Jennifer Westacott, interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sunday Agenda on Sky News

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

Speakers: Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia; Kieran Gilbert, host

Date: 21 February 2021

Topics: Workplace relations, parliamentary culture, media bargaining code, COVID-19 vaccine rollout

E&EO

Kieran Gilbert, host Sky News: Let's bring in the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer Westacott thanks so much. We have lots to talk about. First of all, the distressing rape allegations in parliament, it's led to a broader discussion about the culture in this place. You’ve spent a lot of time in and around the halls of parliament house. What needs to change in your mind?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Yeah look let's just go to this case, it would be really unfortunate if this all just becomes about political scalp getting as opposed to let's get to the system or reporting, of managing these things, and making sure this young, courageous woman is supported. I mean she's gone through a horrific, criminal assault and everything should be focused on making sure she's okay. But then getting at a system level, what's wrong with the things are handled, with the way things are reported? And getting on top of culture to your question. Culture is a problem across our society in respect of women. I mean, we see still way too many allegations of sexual harassment in the corporate sector, we see horrific domestic violence figures, we see these tremendously shocking gang rape cases and there's an issue about respect for women. But in this place Kieran, I think anyone who observes parliament, observes a culture of disrespect, pervasive, I'm not saying in every case but a pervasive culture of discourtesy, of disrespect, of getting somebody as opposed to getting something done. Of bullying, of bawling staff out in front of people. That culture is a cancer that gives rise to these very serious events that happen in this place. Frankly, it wouldn't be tolerated in a good workplace and shouldn't be. But this is not just about this place. We've got to get on top of the disrespect that people have for women and that starts with how young people are educated.

Kieran: Absolutely. We hope that this does lead to some big changes in the way there's support and so on.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Kieran: Let's move to another story because we've got a lot to talk about. Facebook. Now the rest of the world, like Paul Kelly said, are watching this case. What do you make of the way the government has managed it?

Jennifer: Look I think it's a very complex situation. I think mistakes were made last week by Facebook and they've admitted that. What's important now is people are back at the negotiating table. We've got to get a code here that's workable, that encourages investment, encourages innovation, encourages competition, that rewards good journalism, that encourages openness and transparency in how contracts are done. And we've got to get something that's workable and lasting. But we've also got to remember, and last week really showed this, that the community wants these platforms. They use them and nothing was really demonstrated more than how important those platforms are for people to get information. Not just to communicate with their friends and family but to get important information. So it's great to see the government back at the table. Look I think everyone's got to try and compromise here. Because who’s interest has this got to serve? It's got to serve the public interest.

Kieran: You've released some analysis in the last few days on the enterprise bargaining system. The Business Council warns that basically, the system is at risk of collapsing the Hawke-Keating model. And this is, you argue, a big problem for workers because workers on EBAs are on average, according to your analysis, $100 better off per day of work.

Jennifer: Correct.

Kieran: How does the government's proposal help mend that?

Jennifer: Yep. So it's part of a package - casuals, permanent part-time, greenfield agreements. But let's just go to the enterprise agreement part of the package, which is very important to us because what it seeks to do is retain but improve what's called the better off overall test. And it's the application of that test, since a particular case in 2016 which has become better off in ‘every single circumstance’ as opposed to better off overall. And how does it seek to fix this - the legislation before us now? The first thing it does is to give importance to the agreement of the parties. Now that is crucial to the union movement because it says we're going to respect parties coming together and 95 per cent of all workers on an EBA are on a union EBA. So, I don't understand the trade union's objection to this particular thing because when unions are really valuable to their members it is when they're at the enterprise level negotiating on their behalf. This says we're going to respect the agreement of those parties. Getting rid of all these technical things that hold agreements up in some cases for 300 days. In the case of Bunnings, an agreement where workers would have been getting paid 23 per cent more got held up in technicalities, complexities, people just walked away from it. That's a pay rise that people didn't get. Things like hypothetical workers where the Commission, the Fair Work Commission, is giving consideration to a hypothetical worker. That is someone that doesn't work in an entity. Those sorts of things are absurd. And the reason that I'm so passionate about this goes to Tanya Plibersek's point, and I agree with her about this, we want to be a country that makes things, that does advanced manufacturing, that gets into space and aerospace, that does high-value agriculture. You can't do that if you can't get changes at a workplace level in terms of rostering, how people use new technology, how they train people. That has got to be a negotiation between employers and employees.

Kieran: The jobs have changed so dramatically but the system hasn’t evolved?

Jennifer: Exactly. That's right.

Kieran: So that's the fundamental problem?

Jennifer: That's exactly right Kieran. And when I say to companies, why don't you do a bit more here? Why don't you ambitiously bargain? Why don't you try and really have a lot innovation with your workers? They say ‘because of the BOOT test’ because it's just too hard. And what they end up doing is staying on an award. What they call an award plus, a little bit more than last time. And that's a disaster for us going forward because EBAs, as you say, people get paid more but they are absolutely essential. If we're going to be a modern economy and we end up being a really inflexible economy, we won't get the sort of jobs that Tanya Plibersek's talking about. I agree with her about this.

Kieran: What sort of decline have you seen in terms of the number of EBAs?

Jennifer: We've seen a 60 per cent decline since 2009. They are at their lowest level in 22 years. And I would have thought instead of rock-throwing, the usual thing that goes on with important legislation, we’d try and work out ‘okay well let's look at the safeguards, well could they be improved?’ Well, I'm open for that. I'm happy to work with the ACTU and say well okay if you want that improved let's improve it.

Kieran: Well hopefully that spirit of cooperation that we saw at the height of the pandemic returns.

Jennifer: Well, that's what you want to embed in the enterprise agreement system. People say the system was flexible. It wasn't flexible. People had to sit down award after award and renegotiate things. But why don't we take that, and I think the ACTU acted with great integrity in that, but now let's take that spirit of cooperation, embed it into the system at the enterprise level where these big decisions about how workplaces are going to evolve are going to happen.

Kieran: Finally, on the vaccine rollout tomorrow. In your mind as a representative of some of our largest organisations, how important is it that this works and that people buy into it and that the anti-vaxxers are kept as a really small minority?

Jennifer: Totally agree with Paul Kelly about that. Look this is hugely important to confidence in business. It's hugely important to getting that momentum that has built up in the economy to stay and get extra momentum. What I think has to happen though Kieran is that we have to make sure that as we roll it out that we are releasing more and more of the economy, as the vaccine rolls out, and that we are working towards that nationally consistent system for how you manage local lockdowns, local outbreaks. A nationally consistent system for how you manage quarantine, better quarantine. We obviously have to make sure that the information that we are giving to people is about hospitalisation and intensive care. Absolutely to your point and to Paul Kelly's point, we need to make sure that we respect the fact the government has been very prudent in this. I think the community should have trust in this. I'll be having the vaccine as early as I'm eligible to have it. The one good thing about having turned 60 last year is that I'm further up the list so I'll be having it pretty quickly. And making sure that we build confidence in our workplaces, and business is going to play a big part in that. We've got to make sure that the anti-vaxxers, not based on evidence, not based on proper science are silenced. And that we’re listening to the voices of the people who are working off evidence and proper facts so that we get our country going again.

Kieran: Absolutely, well said. Jennifer Westacott thanks so much, talk to you soon.

Jennifer: You're very welcome.