder, ABC NSW Statewide Drive

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Anna Moulder, ABC NSW Statewide Drive

Speakers: Anna Moulder, host ABC NSW Statewide Drive; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 2 March 2021

Topics: Three steps to reopen Australia’s economy, vaccine roll-out, COVID economic recovery

E&OE

Anna Moulder, host ABC NSW Statewide Drive: Jennifer Westacott is the Business Council's chief executive. Hi Jennifer.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Hi Anna.

Anna: I think all of the various state leaders would say border closures at crucial moments helped keep their communities safer from COVID-19. But why do you want to see a commitment to not have any more of these closures in future?

Jennifer: Well we think the vaccine is an opportunity to revisit this because once we've vaccinated vulnerable people, high risk workers, essential workers, that's the time to say no, can we ease restrictions such as lifting caps on venues and things like that? And now can we make sure that our borders are not permanently closed? Obviously, people have to monitor risk but we think that this is the time to start saying to Australians our borders will be not permanently closed. I think most people would be shocked to know that 50 per cent of Australians don't want to travel or go anywhere. Not because they're afraid of the virus but because they're afraid that the border is going to shut behind them. We've put forward a common sense plan to ease restrictions in line with the vaccine rollout. To get the health message sharpened around the number of people who have been vaccinated, people who are hospitalised, and make sure that we're continuing to assist impacted industries.

Anna: Yeah I'd love for you to flesh those key steps out in a moment a bit more. But I guess if you can, can you capture how big an impact the border closures have actually had on our businesses and the economy?

Jennifer: Well the restrictions, we've had Accenture look at this, the restrictions have left a $170 billion gaping hole in our economy and that has to be made up. But of course, that's a number and what does it mean to people? Well, it means a lot of businesses have really lost a tremendous amount of income, particularly small businesses. The stopping and starting, the closures, they get ready, they get geared up to go and then suddenly they get 24 hours’ notice that the border has closed. And we have to move beyond that as the vaccine rolls out, as we achieve the health outcomes. And of course, if we only just achieve the health outcomes and don't take the opportunity to finish the job and reopen our economy and keep it open then I think people will say well what is the point of the vaccine program if we don't actually get our country back in order? So the impact has been dramatic. But you've just been talking about a very, very serious topic there on domestic violence and the way pets are used in that. The domestic violence numbers have gone up astronomically as part of the lockdown. It's not just the border closures it's all these restrictions that are having an impact on people. You've seen calls to mental health lines go up. You've seen people really in distress because their business has collapsed or they've lost their job. The vaccine gives us an opportunity to end that, to end it carefully, to end it with a risk-based approach, and to get our country working again.

Anna: Chief executive from the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, with us. So as you've mentioned there is a plan you've come up with to see that economic recovery post COVID-19. Can you run us through those key steps? Because it's not just border controls. 

Jennifer: In the first step we say as you get to vulnerable people, so older people, people who are sick, people with co-morbidities, high-risk workers, essential workers, at that stage you should be able to lift some of the restrictions. Like higher caps on venues. But you should be at that point able to say borders are staying open. So that's the end of what the government calls 1b. When you've done the vulnerable people. And then as you move through the rest of the population, starting to do things like let international students back. International students are just essential for our country. And then high skilled workers who need to come into the country and of course returning Australians. And then as we roll out the vaccine across the country, carefully and obviously with the right protocols in place, we should be able to open our international borders. Now that's going to take a long time but we're saying let's try and plan this in line with the vaccine. So that business can have some certainty, the community can have some certainty, confidence and trust. 

Anna: Interesting. I mean is certainty something you think is achievable in this current climate? 

Jennifer: Look I think you've got to try as hard as you can to give people a sense of how to plan. If you're running an airline, you've got to do your schedules six months in advance. How do you do that? If you're running a restaurant, a hospitality business and you put on some extra casuals over the Valentine's Day weekend, those people thought great I'm going to get some extra hours work and then suddenly they're not working because that's shut down. We have to find a way through this Anna. The other thing we have to do is start thinking about what the health message is which is the second part of our plan. Making sure that we're talking about how many people have been vaccinated, how many people have been vaccinated twice, how many people are ill. Continuing of course to monitor the rate of transmission but we've got to move to the message around vaccines and people who are sick, and not just reporting every day on the number of positive cases. And the third part of our plan is that we have to continue to help those industries that are continuing to suffer huge impacts because of restrictions that are really going to take a long, long time to roll out. 

Anna: A lot of dimensions as you say to the recovery process. Jennifer Westacott our guest this afternoon, chief executive with the Australian Business Council. Since your comments today we've heard from the Western Australian premier Mark McGowan. He saying that he disagrees with you on this. That their strong border closures meant that they came through the pandemic with the best economy in the country. And now he's strongly considering ongoing border controls. Because in part they've helped keep out illegal drugs such as meth. What do you make of that?

Jennifer: Let's just take both those things. First of all, in terms of the economy. Of course, the economy is going very well. The mining sector has done incredibly well and that's been good for Western Australia. But you do have to ask this question, the longer Western Australia is estranged from the east coast of Australia, how much of that is going to impact on the economy? And you look at New South Wales, incredible recovery, incredible strength in their figures, fastest rollout of the vaccine and they have been able to manage the system, manage local outbreaks, contain it and continue to keep things going. So I question whether state border closures are really contributing solely to that economy going so strongly. I'd say it's the strength of the mining industry. And clearly, you do have to ask this question can this go on? In terms of expanding it now on the basis of drugs. Well first of all, what does that tell you about the premier's confidence in his law and enforcement system? But most importantly, I don't think the West Australian people have signed up for this. I mean have they signed up for a rolling series of border closures based on things that aren't to do with the pandemic? Everyone in Australia has pulled their weight on this. Why? A once in a generation event. And everyone accepted I couldn't see family, I couldn't see friends, I couldn't travel, I couldn't do something for business. But to ask people to continue to do that on a rolling basis, I'm not sure that people in Western Australia have signed up for that.

Anna: Have you had any other responses from government about the likelihood of this sort of process being adopted?

Jennifer: Well we've seen a couple of the premiers. Certainly, the premier of New South Wales talking about the importance of some kind of national framework as the vaccine rolls out. And you've seen that state in particular really lead the way in how to make sure that we've got our systems under control, our tracking and tracing in good order. That's been extremely effective and so we've had a lot of very positive feedback from New South Wales. I've had tremendous feedback from people in the business community, from people across the board saying just that all makes sense to us. A common sense approach as you roll the vaccine out you release activity back into the economy. And that's about people's lives, not about statistics. That's about somebody getting their job back, that's about some person getting their business up and running again. That's about someone feeling that their life is starting to get back into some order.

Anna: We'll certainly watch this space and we'll stay in touch with you Jennifer Westacott. Thanks for the conversation this afternoon.