Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast
Speakers: Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: Three steps to reopen Australia’s economy, vaccine roll-out, COVID economic recovery

E&OE

Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast: Ahead of Friday's national cabinet meeting business is calling for a national staged approach to lifting restrictions. A report commissioned by the Business Council of Australia lays out a three-step plan which it says could help reopen the country quickly. Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council. Jennifer Westacott welcome back to breakfast.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Thanks very much Fran.

Fran: What's your three-step roadmap to open borders?

Jennifer: Well we think the vaccine is a huge opportunity to do three things, safely reopen and keep open the economy in line with the vaccine roll-out. So as each stage ends you open up a bit more. The second thing is to sharpen the message around what's our health objective and that's really important for confidence and trust in the vaccine roll-out and our health management. And finally, to target support for those industries that continue to not be able to reopen because of continued restrictions. We think this is a common-sense plan. We think that the vaccine is very carefully thought out. We think things like when we finish vaccinating people who are vulnerable, at that point there are no more state border closures. We permanently open those borders because they have been economically incredibly damaging.

Fran: At the moment the borders are open aren't they?

Jennifer: Sure. But what's happening though Fran, as you and I have talked about before, is that they close it at the drop of a hat. They close without warning. They close based on often a very few number of cases. We need to give Australians confidence that they can go on their holidays, they can open their business, they can plan a business trip. And we're saying here's the opportunity with the vaccine roll-out as you get to a particular stage this now is a permanent opening of that border or now we're going to bring international students back into the country. Now we can have some of these what we're calling vaccine corridors with countries that have got low transmission rates and have got a widespread vaccine rollout. This is just a common-sense sort of thing.

Fran: Let's stick with the borders for a moment. The Queensland chief health officer I think just a week or two ago when the vaccines arrived said this would change the approach to dealing with the borders. So it's clear that the states are already thinking this way. But border closures too at the time it's always presented by the health officers and the premiers that they are based on medical advice, the best health advice. So if you're talking about a risk assessment, that is a risk assessment isn't it? If you take into the account the advice of the health authorities.

Jennifer: Sure and we're saying that you still have run a risk-based approach. This is not going to be linear. People have to look at vaccine roll-out, the coverage, the effectiveness and so on. I guess my point back to that Fran is why is that different in different states, that health advice? Why is it based on, in some cases, very low numbers, not consistent with the national plan for hotspots.

Fran: Because different states have different appetite for risk.

Jennifer: Well yeah but why is that? If people are saying we're using health advice and we're using the best health advice, why is that advice different between states? I guess that's my constant question.

Fran: If the vaccine, I think the health minister used this term, is a game-changer, I think it's probably right, what are you picking up in terms of national sentiment? And what about this important, I mean there was a finding I think that 52 per cent of Australians are worried about travel. Not so worried about getting on a plane but they're worried about being stuck somewhere so that...

Jennifer: Exactly.

Fran: Do you think the vaccine roll-out will change that quite quickly?

Jennifer: I think if we do a few things. If we make sure that people can see the value of having the vaccine. That they can see that we're building confidence. That they can see more things are opening. They can see that we can plan more. All of these things are going to have a compounding effect. They are going to reinforce why we should do it and they are going to give people a sense of, 'hang on I can now plan my trip to Queensland, I can plan my trip to Victoria.' Obviously, you have to ask how long West Australia can be estranged from the east coast before it actually starts to damage that economy. But I think this is crucial, to your point, I think this providing we start to communicate the health message really carefully. We're starting to monitor things like vaccine roll-out. Clearly continuing to monitor people in hospital, people who are very sick. That's the sort of health message we now need to give people. That message of confidence, get the vaccine, that message that as we roll-out the vaccine things are opening, and people are going to keep them open. As you say it's a game-changer and that's what our report seeks to do, is to map that out.

Fran: Do you feel like government, state and federal, and health authorities are changing the public health narrative? I mean we're still reporting, with great delight I must say, x number of days with no community transmission. You can almost feel the sigh of relief, particularly in Victoria. But here in New South Wales you think, ‘oh that's fantastic.’ People are certainly shaking hands again, if not hugging. But do you think the public health messaging is lagging? That there is an awareness that the narrative can change and turn a bit more positive?

Jennifer: I think it's got to turn to a more positive narrative. I mean we've got to move beyond the system where anything beyond zero is a disaster and it triggers this kind of reaction that is not proportionate to the level of risk. We have to move beyond that. We still have to keep a very close watch on people getting sick, on people in hospital. Obviously, as the vaccine rolls out, the coverage of the vaccine. As the vaccine rolls out we still have got to monitor community transmission, but our report Fran says as each stage rolls out we have to nuance and sharpen that message to build confidence, build trust, make sure people feel 'okay we're rolling this vaccine out, now I can plan my holiday, now I can open my business, now I can organise that business trip I was going to organise.' And importantly, we get international students back. We can get high skilled workers back in the country. And people feel that there is a common-sense, safe plan to do it.

Fran: Do you see a future for getting international students back, overseas workers back that doesn't involve hotel quarantine? Because that's always going to remain an expensive and risky productivity hub isn't it? Unless everyone is vaccinated before they get on the plane?

Jennifer: Well that's one option that you require people to be vaccinated. And I think that's certainly something that, as I understand it, is under careful consideration. Look Jane Halton produced a very, very comprehensive report on how we can improve our quarantine arrangements. And look my understanding is the universities had some plans for how to quarantine and we should work really closely with the universities, the Group of Eight particularly to say well how would do this in a way that ensures community safety? Because if we don't send a signal to those students Fran that they can come back to Australia, they will go somewhere else. And that's a big drain on our economy.

Fran: On another issue, we're speaking with Jennifer Westacott, head of the Business Council of Australia. Talking about JobKeeper, there's an analysis that shows 56 of Australia's largest companies got $1.5 billion of JobKeeper have paid almost the same amount in dividends. Others have extended bonuses to executives. The ACTU says that they should be required to pay it back. Should they?

Jennifer: Look I think this is going to come down to a business-by-business decision.

Fran: But should it?

Jennifer: Well Cochlear has paid theirs back.

Fran: I know but Harvey Norman hasn't paid theirs back?

Jennifer: Well let's have a look at each company and, you know my views, I don't think bonuses should have paid from JobKeeper. Dividends is a more complex thing, it's a more long-term arrangement. I think this has done the job.

Fran: But essentially if companies are making a profit should the government say to companies as they said to individuals with robodebt for Centrelink recipients – ‘you should pay this back, you must pay this back.’

Jennifer: I think this is going to come down to government making a case-by-case decision. I'm not going to just make a comment not knowing the details of those arrangements. I think JobKeeper has done what it was meant to do. It's kept people working. Most of the companies, particularly the big companies that have taken it have been absolutely smashed in the economy. And I don't think some of those companies...

Fran: Sure but not all have, that's the point.

Jennifer: But companies like Cochlear have paid it back. I think it's going to come down to a decision by decision. And everyone knows my views, I don't think bonuses should have been paid.

Fran: And can I just ask you finally, parliament is paralysed really for the past couple of weeks now with this rape allegation levelled against a senior cabinet minister rather who's now named in a letter alleging the rape of a women decades ago. The minister in question rejects the allegation strongly. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says that minister should stand aside while that allegation is tested. How does the business community handle this type of allegation? What's the standard? What do you think?

Jennifer: Well the standard in a high performing organisation would be to let the police properly investigate this. I think most companies would then look at their systems and their culture, their system of accountability, their system for reinforcing conduct. Look I think the crucial thing here Fran is that this has got to have a proper investigation by the police. Not by people like me, not by the media. I think the last thing you need is more and more glib commentary on this. It's a very serious issue that requires a very serious investigation by the police and the proper authorities.

Fran: If there can't be a police investigation because of the particular circumstances around this case. Tragically, the person, the complainant has taken her own life, should there be an independent investigation?

Jennifer: Yes I think there should be an investigation that gets to the bottom of it. You can't have this hanging over. That's what a high performing organisation would do. They would say let's get to the bottom of this. But they'd also look beyond that, they'd look at their systems, they'd look at their culture, their way in which people are held accountable. But it's not for people like me to give glib commentary on this. I don't know the circumstances of the case, I'm not a party to any information. What we need is a proper system for an investigation to take place rather than people piling on with often commentary for people like me I simply don't know the details of it. But it does point I think Fran to a really serious issue in our society. That is across all sectors. Be it the private sector, the public sector, where we've got to get on top of the treatment of women in respect of harassment, serious things like rape, domestic violence which is still out of control in some communities. We need all of these things to remind us that we have got to change that attitude to women and build that respect for women into our cultures.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott thank you very much for joining us.

Jennifer: You're welcome thank you.