Jennifer Westacott interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR Breakfast

18 February 2022

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR Breakfast
Speakers: Gareth Parker host, 6PR Breakfast ; Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: BCA budget submission and women’s statement; NSW and Victoria COVID-19 restrictions; WA border


Gareth Parker host, 6PR Breakfast: Jennifer, good morning.

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

Gareth: You say that we need more workers?

Jennifer: We do, what our budget submission basically says this year Gareth is that we've got to go from this role in crisis management to getting the private sector to lead a stronger and more sustained recovery. It's about removing some of the blockages and that's about laying the foundations for the future. Now, the first of those blockages is labour shortages, as you say, we are over 300,000 workers down, what we're proposing is that we get the most out of existing workers first. There's a lot of people who are here on two year visas, let's make those four years. We're saying do everything you can to get women working to their full potential. And then temporarily increase the permanent migration intakes so that we catch up. But most importantly, lift the weighting of the skills and make sure that that kind of weighting is for 70 per cent skills. Then there are other things in our budget submission, getting investment going again, trying to get regulation down to drive investment, lower taxes for small and medium businesses. And in building our capacity as a country getting our VET system working properly and increasing funding to it, getting these national precincts working, so driving industries, and clean energy projects, incentivising people to invest in them. But to your point. What people tell me, Gareth is I can't open my restaurant because I can't get any workers, I can’t get my big project going because I haven't got enough workers, I'm not going to invest in Australia because I'm not sure I've got the right skills, and can upskill people to do the work. And that's to your point you made earlier, that's the conundrum. We want low unemployment, but at the same time what we end up with is big labour shortages that we can't get things done, which is self-defeating in some respects.

Gareth: I want to come back to the women's participation argument because I think it's really important. I think there's some interesting evidence emerging in WA, but if you restart immigration, and or even do catch up levels of immigration, so that it's higher than regular to kind of fill the gap that we've had the last few years, where do all these people live Jennifer? Because in this state, there are record low vacancy rates, and it's a similar story around the country.

Jennifer: Yes and your borders still closed. This is a really important question you're raising here. And for about three years now, we've been banging on about the fact that we've got to grow the potential of our regions, we've got to make sure that we get ahead of these things and make sure that there's enough land zoned for housing. I'm always staggered by the fact that people aren’t ahead of this, and that they're not zoning land in advance, and they're not getting that rezoning done. We can't seem to get planning approvals done quickly, and then, ask anybody who is trying to get their house built, it is a nightmare. Ask anyone who's trying to get a big project up and running and get planning approval for it, it's these things, these are not rocket science things, that can be fixed. We've been saying for years, you know of course Sydney and Melbourne can't take the bulk of people. And Perth obviously has a major issue around housing, but why didn't we use this time during COVID to do those things? I'm talking about re-zoned land, make sure that people got the housing approval so people are ready to go. Why don't we take that time in 2022 to get those things sorted, because we need those skilled workers. I talk to these big companies all the time and they say to me, Jennifer, not going to put a lot of money in Australia, the taxes are too high too many regulations, and I can't get the skilled workers I need.

Gareth: Interesting detail from the unemployment numbers in Western Australia yesterday, because there were 9000 more people in work last month and the month before, we've got unemployment rate, leading the country, but in fact, it went up a little bit went up to 3.7 per cent. That's because there were nearly 14,000 more women re-entering the labour force in the last month, so that participation rate goes up. But it's really women looking for new jobs, which is exactly what you're talking about?

Jennifer: Yeah, exactly, we've got this incredible untapped resource in women. We've got one of the most educated populations in the world, and yet one of the lowest rates of participation for women. And the first thing we should be doing while we've got this labour shortage is making sure every single person who can work is working. But the other thing we are saying is to make sure that it's not just women entering the workforce, it's women advancing in the workforce. A lot of the things we're talking about, paid parental leave, fixing the childcare system it's not about just people getting a job, it's about people being able to get a job and advancing that job, and make sure they realise their full potential because, you know, why wouldn't we? I mean, it's a fundamental issue of fairness and money that we sort of say 50 per cent of the population, this is a fantastic, untapped resource. Why don't we get the settings right to encourage them to work and advance?

Gareth: Jennifer, just very briefly, the international border reopens on Monday for the rest of the country. Our border as you have pointed out, remains closed. Are the opportunities is going to pass Western Australia by here?

Jennifer: My view is the longer this goes on the answer to that question is yes. I mean, look we've got this really fundamental problem here, we've basically got a tale of two countries. Over here we're releasing restrictions today. It's going to be easier for me to travel to London from Sydney than travel to Perth, you've got major business leaders saying I'm going to relocate to Sydney for a couple of months because I just can't do the business I need to do, you've got big projects that have got labour shortages. But also, what we're hearing is a lot of people say, ‘well, this is sort of putting me off coming to Australia’, it's a sort of a blight on the international reputation. But here's the thing, on the eastern states people had a compact with government. We got vaccinated, we endured the lockdowns and now we're seeing as those vaccination rates have got to the levels government wanted them that we're starting to get our freedom back. Things are kind of going again, in some cases, we need to get them going faster, like CBDs. But that was the deal we did. In Western Australia, there was a date set there was an agreement about the migration levels, but the deal fell through. So what's the plan? What does the health capacity need to look like? Why aren't we getting that ready so that people can see their relatives and business can get going again, tourists can come and we can operate in one country.

Gareth: Jennifer Westacott, thank you for your time.

Jennifer: You very welcome, thank you.


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