Jennifer Westacott interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR

01 May 2018

Event Interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR
Speaker Jennifer Westacott
Date 1 May 2018
Topics Business reputation, anti-business agenda

Gareth Parker, host: Irony, the timing here because the Business Council of Australia, the peak body, says today that it is ready to fight the anti-business agenda that is being pushed by elements of the left of Australian politics. Their timing is interesting. We're going to talk to Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia about this. Do you trust corporate Australia? 9221 1882

It's been another dreadful day for the banking industry with this Australian Prudential Regulation Authority report into the culture of the Commonwealth Bank said amid the Royal Commission hearings. The Business Council of Australia wants to get on the front foot to try and address what it says is a creeping anti-business agenda from the likes of activists like GetUp! from the likes of the union movement. Also, I think it's fair to say from the likes of a Labor party led by Bill Shorten. But the timing is just interesting isn't it? 9221 1882, love to hear from you this morning. Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council. Jennifer, good morning.

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

Gareth: What are you trying to achieve here?

Jennifer: What I think one the dangers we've got - look let me just begin by saying this, the actions of the banks, the things that are coming out of the Royal Commission, they are shocking. And, they are unacceptable, they are unforgivable. The danger we've got though, Gareth, is that we start to unleash a set of forces that have always been anti-business, wouldn't matter what's happening. And that we end up with terrible public policy that actually takes our country backwards. So, what I want to do is basically make sure that we remind everybody that, not withstanding the really shocking evidence in that Royal Commission, that we can't punish the people who are working in the corner shop. We can't denigrate the role and value of private enterprise and that's what the anti-business agenda will seek to do. They'll seek to capitalise on what is happening, they'll seek to make tremendous mischief out of it. They'll seek to encourage politicians to do the worst public policy and in 10 years’ time when we are still floundering around at an economic growth rate of 2.4 per cent, when it should be in the 3s, people will say what happened? What happened? Why didn't we grasp the nettle and get our country moving again? And I just want to make sure that we do not throw the good work of many people in the business community out and punish the Australian community and the generations of the future off the back of an anti-business agenda that has been growing for a long time and unfortunately, has been given a lot of oxygen by the actions of business.

Gareth: Well it has indeed and that is exactly the point. Whose fault is this exactly? And it's not just the banks, Jennifer. Telstra last week, fined $10 million for ripping off customers through their premium billing services. They made $60 million out of it, they get fined $10 million, people go that's not a bad return for something that was unlawful. Ford Motor Company, people drive their cars, their transmissions blow up, Ford says it's your driving style. They blame you for a problem they knew about. This is not just the banks. This seems to be telcos, it seems to be car makers, it seems to be everywhere you turn.

Jennifer: I agree with you. I've been saying this for years. Business has got to get back to its purpose of providing excellent service to its customers, treating its employees properly, treating its suppliers properly and as you know, you and I have talked about this before, we have pushed our companies to pay small business in 30 days. We've got $411 billion revenue under that arrangement where small businesses are going to be paid on time. I don't think there's any doubt we've got huge issues in the business community to fix, and my advice to boards and to CEOs is to fix them and fix them fast. But if we allow this as an opportunity for this anti-business movement that has been there, Gareth, for a long time, to get a strangle hold on the policy agenda of our country, we will be poorer for it.

Gareth: People want to see genuine change and they want to see it quickly. What does business need to do to demonstrate that it deserves the benefit of the doubt that you are asking for today?

Jennifer: Certainly, we're not asking for the benefit of the doubt on people who've done something wrong. Let's be super clear. That's what laws are there for. That's what regulators should be doing. They should be making sure that people who've done something wrong are punished, are punished quickly, and that we address the systemic issues, if you will, that have caused these things. So, I don't want people to give people who have done something wrong the benefit of the doubt. There is no benefit of the doubt there. Let's take swift legal action. What I think companies have to do is this - they have to go back to what is their true purpose. They have to ask themselves, does every single thing we do add value to the community? Does every single thing we do, is it done transparently? Is it done clearly? Are we clear in our relationships with our customers? Are we clear in our relationships with the people that work with us? Are we adding something back into the community? If the answer to all those things is no, then people have to sit down and say, 'you know, what the hell are we actually doing'? And that's my very strong advice to companies but my advice to the Australian people and to politicians, is if we allow this to become an agenda that is anti-growth, if we start punishing everybody, if we start punishing small business people, the mid-size businesses, the large corporations who are doing the right thing, if shut or economy down, if we make ourselves uncompetitive, in 10-years’ time we'll say, gee how did we get here.

Gareth: Jennifer, do you understand why the likes of GetUp and some of the unions are getting some traction?

Jennifer: Absolutely, but they've been on an anti-business agenda for a long time. The ACTU that represents 14 per cent of the Australian people has been on an anti-business agenda for a very long time. They want to return Australia to the 1970s, a strike-ridden, conflict driven industrial relations system. They want to portray every business as bad. They do not respect the role of private enterprise. GetUp, who would like to return us to some kind socialist utopia, that is simply not going to work and they tell people that. And it's dishonest, it's dishonest to tell people that there are fairies down at the bottom of the garden and that money grows on trees. It doesn't, we live in the real world. And private enterprise and a strong business community is vital to Australians having a better living standard. These people have always had an anti-business agenda, they've always lived in some world, that I find when I read their material just breathtaking. But unfortunately, and tragically many people in the business community have handed them more material to work with and I'm disappointed and frustrated by that. But I'm not going to standby and allow us to return to a protected uncompetitive, slowing economy because I know the poorest people in Australia will actually pay the highest price for that.

Gareth: Alright, 9221 1882 is the talkback number. Listeners, Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, says she's frustrated and disappointed by some of the things that have been unveiled and revealed through the course of the year around senior corporate leadership but doesn't want a return to the old days, what do you think, give me a call 9221 1882. Jennifer, can I just take to you to something that Adele Ferguson, business columnist, just told us before the last break. That is about the composition of boards, in much of senior corporate Australia. She says that too often they become a sinecure for people who have reached effectively retirement age, they sit on three, or four, or five boards, collect healthy director's sitting fees and fall asleep. Is that fair enough?

Jennifer: Well, I didn't hear the interview but look I think we have to look at the diversity on boards, not just gender, and that's always you know, people talk about that. I think we have to look at people who have got a kind of proven track record. I think we have to look at the number of people who are on the same board, over and over again. I should say that I'm on one of Australia's biggest boards, so need to make sure I am very clear about that. But I do think that boards need to look at their composition, their technical skills, they need to look at their independent advisers, you know this should be a wakeup call for corporate Australia to say, 'do we have the right people sitting around our board table, are we doing enough questioning of the material that our management team is sending us, are we involved enough in our companies, are we thinking about our reputation, are we focused on our customers and our employees and our suppliers, and making sure that they are on top of all that. Now that may require people to think about, do we need fresh blood, do we need younger people, do we need different people from different backgrounds? I think this is the whole point about the real discussion about diversity. If you've got mono-cultures they become reinforcing. They become group think. This is the time for corporate Australia to say, do we have the right people sitting around these tables?

Gareth: Thanks Jennifer.

Jennifer: You're welcome.

Gareth: Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia. So she's making the case for big corporate Australia. I think she's probably also making the case for smaller businesses as well, who I often I feel like that get squeezed in the middle of all this, don't they because they're often the victims of malpractice of big business too. Ask any small person, any small business person who has to deal with a bank about how tolerant they are in times of difficulty from time to time. But we're at a low ebb aren't we, with trust in all sorts of institutions. Big business among them, the banks, the telcos, the car-makers, who can you trust anymore, 9221 1882. We'll take some calls on this, coming up on the morning program.



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