Jennifer Westacott interview with Melinda James, ABC Illawarra

04 May 2023

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Melinda James, ABC Illawarra
Speakers: Melinda James host, ABC Illawarra; Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: Strong Australia Illawarra, infrastructure; intertest rates; migration; housing; innovation; regions; transport


Melinda James host, ABC Illawarra: Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia and is in Wollongong today to talk with local businesses, both small and pretty large as well. Jennifer Westcott, thanks so much for coming in.

Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Thank you very much.

Melinda: Tell us about this kind of mini tour that you've been on in some regions?

Jennifer: We've been doing this for five years actually Mel, and we basically get around talk to local businesses, local communities, we obviously take some of our CEOs who've got operations. We have obviously got Mark Vassella today, from BlueScope, and we listen to people about what would it take to get some of our major regional centres in our second-tier cities really firing along and what that would mean for the national economy. So that allows us to sort of A: go back to corporate Australia and say, hey, you should do more in the Illawarra, B: go to governments and say, hey, listen, you really need to coordinate better so that these places can unleash their full potential and in doing that will power up the national economy.

Melinda: You're quite familiar with this region aren’t you?

Jennifer: Yeah, I was the head of the housing department down here for a few years. My brother has lived here pretty much since he was married, so I know the area very well. I know its potential. But I also know all of the issues around transport projects, access to Western Sydney, all of the issues that have always been around the access to Sydney, but also the potential of things like the Steelworks - where we'll be going this morning - to visit the Steelworks. The opportunity of the port, watching the ships coming in last night, one after the other. We could really unleash the potential of this region.

Melinda: It's interesting because we know that, for example, what I hear of the untapped potential of that surplus land around Port Kembla that BlueScope has, have you heard much about that potential project? It's huge. I think people locally are still kind of coming to grips with what could potentially be there. What do you know of that?

Jennifer: Well, it's a big piece of land, 200 hectares I think, so it's really then about how do you diversify the manufacturing base, and then what do we do around port access and things like that. So, I think one of the challenges now is for the country, this is why the Illawarra is so important, is we are a very narrow based economy and that makes us very vulnerable to the fortunes of others. So mining is great, it's fantastic, I want to see it continue, but we've got an opportunity to diversify into critical minerals. Steelmaking was once considered to be not competitive in Australia. Now, when you add two things - that more and more technology means more and more skilled people, but also, as you reduce the carbon emissions associated with steelmaking, suddenly our steel becomes super competitive. And then if you value add, which is what BlueScope has done with ColorBond, working with FormFlow on these incredible products that can be used for housing and buildings, which are very energy efficient, suddenly, you see this opportunity to unleash an advanced manufacturing sector. So that 200 hectares, and I'll be talking to Mark today and visiting the site, what can we do with that? How do we get the planning approvals to be done quickly? How do we attract overseas investors? How does BlueScope partner with others? What is the potential for hydrogen? There are just so many things you can do. But it does require careful planning, but it does require governments to get in behind that with the infrastructure and getting behind that with not taking six months to get the planning approval.

Melinda: People here locally have bemoaned the kind of lack of investment over the years, and maybe a lack of sort of innovation and vision for the region. If you look around, and I mean, you were here some time ago, you see how things have changed, do you feel like things haven't changed quickly enough? Do you feel like we haven't taken advantage of some opportunities?

Jennifer: Look, you can see that things have changed. Obviously, the housing, the diversity of the housing type here is very different from when I was here. What I think hasn't happened Mel, is that we haven't really said how do we make this part of Australia's national economic story. About what I call the frontier economy, the value-add economy, doing things where you are kind of adding to the value of things? How do you unleash for example, all of the incredible agriculture and agribusiness that sits around the southern part from Bega up? How do we really get the transport connections going so that people have got fast access to the ports so that we're into these Asian markets really quickly, and then selling our prime produce for very prime prices. But if you think about the Asian middle class being 3.5 billion people by 2036. All are willing to pay top dollar for our meat, our produce, that's the potential. Then if think about the industrial base the capacity for diversification is incredibly important. But again, how do you coordinate? What I see around the country, I was in the Hunter a few weeks ago, everyone tells the same story, we could absolutely get cracking if we just had a bit more infrastructure, a bit more coordination and a bit more investment.

Melinda: In that case, how do you feel about the news this morning that the infrastructure minister Catherine King was going through line by line these 700 plus infrastructure projects? Are you concerned that given the pressure on the government to fund things like the you know, what we're seeing this morning, is the sort of eye watering increase in aged care wages, which I think everyone agrees is necessary. But with so many pressures on the budget from so many directions, that infrastructure is the thing that might be on the chopping block?

Jennifer: Yeah, well look, I think she's right to review the list. I think coming into government she's right to say, well, what are the things that need to be on the list? Are they the right things? And thinking about prioritisation, are they in the right sequence? But what I would encourage is that people think about the unlocking of potential, these critical junctions of transport interchanges that you were just talking about. These are going to unlock the potential, these are going to unlock access to Western Sydney, and we're going to have a 24/7 airport. It'll be the biggest in Australia, the first digital airport, we've got to make sure that people in the Illawarra and freight in the Illawarra have access to that airport. That's going to make the airport more viable, but it also opens up huge opportunities. So that's the lens I would look at these projects, the lens of what's the potential I'm unlocking? What's the problem I'm trying to solve? And how do we really get these regions of Australia and our second-tier cities like Wollongong absolutely firing up? That's the lens I'd look at, totally appropriate look at. The other thing I would say is why can't we do some more private sector partnerships? Like Australia is just hopeless at this. I go around countries around the world where people are so good at working with the private sector, to say well you take some of the risks. What companies tell me in Australia is that government does this very badly. There are very few examples these days of really great public private partnerships and we should do more of those. That's going to add to public value, it's going to lower cost of government and make things happen more quickly.

Melinda: It's interesting you talk about the airport and what might be unlocked by the Aerotropolis up there just on our doorstep. We hear compelling cases, again and again, from people in business about SWIRL, the Southwestern Illawarra Rail Line. That's talked about, the extension of the Maldon-Dombarton that's abandoned, like some ghost rail track there. Why doesn’t government listen to the compelling cases that are put forward again and again?

Jennifer: Yeah, it's a good question. I think money is an issue here. I mean there's no doubt governments are under tremendous pressure financially, and so we have to be sympathetic to that. I think what happens though is that we don't stay the course for things. So, one of the things I've been pushing and being part of in Western Sydney, because I Chair the Aerotropolis, is a 30-year infrastructure compact. Where you say to the community over 30 years these are the projects we're going to do, and this is what I think Infrastructure Australia could do more of that regional planning. People may not like the prioritisation of things, not everyone can have their project get up first. So, it's about saying, okay, what's the demand for industry? What's the economic potential? What's the demand for housing? What's the housing we need to do? Now let's look at the infrastructure we need and let's have a compact with the community. Let's get that to be bipartisan so these things don't chop and change every time there is a change of government. Then have an orderly rollout of infrastructure over a long period of time. Things might change in that prioritisation, because circumstances change. But why can’t we do things like that? And then people can see that list and then the private sector can see that list and can go hey, well, actually, that one makes sense for us to take some of the risk and us to take some of the cost off government.

Melinda: We only have a minute or so left and I'm afraid it's quite a doozy of a question that I've left you with just to answer very briefly. When we talk to business, their biggest concern is when it comes to things like building the greenfield hospital at Shellharbour. When it comes to the blast furnace reline at BlueScope, things that require a lot of labour. Where are these people going to live? We're already in a housing crisis.

Jennifer: Look, housing is a big issue in this country. So there's a few things just quickly, we've got to make sure we've got an orderly release of land that we're servicing that land with infrastructure, and that we're obviously getting the transport connections right. There's a tremendous potential for more medium density housing, particularly in the Illawarra. But we've got to do that carefully, in consultation with the community. I think people have got to remember medium density housing does not mean high rise. It means well-planned, very well-designed housing. And then we've got to do more innovation, we haven't done innovation on housing in this country for years. Things like build to rent that I've seen countries all over the world. Things like different housing products like FormFlow, linked to BlueScope here and in the Illawarra, has this housing technology that is incredibly…

Melinda: Prefab?

Jennifer: Prefab and I go to Germany and people build these houses that you would have no idea these were prefab houses, they're absolutely cracking actually and you know we're not doing that sort of innovation. But FormFlow, for example, has this incredible technology which is incredibly energy efficient, very fire resistant, very weather sensitive. So, why aren’t we doing that kind of innovation? Then our planning system says, if you're doing one of those it's an as-of-right approval, so that you're not waiting five years to get your DA through.

Melinda: So much food for thought, it will be really interesting to hear what you hear from business leaders here and what you tell them to. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.

Jennifer: You're very welcome. Thank you.


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