Jennifer Westacott interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda

03 June 2020

Event: Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda

Speakers: Kieran Gilbert, chief news anchor Sky News and Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Topics: GDP figures, skills, workplace relations


Kieran Gilbert, host Sky News Afternoon Agenda: Industry roundtables began today. I spoke to one of the attendees, the BCA president Jennifer Westacott. But I spoke to her initially about reaction to today's GDP figures.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Look I think this was the market expected. I think Kieran the point is that these aren't statistics. These are about people's lives. They're about people who've lost their jobs. People whose businesses are failing and that's why it's so important with meetings like today where we get working as a country to get people back to work, to get businesses up and running again. I think those figures can be seen as statistics or they can be seen as people's real-world experience. I see them through that perspective. We've got an economy in some serious trouble and I think we have got to pull out all stops to get things working again.

Kieran: And obviously a remarkable run, 29 years of continuous economic growth in this country. How do we get back to that trajectory in the recovery phase out of this crisis in your view? What are the key reforms that are needed?

Jennifer: It's a really excellent question because I think we've got to say, ‘why did we have 30 years without a recession after the last one?’ Well, we had it because the decisions governments, unions, businesses made around making our country more productive, making it more competitive, making sure we have a skilled population, the incredible investment that happened in skills in the 90s and 2000s. Those are the things that are still going to be, in my view, the way back. That we invest in skills, that we get businesses investing again, that we get an industrial relations system that protects workers and of course allows businesses to adapt and change. That we make sure that we remove the dead weight of red tape. Much of which has been removed in the last 10-12 weeks, why put it back? If we put it back it's just a productivity sapping removal of some of the gains that we can make. So I think it's a really important question you've asked, why did we have 30 years without a recession? Because we made the right decisions to make our economy more competitive.

Kieran: And with industrial relations working groups, can you give our viewers a sense of how it unfolded today, the first meeting. Was there good faith there? Do you feel like there's a good foundation for some progress?

Jennifer: It was a very positive meeting Kieran. It was a procedural meeting but everyone committed to working in good faith. Everyone committed to getting practical things done, to solving problems. Everyone knew that the purpose of this was to get the country back on its feet again. And most importantly to get people working, to create new jobs, to create more secure work, to create higher-paid work, to get businesses back up on their feet so they can employ more people. There's a real sense of shared purpose today and a sense that we're going to put history behind us, come to the table with fresh ideas, listen to each other and be willing to compromise.

Kieran: And do you feel there's enough common ground? Because obviously we've seen quite a combative space in workplace relations for many years. Is there enough common ground between the union movement, the government and the business sector to get that progress?

Jennifer: I believe so because I think this crisis has told us something. It's told us what's important, what really matters, and it's told us what really matters is someone job. And when they don't have it because their business can't be successful, what that means in terms of cost to government, cost to people individually, cost of their mental health, cost to the economy, cost to other jobs that get lost in the process. So I think we do have now that sense of incredible urgency and a lot of the stuff that we might have talked about 12 months ago I think that sense of urgency, that sense of purpose around creating employment for people, creating secure work for people, dealing with some of the sectors who've been particularly hard hit - hospitality, retail, tourism. There's just a commonality of purpose that I haven't seen for a long time today.

Kieran: We've heard discussion, say for example skills many times, but it seems to fall over when it comes to actually getting some change. I know it's something that you've argued for. Do you feel this will be the catalyst to get to that next stage of cohesion of the nation working together? Of having skills that best suit this modern economy?

Jennifer: I think so because my point Kieran is always 'what's the alternative?' So let's break it down. We have to find a faster way to get people upskilled. We have to deal with some of our skill shortages because we're not going to be returning to normal migration levels, by skilling our own people and on that matter, there's very strong agreement between the union movement and business on that. We have to find a way of giving people the skills that they need for the jobs that exist today and that are going to exist in the future. We have to target, particularly young people who've been very hard hit by this crisis, and people who are over 55 who've got limited skills, people in regions. So my plea to the country is that if we don't solve the clunkiness, the awkwardness, the disincentives in our skills system, we're letting people down.

Kieran: Indeed. As we look at the next few months obviously much of what we're talking about in terms of reform is going to be over the medium to longer-term. What we're going to be talking about the next few months is still government support to prop up businesses and the economy. With JobKeeper it's played a crucial role in doing that. What's your view on how this should phase out?

Jennifer: Yeah look I think that it does have to be phasing out. I think everyone agrees you just can't have a cliff. There's got to be some tapering. I think our interest Kieran is to make sure that we start really focusing on job creation. What are going to be the incentives that create additional work, be it additional jobs or additional hours worked, so that people can work to their full capacity. We need to make sure that as we phase out of JobKeeper into something else that the something else is squarely focused on creating jobs. And of course, as the Treasurer himself has acknowledged, there are some sectors that are going to need some additional assistance because they simply can't get back up and running again.

Kieran: And just finally given basically finishing where we began Jennifer Westacott. In terms of Australian now being in technical recession. Q2 will definitely be negative as well and hence the first recession since the early 90s. How important is it for government, policymakers around the country to help foster a bit of confidence as we move through this year?

Jennifer: It's a really important point. Confidence is going to be everything here. As we open up the economy, we've got to get people confident to spend, confident to go to the restaurant, confident to do the things that they would once have done. That all creates demand, confident to reinvest in the housing market, confident to buy that house, confident to buy that one particular thing in one of the retailers. Confidence is everything. Confidence not just in consumers but confidence in business. Confidence to invest, confidence to take risk. This is crucial and that's why confidence, I think, is going to be generated by good policy but also by cooperation. So the national cabinet decision on Friday, the meeting we had today with the trade union movement, all of those things are very important signals to the community that we are working together as a country. We are working with a single objective to make sure that we get back on track and that we get people working again.

Kieran: Business Council of Australia chief, Jennifer Westacott, appreciate your time as always. Thanks.  

Jennifer: You’re very welcome, thank you.


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