Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Tchilinguirian, ABC News Radio

Event Interview with Laura Tchilinguirian, ABC News Radio

Speaker Jennifer Westacott

Date 16 September 2019

E&OE

Laura Tchilinguirian, host, ABC News Radio: Well there are reports this morning that Australia's peak business body is urging bosses to row back on their support for fashionable social causes and instead focus on the real virtues of business. The Australian is reporting that the Business Council of Australia has thrown its backing behind a call from the Prime Minister for corporate leaders to focus on workers rather than activist causes. Well the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, joins me now. Good morning.

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

Laura: Are these reports correct? Are you calling on your members to focus on the real virtues of business?

Jennifer: Not at all. We're focusing on them to get the balance right which most of them do. These issues of speaking out on social issues or speaking out on economic issues are not in conflict. That's the point we're making. And I think it goes back to who business is - it's the 11 million people who work for them, it's the mums and dads shareholders, it's the suppliers and contractors, and it's the customers. And many companies feel very strongly about issues and their employees expect them to stand up for something. That's perfectly legitimate. But at the same time, we need companies speaking out on economic issues and we need them to be signalling the virtue of being successful - of creating jobs, of paying people wages, of expanding. Both of those things are not in conflict and that's the point we were making. 

Laura: Do you feel though that they may have lost sight of the real virtues of businesses it's described and focusing perhaps too much on some of these social causes?

Jennifer: Look I think it's a case by case basis and many companies are of course a reflection of the community and so particular issues emerge from time to time. And it's perfectly legitimate that chief executives take a stand on those issues. At the same time, and this is the point I'm making, it's perfectly legitimate to signal the virtue of being in business, to signal the virtue of being successful - of making profits ethically, of putting back into communities, of creating jobs, of paying people good wages. There's absolute virtue in that as well. 

Laura: Is it fair to say the Business Council of Australia believes, maybe that some parts of the economy are getting this balance wrong? And if so, how can they fix it?

Jennifer: Which parts of the economy do you mean?

Laura: Well businesses that we're saying here that some of them are focusing too much on fashionable social causes?

Jennifer: That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying it's about getting the balance right. It's about making sure that we are, of course, talking about the economy and I think companies have got an obligation to talk about the economy because they employ so many people. Particularly large companies, large employers, they are the people who are doing the hard yards on the international scene. They can see the headwinds coming in the direction of our country. They can see how to make our economy more competitive, how to make it more productive, how to pay people more and it's important that they speak out on those issues and frankly, it's important the political class in Canberra listens to them as well.

Laura: So how do you go about striking that right balance?

Jennifer: Well I think it is about getting out, as the Prime Minister rightly says, into the community. We've been doing that for two years. Out in the regions of Australia before it became fashionable to be in the regions of Australia. We've been out there for quite a long time, talking to people - what motivates them, what do they need, what do they aspire for. They tell us a couple of really important things. They tell us that they like business, that they want large companies back in their towns, investing and creating jobs, that they want the skills system fixed, they want the red tape to be lifted off their businesses. They want to be able to get on and get ahead. Those are the messages that we've heard and I think it's important that business, large and small employers, get back out into the communities and talk to people about those priorities.

Laura: Jennifer Westacott, the nation's top corporate executives are arriving in Canberra this week. What sort of demands will they be making of those in power? 

Jennifer: Well no one will be making any demands. What we want is a partnership with government because what we do over the next 18 months as a country will set the country up for the next 18 years. If we make some wrong choices then we will be potentially condemning our country to a very long period of low growth. And that's not good for people's wages. It's not good for the revenues government's need to get the services people want. So our message to both the government and to the opposition this week is we need a partnership with business. We need a partnership to make the country stronger. We need to get our skills system right because our VET system is in terrible trouble and we need to fix it. We need to get the red tape out of the households of Australia, out of the consumers of Australia. We need to get red tape off everyone's back, particularly for small business I might add. We need to make sure that we're getting the right incentives for investment. We need to get our energy policy right and we need to make sure that we're doing all of that as a partnership together.

Laura: Jennifer Westacott thank you very much for joining me this morning.

Jennifer: You're welcome.