Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Tchilinguirian, ABC NewsRadio

Event Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Tchilinguirian, ABC NewsRadio

Speaker Jennifer Westacott

Date 9 August 2019

Topics COAG, regional development, population and education and skills

E&OE

 

Laura Tchilinguirian, host: As the Prime Minister meets with Premiers and Chief Ministers in Cairns today, they are being urged to focus on the potential of regional communities. Business leaders visited Cairns a couple of weeks ago and they've been travelling around the country to listen to what regional communities want and need. Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. I began by asking her what regional businesses want to see from the federal government at today's summit.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Look a couple of years ago we decided to do this because we felt that their views weren't being heard and that the anti-business agenda was not shared by regional communities who are desperate for investment. We felt that the conversation nationally becomes a conversation dominated by the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, but not a conversation that reflected the needs of people in local communities who want investment, who want change, who want infrastructure and they are central to the country's prosperity. If we can make sure that our regions are doing better, our country will do better.

Laura: And you've been doing this for quite a while now, but more recently you went to Cairns. Was that particularly targeted because of COAG?

Jennifer: No these take a long time to plan so it had been in our planning for a long time. We'd been there before and there was a really strong appetite from the community to talk to the business community about what can be done to increase investment there, to get their economy firing, to promote their incredible tourism opportunities. But also the other huge opportunities that are there. I spent some time at the Manbulloo mango farm – which provides mangoes to Coles, but it also exports mangoes at a very premium price – to talk to them about what else would it take to allow them to become a really serious international exporter. And what else can be done to support them in terms of infrastructure regulation. So Cairns has been a focus of ours for quite a long time.

Laura: So what are regional communities telling you they want?

Jennifer: Well, they want a few things. They want to be taken seriously and I think the Prime Minister absolutely gets that message and has for a long time. They want infrastructure and what I mean by that is they want the roads – the links, they want the social infrastructure – the health services. They want that done on a regional basis, about what it's going take to get their place to be at the level that they aspire to. They want the skills system fixed and hopefully COAG will talk about this today. They want VET to be restored. They want their kids to either have an option to go to university but to go to TAFE or to go to a VET provider. And for that to mean as much as it means to going to university. They really want a kind of capacity for them to reach their full potential. So in Cairns, a huge opportunity around their live coral trout trade, but they need a passenger airline to take those incredible fish to the premium markets of Hong Kong and China. They tell us that all the time. The other thing they tell us that is really important, a hugely important thing is that they want population. They want people to come and live in those places. They know that they need more people to get the economies of scale, if you will, to get the health services, to get the economy going. So there are many things they've told us, but they are the crucial ones.

Laura: Jennifer Westacott, what are you calling on governments to do to encourage this?

Jennifer: Well, first of all, I think we need to kind of get Infrastructure Australia to look at each region as a region, not just to take the state's priorities, but to go into some of these regions and say, ‘what are the critical pieces of infrastructure that we need so that this economy can really get going’? We need to cut the red tape that really hurts a lot of these small businesses in regions particularly. There is a mile of those lists, but it's not rocket science to get rid of some it. We need a serious look at what are some of the capabilities that they've got. Say if you take mango production, coral trout farming, aquaculture, whatever it is. How would we assist them to get that to be at a national scale? Hopefully COAG today will put a stop on the decline of VET and make a priority the restoration of the VET system in regional Australia. Because for kids living in regional communities, they need those options to get those technical skills which are going to be crucial in the economies as it goes forward. We also need existing workers to be able to retrain and upskill so they can get the jobs that are part of a technologically driven society.

Laura: And what role can employers play in helping to boost regional communities?

Jennifer: Employers can play a massive role and they do. What I'm really impressed with every time I go to a region is to see just how much big corporate Australia is doing there and how much small businesses is doing with them. The Manbulloo mango farm that I talked about providing mangoes to Coles, working together on blockchain technology and how they can improve providence sourcing of their fruit, which allows that mango producer to get things overseas. Yesterday in Darwin, talking to the Humpty Doo Barramundi producers who work with Woolworths. So what you see in regional Australia is big and small business absolutely joined at the hip working together to support each other, but most importantly to support key industries that can then export. You see Telstra all over the country with these – like in Bathurst – these quite specialised processing centres employing hundreds of people. So I think we can do more of that, but I think we've got to get government and business working together to make it easier for business to go to the regions of Australia and easier for them to stay.

Laura: That was Business Council of Australia's chief executive, Jennifer Westacott.