Jennifer Westacott interview with Gianni Di Giovanni, ABC Great Southern Mornings

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Gianni Di Giovanni, ABC Great Southern Mornings

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive; Gianni Di Giovanni, ABC Great Southern Mornings host

Date: 20 February 2020

Gianni Giovanni, host: Around Australia, how do we keep our towns growing? Small communities are feeling the pressure to keep businesses in town and people employed. Jennifer Westcott is the chief executive of the Business Council and we'll be at a luncheon today in Busselton with business and political leaders talking about that particular challenge. Good morning,

Jennifer: Good morning.

Gianni: Now you do travel around to many different communities around looking for, I guess, the ideas that can maintain that business growth and keep money moving around those local communities. What are those challenges that you've, you see coming up again and again and again?

Jennifer: I think over and over again, you hear the same things. You hear, first of all, we need the infrastructure, whether that's to support more tourism, whether that's to support local industry. So for example here in Busselton the airport is a big issue. We can come back to that. The second thing you hear is we don't have enough skilled people to do the work and so we've got to make it really clear to people who are living in very congested and very expensive places like Sydney and Melbourne, that coming to Busselton is a terrific lifestyle decision both in terms of job opportunities but also in terms of lifestyle, which is just utterly perfect here. So I think there's a national job of putting the key regions of Australia on the map and putting some real energy and focus into infrastructure, into skills planning and really making sure that we grow the economies of these communities and in doing so we're actually going to make the country stronger.

Gianni: I guess when you talk about "it's a great lifestyle," a lot of people might be working through their career, they might be looking for other opportunities and thinking about making a move to a regional area might not be, I guess, the place they want to be if they're looking to move up the ladder. What would you say to people who are in that sort of position?

Jennifer: I'd say that's a mistaken view because everyone tells me here from the chamber that there are lots of job opportunities and if we can get the infrastructure right and bring more industries as well, there'll be even more opportunities. But I'm always kind of curious that people living in Sydney and Melbourne who are living in often very unaffordable accommodation, don't make those choices to move to places like Busselton where their kids are going to have great schools, where it's a terrific lifestyle and there are lots of jobs here. I mean you've got one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and I think there's just a mindset change we need to make in Australia to use that jargon, that gets people thinking about regional Australia as an alternative to congested cities where people are often living quite a long way from their work anyway.

Gianni: You mentioned the airport as one of those pieces of infrastructure that, you know, could be improved but what other things would you like to see that makes it a bit more attractive for people to make the move to a regional area?

Jennifer: I think one thing that could be thought about is maybe a city deal here and maybe that city deal would be kind of joined up with Bunbury which has obviously got a lot of job opportunities as well related to the port and all of the industrial infrastructure that sits there. And as part of that city deal, I do think there's some quite serious case for giving this region that migration status that would allow migrants who are currently going to Sydney, Melbourne to come to a places like Busselton and Bunbury. So that's one idea. I think obviously making sure that the jetty, which is a huge tourist attraction, gets the funding, gets the resources so that it can actually offer people a world class experience, which it does already. But the airport is very important because it can also be, if it can get to scale, most freight leaves the country, most agriculture freight particularly, in the bottom of a plane and if we can get the airport right here, then we can make sure that we can open up those agriculture, agribusiness premium products into those emerging Asian markets at premium prices.

Gianni: I mean, how much of this is a government responsibility either at local, state or federal and how much of this is responsibility of some of the businesses who might be able to take up opportunities in Busselton?

Jennifer: I think it's everyone's responsibility. I think you can't do these things without all of those institutions that you've talked about cooperating together. So state and local governments working together. Commonwealth and state working together and that's the beauty of the city deal system where you bring in all three levels of government. But you've got to have local business and you've got to have local communities in my view, setting out their vision for what they need and what they want, being very precise about it and certainly when I sit down in the community here, they're very clear what they need. Then stepping out sort of like a 20, 30 year plan because not everything can be done at once. So it's really about the community mapping out that plan and then working with state, local and federal government to say, "Well how do we prioritise," because there's not enough money to do everything at once. The people could kind of get on the right trajectory then you can actually get momentum.

Gianni: I mean you mentioned there about getting people into the regions. I know even Perth is one of those towns that's been, well cities really, that's a major city, a lot of business happens in Perth, with a lot of mining industries based in Perth and that's kind of listed as one of these regional targets for migration. How does someone compete when you've got Perth as a major center versus Busselton?

Jennifer: I think you can compete. You just have to look at the Rio Tinto story here. I mean 900 workers doing the fly-in, fly-out from Busselton Airport and having the airport has made a huge difference there. So I think our mining industry is very strong. It's getting, continued very high demand. There's a lot of opportunities still there. So I think there's enough to go around on the mining and industrial sectors to sort of make sure that Perth can operators that fly-in, fly-out centre as well as Busselton. But I think everyone would agree here that the impact in the Rio Tinto workers has been incredible in this community and you know, when I sit down with Rio, they say, the demand is still strong. But I think, it's really about making sure that they're complimentary, not competing activities.

Gianni: Jennifer Westcott is my guest on Mornings today, chief executive of the Business Council. Now on Q+A last week, you were talking about about Zali Steggal's proposal for a climate change bill tackle the transition between, you know, a carbon rich industry to more of a carbon free industry and you called it a sensible plan. Are you hoping that more businesses will get on board with that and start making that transition as early as 2050?

Jennifer: Look, I think as a country we've got to sit down and say where do we want to be and why? So the science tells us that we should be at net-zero by 2050, so that's to me a target that the country can get behind and then we've got to work out the how. The how really matters because in doing the how, we've got to make sure we protect jobs. We've got to make sure that we create new jobs. We've got to make sure that we keep affordability in our power prices. We've got to make sure our system is reliable.

Jennifer: But if you don't have a sort of sense of where you're heading, as a country and as particular industries, then how do you even make a start? I think the challenge is to remember that if we don't set that trajectory, we don't set that target, how do we encourage these super technology companies who are going to do the technologies of the future - hydrogen, pumped hydro, batteries? How do we encourage those companies to come to Australia if we don't have that sense of direction?

Gianni: Do you think Australia is at risk of, I guess, becoming a bit of a global pariah and losing out on opportunities if we don't move in terms of climate change and changing policy in that way?

Jennifer: I do think that. I absolutely do because we have to get the balance right here and we've got to make sure that particularly regional communities get access to these new technologies and these new jobs and that's not beyond us, surely to kind of have a plan that does that. But if we don't have a plan, if we don't have a sense of direction, then how can I say to a big international company that's investing heavily in hydro, particularly say the Japanese companies, come to Australia and set up your research and development facilities. Come to Australia and put your people on the ground.

They're going to say to me, "Well, I don't know where are you going? I don't know what the scale of that is going to be." So I think it's crucial and if we don't do that, we'll find that other countries have moved ahead on those things. The other crucial point to make is that the target, the 2050 target is a net zero target. Very important for people to remember this because it doesn't mean we won't be producing CO2. It just means that the balance gives us a net zero target. So we've got to get the conversation right. We've got to make sure that we've got a sense of where we're going and that will be the way that we attract new industries, new technologies, and new jobs.

Gianni: Jennifer Westacott, thank you so much for your time this morning. I appreciate you coming on the program.

Jennifer: You're very welcome. Thank you.