Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast

Event: Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, RN Breakfast

Speaker: Fran Kelly and Jennifer Westacott

Topics: COVID-19, JobTrainer, Skills, JobKeeper, JobSeeker

E&OE

Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast: Well living life in a new way, in a COVID way is up to all of us, that includes business. Standing by now is Jennifer Westacott who is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer Westacott welcome back to breakfast. 

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Good morning Fran.

Fran: Business has been pushing hard for the economy, for the states to avoid any more lockdowns. It says the economy can't afford them. Lockdowns like the one we're seeing them in Melbourne but the minister there says it is not the time for that in New South Wales. But Jennifer Westacott what is the alternative? Are you saying we just have to accept that some people will get sick, even die from COVID-19?

Jennifer: Well I think we have to do everything we can to prevent that and as the minister said, act on the health advice, and really make sure that we're protecting vulnerable people. I mean we know enough about this disease to know who is very vulnerable to getting sick and we have to do everything we can there. But I think we have to continue to pursue this suppression strategy which we have been pursuing which has had a greater success than many other countries. It has given us the capacity to ramp up our ICU beds in the health system. I just don't think Fran that it's realistic.

Fran: Sure, as the minister just told us but isn't it clear that it would have been better, in the long run, to have perhaps initially pursued an aggressive elimination strategy in the first place?

Jennifer: But what would that look like realistically? I mean realistically if you think, 'what would an elimination strategy look like?' If you take a common definition that there would not be any more community transmission. If you take that to its logical extreme Fran, you would say you are not going to open the borders of this country up indefinitely until we find a vaccine. That's actually what...

Fran: But we're not going to, are we?

Jennifer: Well how can we live like this? I mean we clearly can't have a complete opening of our borders but the idea Australian citizens can't return home indefinitely, that we aren't going to have to continue with getting some skilled workers in, obviously freight. I mean I think we've just got to be realistic here. We are in for a long-haul here. I mean the idea of a vaccine is a long way away. If you think about invention, development, production, distribution. We have to get a risk management approach to this. Get better systems in place for quarantining, for tracing, for testing, for the trigger points for when certain lockdowns likely will be done. We have to get a better system for managing these lockdowns so that the community knows the rules, business knows the rules, and we can try and make sure that we can open up as much of the economy as we can. Because the alternative is, I think, serious economic consequences. And they might be numbers to some people but what are we talking about here? We're talking about people not being able to put food on the table for their kids, pay their bills, get through winter. We've got to try and make sure this suppression strategy works effectively. 

Fran: Well the states are obviously trying to do that and doing it on the run. And we've got different examples now of what's on and how New South Wales is managing it versus Victoria. In your view, has the Andrews government made a mistake reinstating stage three restrictions across Melbourne?

Jennifer: No, I think they've had to do what they've had to do. I think what we do need to do is, let's not have a blame game here. I just don't know how these things help Fran, I really don't know how a national blaming exercise gets us through this.

Fran: Well, no, I'm only asking because business has been...

Jennifer: No, I'm not saying you're saying that but I can see in the media lots of people wanting to shoot blame home. But to me we've got to say, 'okay what's gone wrong here? How do we learn from that? How do we get the systems right? How do we look at trigger points and managing these local lockdowns? How do we get the rules? How do we get a nationally consistent set of standards so business knows and the community knows how we're going to manage these things?' That's what the community needs because we have to build confidence Fran in the community and we have to give people a sense that we kind of know that we've got to live with this thing and we know what to do when outbreaks occur. And we've got to look at the Victorian situation and say, 'how did this happen? Let's learn from it, let's get a nationally consistent set of standards so that we can actually start to build community confidence.' But the government has clearly had to do what it's had to do. But let's try and get better each time one of these local outbreaks happens. Let's get that national system cracking. 

Fran: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Going to the government's announcement today, two billion dollars for skills and training. A billion dollars of that from the Commonwealth and state money is to train or reskill about 340,000 school leavers. This JobTrainer scheme, as it has been dubbed, will depend on reforms to improve the quality and relevance of vocational education and training provided by the states. What courses would you like to see subsidised and standardised across the state?

Jennifer: First of all this looks really good. I mean I haven't seen all the detail yet but this is exactly, and you and I have talked about this quite a few times, this is exactly what we've been calling for. That you've got to - first of all on the apprenticeship side which I think looks really good. The group I'm most worried about is those young kids leaving school this year who don't have a natural training pathway. They're not going to uni or they haven't got a VET program in mind. Getting those kids into apprenticeships, getting the wage subsidies to encourage employers, otherwise those kids potentially will lose 12 months. On the other reform, that looks really good. Let's start looking at things like some digital stuff particularly. Many people I think who have lost their jobs or are going to lose their jobs will not have that digital skill that will allow them to participate in the labour market, go back to work. So digital is one area. And this is exactly what we've been calling for Fran. Let's identify those areas and then let's get people into short courses that they can skill up more quickly.

Fran: Can I just ask you finally, JobKeeper and JobSeeker. JobKeeper will be wound back but it will be removed from some businesses but there for other sectors as sectors that will inevitably mean a higher jobless rate. And the government is looking at the JobSeeker rate which was doubled for this pandemic. You've long argued for the Newstart rate to be lifted, where would business like to see the unemployment benefit when government takes another look at JobSeeker?

Jennifer: Well I think it's not really for us to do that though Fran. I mean I think it's for governments to work out.

Fran: Well you can have a say. I mean you've talked about this before.

Jennifer: Yeah look I think something closer to the aged pension looks, you know, is where it used to track. So that would be a starting point. The question is do you reset it permanently or do you have something temporary going forward that's a higher level given where we are in terms of joblessness and that's a matter for government. But clearly we can't go back to the Newstart allowance. We shouldn't go back to it permanently, that's a permanent change we should make along with making sure that the job networks are working more effectively to retrain, reskill people, get them into the right jobs. On JobKeeper, clearly the government has made it very clear it's going to redesign it and taper it rather than cut it off and that's exactly the right thing to do because some businesses are trading pretty well, we've got to make sure that we target those businesses that can't really open or can't get back to their normal level because of the restrictions in place. This all looks pretty sensible but clearly on JobSeeker we can't go back to be on Newstart allowance, there's no doubt about that.

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

Jennifer: Thanks very much Fran.