Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Jayes, AM Agenda, Sky News

31 August 2022

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Jayes, AM Agenda, Sky News
Speakers: Laura Jayes, host, AM Agenda; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: Jobs and Skills summit; industrial relations; COVID isolation times


Laura Jayes, host, AM Agenda: Business Council of Australia CEO, Jennifer Westacott, you're a very busy woman, we thank you for your time. Jennifer, first of all, looking at the guest list are the right people around the table?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Look, I think broadly they are. People are always going to argue about 140 people, who should be there, who shouldn't be. I think the thing that the government has done, to give them great credit for this, is that leading up to the summit, they've had a series of roundtables with a much wider group of people. And I think they're intending to continue to do that as they develop the white paper after the summit. So, I think people are going to argue around the edges but I think broadly, that's the right people who should be there.

Laura: Can we really wait for a white paper to get some of these things done? I mean, the jobs and skills, filling worker shortages, needs to be done about six months ago. So, what are the immediate outcomes that you would like to see on Friday afternoon?

Jennifer: Look it is a really good point. I think the government has made it clear that where there is agreement, let's get on with it. So, if we reach agreement on the direction of migration, and I think the important thing about the summit on migration is that it’s not just a number. It's two things, how do we catch up, but the really important thing for the summit Laura is to get the proper big reset. What is the role of migration? How do we make sure it is driving the economy? How do we move people into permanent pathways? How do we get the focus on permanent? How we get the focus on skills? Those are the big conversations, but in the short term, we've got to get action and the government is taking action on this, to get those visas processed to deal with those shortages. You know, if there's agreement on fixing the skills system, and I think there is a broad agreement, you would have seen stuff that we've released with ACCI, AIG and the ACTU this week, let's get on with that. Let's give Jobs and Skills Australia there first three-month job description and get on with it. If there is agreement about what we can do around women's participation, that's in addition to what we're doing now, let's get on with it. If there's agreement about removing disadvantaged workers barriers, which I think are something we should all be really working hard on, as well as practical things to advance indigenous economic wellbeing in Australia, let's get on with it. And if we can make progress on industrial relations, let's get on with it.

Laura: But you're saying there, IR has been a bit of a distraction in the lead up to this summit? That shouldn't be the sole focus of what you're discussing around the table tomorrow and on Friday?

Jennifer: Absolutely not. I mean, everyone loves that debate, obviously, and they love kind of portraying it as one side versus the other. And, you know, there’s a couple points to make. There are big resets the country has to do, and I've talked about some of them. One of the big resets, which we'll be talking about over the next couple of days, is this whole reset around industries of the future. How do we drive the decarbonisation of the economy? How do we attract new industries to Australia? How do we diversify what we're doing? How do we strengthen what we're already doing? How do we get the skills that are going to power up the economy? How do we make sure nobody gets left behind in that? How do we really get women participating to their full potential? Those are really important issues. And it's, it's always, the media loves the discussion about IR, but you're absolutely right. What we have to say is what is the kind of workplace relations system we need to make sure that we achieve some of those things I've just talked about. Skilled Australians, driving new industries. Making sure the IR system is fair, it's easier, more people are bargaining. But fundamentally, Laura, this has got to be a big reset, not just a conversation about IR.

Laura: Yeah, that's very true. I mean, one of the other things that did strike me and hasn't been noted, in much of the media this morning, there's a lot of university heads around this table, there needs to be also a focus on trades doesn’t there? Do we need to get past of this snobbery almost about, you know, everyone needing to go to university, perhaps there are other pathways that people need to, young people in particular, need to be pushed down?

Jennifer: You're spot on, I think there are quite a few people from the vocational sector there, and so they should be. I'm really looking forward to this discussion about skills because you're absolutely spot on. What we need is to make sure that young people leaving school have got multiple pathways that they can go into, we've got to restore the role of vocational education, restore the role of TAFEs. We have got to make sure that the system, the tertiary system, universities and TAFE is a bit more interoperable from the learners point of view, so that people cannot just go to a dual university that they can actually blend their qualifications. We've got to get workplace learning recognised as part of the training system. We've got to fix apprenticeships, but we've got to take a more nuanced view of apprentices. It's not just trades, that's crucial, but new things like digital apprentices. So, you're absolutely spot on. Some of this, to your point is cultural and that starts at school. Making sure that young people understand that there is a very good pathway going to a TAFE, as much as there is a good pathway going to a university.

Laura: The unions have put a lot on the table going into this summit. What is your red line? They've asked for a lot. So, is there anything that they put on the table that goes a step too far for you?

Jennifer: Look we've expressed our concerns about the multi-employer bargaining proposal. We've we understand the problem they're trying to solve, that many people are not benefiting from the bargaining system, many low paid workers are not benefiting from the bargaining system, many of those occupations have a very heavy concentration of women. We've said we think there are big unintended consequences with multi-employer bargaining. But I think for us the important thing is to say let's see the proposition. Let's see the problem we're trying to solve for. In the meantime, can we get on and make the bargaining system easier? Can we make the BOOT test more simple and easier for people to use? But that's the point of the summit Laura, is people not going to the summit with kind of, red lines. The point of the summit is try and get an understanding and try and find, if you like the middle way. How do we move forward, solve those problems, but not create 25 others.

Laura: You should be a diplomat in your, whatever future role you do take on. But finally, before I let you go, Jennifer. National Cabinet is meeting today, we're still living under the shadow of COVID, really. Isolation rules still exists, they're considering being at least reduced down to five days, but also there is this $750 payment for close contacts and people who get COVID. Are those two things still holding business back?

Jennifer: They are I mean, you've got to get the health and the isolation rules right, so that we don't have again, these big outbreaks. So you know, the situation that some someone's at work with COVID and they should have taken leave, and then suddenly 20 People are off, and that we're seeing that across many industries. But, I think we've now got to try and make sure that we're in lockstep with the understanding of the medicine, that we can get the economy working, and that we can make sure that when people are sick, they stay at home, and that they don't create a problem for five or six other colleagues in the workplace. I'm really confident that that National Cabinet is going to get to a kind of sensible landing spot today and then we can kind of keep the momentum going in the economy.

Laura: Let's hope so. Jennifer Westacott It's going to be big two days, we'll see you in Canberra.

Jennifer: Thanks very much Laura.


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