Jennifer Westacott interview with David Illife, ABC Southern Queensland Breakfast

Event          Jennifer Westacott interview with David Illife, ABC Southern Queensland Breakfast

Speaker       Jennifer Westacott, David Illife

Date            23 October 2019

Topics         Strong Australia, regional australia, climate and energy

E&OE

David Illife, host: How often do you hear someone say, and we all say it all the time, if only those big wigs would get out of the capital cities and come to regional Australia and see how things work on the ground? Well, some of those big wigs have done just that at the moment, the Business Council of Australia is in Toowoomba today as part of this Strong Australia program. What's it all about? Let's find out. Jennifer Westcott is BCA chief executive and she joins me in the studio. Jennifer Westacott, good morning. Do you, do you hear that? People must say that all the time? You know, you guys are just stuck in the capital cities. What would you know about regional Australia?

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: That's why we're doing this, we've been doing this for about two years and this is our second trip to Toowoomba. And it started with us thinking that the conversation that happens in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney is a very different conversation to the one that happens in the rest of the country. And as we started talking to people here in Toowoomba, in Townsville, in Cairns, in Busselton, that was absolutely confirmed. What people are interested in is, they don't have an anti-business agenda. They want business, they want investment. They don't have an anti-big business agenda. They'd love big companies to be investing in their communities, they've got a kind of real focus on skills, a real focus on getting ahead. So our interest is how do we listen to people, capture that in a policy agenda, advocate that back to Canberra and back to state government but also say to corporate Australia, hey you could do more, you could do more in regional Australia. So, we've got Woolworths and GE with us today. Woolworths employing a thousand people here in Toowoomba, 16,000 people in Queensland. We've got GE building this huge wind farm at Coopers Gap and we're saying to all of our companies, hey, let's do more, let's explain what we're doing, but let's see if we can do more.

David: I mean, just to go back to basics, this may seem sort of very rudimentary, but again, for the average person who's heard of the Business Council of Australia but doesn't necessarily know what it's all about or thinks that it only represents big business. When you ask what the BCA is, what is it?

Jennifer: Well, it is an organisation that's made up of the biggest companies in Australia but it's not about big business. Our job is to advocate for a better country. A better country by advocating for stronger economy, a fairer society, getting rid of red tape, improving our skills and of course making it easier to do business in Australia and across our regions. That's what we stand for. Our members are the big companies but our agenda is the whole of the business community and the whole of the country.

David: When you say, at events like today in the forum, the Strong Australia project, you're saying to your members, perhaps you could do more for regional Australia? What do you mean, like what?

Jennifer: I think for example, first of all companies are doing enormous things and one of the things that we're trying to do with Strong Australian is to put a spotlight on that, so it's put a spotlight on what Woolworths are doing, put a spotlight on what GE is doing. I think we could do a bit more in terms of thinking about, how the economy's going to change, things like data centres, processing centres. We could actually think, well hang on, the beauty of a digital economy is that it's kind of boundaryless. You know, you don't have to be in a major metropolitan area. Let's think about it next time we're going to create a data centre, why don't we put it in a regional community to create that diversity of jobs that would come with it? So this is sort of stuff we're talking to our businesses about.

David: I mean Toowoomba, I guess, is in a unique situation with the new Wellcamp Airport and the business park around it, that's starting to happen already, I guess we'll almost become like a poster boy of that concept, I guess.

Jennifer: Absolutely and this has got so many opportunities. The airport is a real game changer and interestingly the day we were here last year, Qantas announced that they are putting their training centre here and so from that will come a whole lot of technology innovations, a whole lot of small businesses were there, a whole lot of start-ups were there talking about how actually we can see the opportunity for getting our product going by the fact that Qantas is putting its training Academy here. Then you've got the inland rail, all the things that we'll bring in terms of not just agricultural and mining, but the opportunity for new technology, for new businesses to start up. And of course you've got a growing population and a community that wants a growing population, people bring activity, they bring services, they bring a scale in the health system that allows you to get the specialists and things like that. So, all of the kind of ingredients are right here to create this kind of powerhouse of regional Australia and of course the big priority is that we need lots of those powerhouses to power up the Australian economy. If we have stronger regions, we'll have a stronger country.

David: I know that this may seem to be sort of getting down to maybe a micro-management level of your members business interests, that may or may not be warranted but certainly when you come into regional Australia and you're talking about companies like Woolworths and Coles and big business, something that is still an issue is the price of milk and the monopoly of that situation? That must be something that gets raised with you quite often. Is that something that, you know, comes up in discussions with your super market members like that?

Jennifer: Not always, sometimes. It depends where you are of course and the sort of producer profile. But look, it does come up and look, I think if you had Woolworths in the room, they would have a different view about how those prices are arrived at. And of course they also have a mind to the fact that the average person who shops in their stores has got about $150 a week just to feed their family. So look, it's a complex issue, the milk issue. I'll be interested to see if it comes up today and there are of course two sides of thi but we have to try to work together, it's about big and small working together. That's what we see when we come to these regions. You know, big and small businesses need each other and so we should be collaborating. Well, how do we kind of make this a win-win for both parties?

David: What's the format of today? Tell me how it all works.

Jennifer: So basically we've got a panel chaired by David Speers from Sky, this is his last panel today, he's coming to your side to run Insiders and he's been a fantastic advocate for Strong Australia. It's myself, Sam Maresh from GE, the university, Christian Bennett from Woolworths and we'll be sitting down and talking about issues like skills, issues like red tape. Last time we were here, when the red tape issue got raised, it got this kind of rousing applause, particularly from small business in the in the room saying, please somebody get this red tape off our backs. We'll talking about what are the sorts of things that would actually get the community really going? What are the sorts of things we can build on? And then obviously a question and answer session. And then we take away from that a set of priorities that we take to state governments into the federal government, this is the sort of thing that would get regional Australia really cracking.

David: In terms of in the audience and those asking the questions, is it anyone who wants to go along can? Or is it sort of a selection? Tell me about that.

Jennifer: We advertise the event, we send out invitations, The Chamber co-sponsors the event, they bring a lot of people with them. It's basically open to anybody to attend. And we welcome them, I think we've got a pretty good attendance, I think the tickets have sold out or certainly closed. You know, people are welcome to attend, it’s an open forum. We want to hear from a variety of people, David, about what will make communities like Toowoomba even stronger.

David: It should be very interesting discussion. Can I ask you, it strikes me, you a tread a delicate situation, I suppose, of trying to keep all of your members happy and yet they all have sort of such a diverse range of interests and agendas. And I know this has come up recently, I believe, with the whole climate change strategy or ideas on climate change to. Tell me, how difficult is that to come up with a policy that the organisation as a whole is going to put forward when you have such a diverse selection of beliefs in your membership?

Jennifer: Well first of all, the policy is developed by the members. So it's me sitting down with the, we have these policy committees and we invite obviously the sectors that are most impacted by a particular area to come together on a regular basis and talk about policies. So first of all, the policy is developed by us, and we try and accommodate all those views. Look, you know, the great thing about the Business Council is that people turn up for the national interest, they leave their company's interest at the door. Our interest is to try and get what's the right climate and energy policy. And so, our climate and energy policies is a very progressive one. We believe in strong action on climate change. We believe in the Paris agreement. We believe in where the Paris agreement takes you to a net zero carbon target by the second half of the century. We believe that this has got to be driven through innovation, through new technology like the wind farm we were looking at at Coopers Gap yesterday. But we've also got to make sure that we balance getting prices down for households and small businesses as well as reliability. That policy which is a progressive policy on strong action on climate change, is a policy that's developed by the members and we get people together on a regular basis. The other thing we do, David, is we get the facts. We use evidence, we use analysis, we use research and that's how we develop our policies. It's not about ideology, it's not about just kind of taking a stance for the sake of it. It's about sitting down and doing the hard work, what will actually work and the great thing about business people is they know what works.

David: A very spirited point. I suppose it's the willing to sort of put their own agendas at the door for the good of the nation that some people might be a little bit cynical about. Are they right?

Jennifer: Look, I'm sure that people are cynical about that but I wish sometimes people had a fly on the wall in some of these meetings because you know, the number of times people say, "Jennifer, this has got to work for the whole country, this has got to work for the whole industry". We don't lobby on a particular issue unless it affects the whole economy, I think people would be surprised. But what astounds me is that people think that somehow the interests of business and are not interests of Australia and yet what is business? It's 11 million people who work in small and big companies, it's the mums and dads shareholders, over 5 million of them, it's your superannuation that is going to rise or fall depending on the success of Australia's biggest companies. That's who business is. So when people kind of say the interests of the business committee are not the interests of Australians, I just reject that because the business committee is Australians. It's the bulk of Australians.

David: That good point. Just lastly, I guess to give people an indication I guess of the lobbying power of groups like yours. What would you say since you've been the helm or in your knowledge has been the greatest achievement of the Business Council?

Jennifer: I think it's a great question actually. I think it's a few things. One is that we've kind of developed a plan for the country and that's actually something we released just before the election and so much of that plan, David was informed by these visits we've been doing to regional communities. It's on things like skills, like getting a lifelong skills account for every Australian so that they can stay working, retrain, reskill. Fixing the VET system, saving the TAFE system, getting our tax system to be more competitive, getting our red tape produced so that small businesses can thrive. I think we've put forward a kind of policy agenda that most Australians would say: "Yeah, I get that. Yeah, I agree with that."  Certainly when we come to places like Toowoomba, people go, yeah, I totally agree with that. That's the first thing. The second thing is we have taken a really strong stand on some important social issues and economic issues. So it was the Business Council who said the Newstart Allowance is too low and it should go up and I think people were surprised about that. We've continued to say the Newstart Allowance is too low and it should go up. You know, we've taken a strong stance on things like getting a comprehensive energy policy, getting a progressive climate change policy, getting a policy on making Australia a better place to do business, opening our trade. I think that policy agenda is our greatest achievement. And I think, you know, so many things that happen often happen, not just because we've said it, but because we've worked very hard to create an agenda and I'm particularly proud of that on the skills front.

David: Absolutely. I appreciate you coming in, who knows when you come out of today's forum.