Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Chris Kenny, The Kenny Report, Sky News
Speaker: Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive; Chris Kenny, host
Date: 4 November 2019
Topics: activist campaigns, climate and energy policy, Westpac
Chris Kenny, host: There's been a big focus of late on protesters, particularly climate protesters, the extinction rebellion lot. What they've been doing in Brisbane, gluing themselves to the road, stopping traffic there repeatedly and of course ugly scenes in Melbourne last week where they're abusing and spitting at business people going to a mining conference, they're abusing and swearing at Sky News reporters. It is getting ugly and out of hand, so Scott Morrison made a speech last week where he condemned this sort of a protest action but he also talked about what he called it, a form of secondary boycotts where some of these activist groups are intimidating businesses, saying that people should not deal with a certain business, trying to tell customers not to deal with a certain business because they dare to do business with a mining company or some company doing something they disagree with. It is a really new form of intimidation, blackmail, extortion in a way. Activism, they would call it. It's been amplified a lot through digital or social media. And it is a problem that we rail against certainly on this station, myself and others who have drawn attention to it and Scott Morrison suggesting maybe new laws are required. Let's find more.
Prime Minister: Together with the Attorney General Christian Porter, we are working to identify serious mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threatened the livelihoods of fellow Australians, especially in our rural and regional areas and especially here in Queensland. Now we will take our time to get this right. We will do the homework and we are doing that right now, but we must protect our economy from this great threat.
Chris: Scott Morrison there, speaking in Queensland last week. Let's go to the Business Council of Australia now and Jennifer Westacott. Thanks for joining us. Jennifer, were you pleased to hear what the Prime Minister said last week?
Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Absolutely, Chris. He was absolutely spot on. I mean, business is going about creating jobs, building the strength of communities, we live in a free society and we live in a democracy but to see those violent protests, there's no place for violence and intimidation in our society. I guess the irony of this for me is that you've got these young kids who have been the beneficiaries of economic growth protesting about one of our great industries that's delivered that growth and our higher living standards and of course forgetting about a young kid growing up in Townsville at the moment who can't get a job, who can't see a prospect, where that community is crying out for new investment. I guess the second irony is that - what were they talking about at that conference? They were talking how they reduce their emissions, how they protect the environment, how they continue to grow, while achieving both those things. This kind of idea that that environmental protection and a strong and growing economy and an active business community can't work together, it’s an absolute nonsense. So I think he's absolutely right. We were very supportive of his comments. Now, of course, we've got to sit down and do the kind of practical, sensible measures.
Chris: Well, there are a couple of aspects to this, Jennifer. One is when it comes to protesters, no matter how idiotic their claims or hypocritical, they've got every right to protest, if they overstepped the mark with the abuse or public nuisance then there are laws in place to deal with them, so surely there's no law enforcement issue there or legislative issue there? They just need to, people and police and law enforcement authorities, just need to implement the existing law.
Jennifer: Absolutely. There's just no place in this society, in any society that matter, for the sort of scenes we saw last week. People trying to get to a conference, people trying to go about their business being stopped from doing it and being harassed. There's not a place for that here. There's no place for intimidating companies, in going about their normal course of what are they doing in creating a job for somebody, there's no place in that. This whole climate thing, we've got to get our focus back on what we need to do. We've actually got to work together to get the transition to happen in our economy to a lower carbon future, to meet our Paris agreements but to do so in a way that preserves affordability, in fact gets prices down, and gets reliability up and that is the job to be done. That's what everyone needs to focus on. And unfortunately these sorts of things, they distract the debate and of course you've got to ask, notwithstanding it's okay to protest, is this going to get us to the policy we need?
Chris: Yeah. What about though this issue that Scott Morrison has quite rightly focused on and that is where people, campaigners, activists look to try and get commercial boycotts - they use email campaigns, social media campaigns to target a business. It might be Alan Jones because they don't like what he said, so they target their advertisers, they get on to customers and say, ‘don't go with this business because they support something someone else has said’. They'll go to another business and their customers and say, ‘don't do business with this particular labour hire firm because they do work for the Adani coal mine’. And they're really trying to blackmail and intimidate businesses out of industries or ideas that they disagree with. Now obviously that's a problem, but surely we don't need new laws to deal with it though?
Jennifer: Well, I think we've got to look at examining it and what we can do to minimize this. Companies of course have choices about where they invest and choices about how they respond to these things. But it's very difficult when you're under this unrelenting intimidation by many activists. So I think the Prime Minister's right to say it is a form of secondary boycotts. I think he's right to say we need to do something about it because people have to remember what a business is? And this bewilders me, as you and I've talked about many times. It's the 11 million Australians who work in one. It's the shareholders who own shares, many of whom are just mum and dad retirees. It's the customers who need services from them. It's the contractors who do business with them. It's your superannuation that depends on a strong business community. So I find it I have to say perplexing, this idea that somehow the interests of business are somehow not consistent with the interests of the community - they absolutely are and business is entitled to go about doing its job of creating jobs, creating stronger communities without being intimidated.
Chris: I agree with you wholeheartedly and I agree it's a problem. I just think new laws to look at this could be even worse than the problem. Maybe that what we need to do here, is business in particular, needs to speak up more against these sorts of campaigns and offer support and solidarity for businesses. Because in the end, for instance you're a labour hire firm or you supply accounting services or supply food to certain companies, it's not your job to second guess their attitudes or what other business relationships they have? It's your job to run your business, employ people and be a fair and efficient operator surely?
Jennifer: Absolutely and it's your job to get a good return for your shareholders. That actually is really important to do that. So I just think it's about saying what can we do to stop this? What can we do to give businesses the confidence to kind of take strong stands against this because it's a balancing act isn't it? I mean you know the kind of relentless campaigns that some businesses are under. And yes it's easy to say, 'well they should just resist that' but gee, it's difficult Chris when you're just being hammered when people turn up to your AGM and they disrupt it. I think it's one of those quid pro quo things where I think business would welcome some kind of rethinking of are there ways that we can minimise this?
Chris: Yeah, it is very difficult and especially for smaller businesses, you look after bigger businesses.
Jennifer: Small business are just such a target here.
Chris: They perhaps need a helpline. They perhaps when they are targeted, need to go somewhere where they can get some advice as to how to deal with this. Because quite frankly half a dozen people on various Twitter and Facebook accounts can create an enormous amount of pain. And I was talking to a business recently too, of course you can't discount the fact that your commercial competitors might be anonymously jumping in on this or even creating just to try and do you harm.
Jennifer: Well that's a very important point. We need to understand who's behind some of these campaigns, who's paying for it, who's funding them? But I agree with you completely. We need to think about small business, particularly in mid-sized businesses who don't have all of the kind of people advising them that a big corporation would have. They are very vulnerable and not just kind of a social media campaign just can't hurt your business, it can shut your business down. So I do think we need to kind of make sure that we get the balance right here. And that's why I think the Prime Minister's remarks for absolutely spot on.
Chris: Yeah. All right. We'll see the follow through on there. But I think a lot of activity in the public space, getting back at this stuff and support for businesses when there are campaigns against them would be very useful. I just want to get your thoughts Jennifer Westcott too on the news from Westpac today, big drop in profits. Their executives say they're going to take a trimming or at least not get any bonuses, so there will be a lot of shareholders pretty disappointed. Although the share market is still up today, so it hasn't been a shock to the Australian business world.
Jennifer: Look, I think it goes to we've got to make sure we remember how important our banks are. Because a lot of people I think, well some people in the community would be saying, "isn't that great? You know, a bank's profit is down." Well it's not great. It's very bad. Because you know, what we have to remember is that a shareholder today, a mum or dad retiree, a self-funded retiree, somebody at one of our regional communities that was hoping for a bit of extra income is not going to get that income. So my kind of concern, Chris, is that we make sure that we don't, that the kind of people who hate business don't celebrate this because this has a real flow on effect into the community. You know, it makes credit for small businesses or for people who want to get their first home harder. This is a very, very competent organisation. I'm sure that they got the right strategy in place, but nobody, and this is my message, nobody should think this is good. We need to make sure that, notwithstanding all of the issues in the Royal Commission that we remember our banks have been the spine to a strong economy. They have been absolutely essential to it. They remain essential to it. And I think we've got to bring the era of bank bashing to an end.
Chris: Jennifer, just one other issue, there's been a lot of contention about Australia's Paris climate targets, whether we're going to meet them or not. A very detailed report from two Australian National University experts last month said that we are on track to meet the Paris targets without really any additional costs at the moment that the hard work's really been done. This is important news. I want to get your thoughts on just how important that is. Whether you agree with their research also at what costs has this been delivered? You know, in terms of, you look at global comparisons, not a lot of countries are meeting their Paris targets. Surely Australia has paid a heavy price to do this?
Jennifer: Well, I think it's good if we're on track. We have, we're going through that report and looking at their assumptions. But I think it's really important that we make sure that we meet those Paris obligations and that we meet them in a way that puts prices down and reliability up. And that's the balancing act. And of course that's the conversation that we have to have as a country. We have to make sure that we meet our international obligations, but that we're not putting people's power bills up. And that we're making sure that we've got a reliable system, the lights are on. And that we can have all the things that a reliable energy grid gives us. And of course we've got to make sure that we do everything to invest in new technologies, create new jobs. That's got to be the conversation rather than this, I don’t know, this kind of quite extreme debate sometimes from either side, to be frank.
Chris: We have paid a high price already, haven't we Jennifer?
Jennifer: Well, I think we paid a price not for trying to reduce our emissions. I think we paid a high price from many false starts and some very misguided policy attempts. They've probably taken us in the wrong direction. What we need now is to say, okay, what is the objective here? The objective is to reduce our emissions in line with what we've committed to in Paris, and to do that in a way that puts pressure on prices to go down and keeps our reliability up.
Chris: The magic trifecta. Thanks so much for joining us, Jennifer. I appreciate it.
Jennifer: You're very welcome. Thank you.
Chris: Jennifer Westacott there from the Business Council of Australia.