Jennifer Westacott interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

18 February 2022

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast
Speakers: Patricia Karvelas host, ABC RN Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: BCA budget submission and women’s statement; NSW and Victoria COVID-19 restrictions; Origin


Patricia Karvelas host, ABC RN Breakfast: Jennifer Westacott. Welcome.

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

Patricia: What's the theory behind your budget submission? How could more workers help individual workers?

Jennifer: I think the main point we're making is that we’ve got to move from crisis management, to the private sector driving sustained growth, and that's about removing the blockages that are going to stall growth. It’s also about laying the foundations for a stronger future. That's a couple of things, the first is the labour shortage the one that you've just talked about, we're saying, first of all, you've got to look at the people who are here, and then move them from two year to four year visas, we've got to do some catch up with migration, we've got to do everything we can to get women participating, we've released our first women's statement, we've got to make sure that we are getting labour into the marketplace. Because what I'm hearing or what I'm seeing on the ground Patricia, is people just can't get started because they haven’t got enough workers, they can't get projects off the ground. They can't get their restaurants open at the times they want, because they haven't got enough workers. The first thing we say is address these labour shortages. Secondly, we’ve got to drive investment, we’ve got to get investment back into this country, that’s about better regulation, lowering taxes for small and medium businesses. Then we’re going to look to the long term, how do we get our capacity going so that we are a stronger economy, increasing our funding to VET, driving our national precincts, driving clean energy projects by making them more attractive to invest. Finally, starting the process of getting our budget on a sustainable footing with modest and careful changes to the efficiency of our federation.

Patricia: The government isn't in a rush to boost migration numbers. Is that what you're calling for, though? Bringing in more workers to fill workforce shortages?

Jennifer: Yes, we are, we're saying that what we should do is two things. We should have a temporary uplift in migration levels, and increase the amount of skilled workers who are in those categories, but also making the most of people who are already in the country. And of course ’as I said, pulling out everything we can to get women working and women working to their full potential. But I think there’s a myth, Patricia, that migration suppresses wages and suppresses employment, it’s simply not true. We've had very high migration rates for a long period of time and we've had very low unemployment, even pre COVID and now of course, record low unemployment. What's driving lower wages, is terrible productivity. If you look at the history of wage increases over the last 40 years, most of it is driven by productivity, which is driven by investment, which is driven by skills. That's the point we're making in our budget submission.

Patricia: I want to talk about the focus you've put on women and increasing the participation of women in the workforce, you think that there needs to be new measures introduced to create shared carer paid parental leave? What's that all about?

Jennifer: Well, this is about a couple of things. The first is increasing the paid parental leave scheme to 26 weeks and then encouraging greater flexibility for people who share that leave, that’s about a few things. It's about making sure that women are advancing not just entering the workforce, but advancing and what all the data shows is that women come out of the workforce for a longer period of time, so if we can start that process of people sharing that caring arrangement. Secondly, and this is very important, there's a cultural issue here, which is about starting very early on, for a shared arrangement in the caring of children, and using the paid parental leave scheme as a way of starting to drive that culture change that we need so that women are not just participating, they're advancing and they're progressing to realise their full potential. We've got some of the most educated women in in in the world, and yet we're not creating the conditions for them to participate in the labour market at the at the level they could.

Patricia: Can we talk about the COVID measures that the two biggest states, New South Wales and Victoria will relax over the coming days and weeks, we're likely to see the end of mask mandates in most indoor settings, density limits will be relaxed, and workers will be encouraged to come back to the office. Is this what you were looking for? Is the game changer we need?

Jennifer: Absolutely we welcome these changes. The simple reality is we're in this for the long haul, we need to find a way of living with the virus and returning to some kind of normality. We've got to obviously get the right balance between people returning to work and the flexibility that people have now gotten used to. We've got to put our foot down on revitalising our CBD’s because they've got to be safe places. Small business is on its knees in CBDs they're on their knees, and we need people back and so the removal of that working from home guidance is hugely important to organisations to bring people back. We need to make sure that our cities are vibrant, and that they're attractive places for tourists, and they're great places to work. All of these measures that have been announced by Victoria and New South Wales are incredibly welcomed by the business community, we now need as the business community to step up and get our people working together again.

Patricia: Are you alarmed, I'm just changing the topic quite dramatically before the news. But I'm wondering if you're alarmed by Origin energy’s decision to close coal fired power stations seven years ahead of schedule? Are you worried about what it might mean for our future energy security?

Jennifer: I think it reflects the direction that we're heading, it shows the momentum and speed of change that's underway, it is reflecting consumer choices, market conditions, it does reflect these plants are increasingly uneconomic and companies have to respond to that. But it does highlight the crucial point that governments and industries have to work together to manage an orderly transition and make sure we've got reliability, affordability, that we've got to focus on our regions that we're getting in place earlier, to make sure that we're managing that transition, that we're looking for ways to convert existing equipment. We're looking for that storage and capacity that needs to be in place to do what's called firming the system and ensure that reliability. But there's no turning back on the decarbonisation of our economy. What's needed now is government and industry working together, working with regions, working with communities, working with the unions to get an orderly transition.

Patricia: Origin didn't tell the federal energy minister. Does that demonstrate a real disconnect there? Has the federal government become kind of irrelevant to the national energy debate by not designing the way out here?

Jennifer: I don’t know the background to how and what was communicated. I think everybody is trying to get an orderly transition here, the government has produced a technology roadmap, they have committed to net zero, you've then got the state governments with very comprehensive plans, we all need to work together. That was the point of the plan we released last year, that we've got to get that coordination, we've got to get that focus on our regions, we've got to get the mechanisms working together. We've got to in our view give more money, which is in our budget submission, to the organisations that are driving clean energy, so they can bring those projects forward. We are on an unstoppable change here, and we really have got to make sure that government and business and the community and working together to get that orderly transition, so we keep prices down and reliability up.

Patricia: Just finally, Jennifer Westacott. We have an election in a few months’ time, but there's no major economic reforms so far from either of the major parties, are you concerned by that?

Jennifer: I am concerned about that, because when we talk to people in regional Australia across the community here's what they tell us. They tell us they can't get workers, they tell us that they're worried about skills, they want their kids to have the skills to get the jobs of the future. They want to make sure that we're getting those new industries and those new opportunities. They are clearly aware that we need to get that clean energy transition. People aren't frightened of it in the regions they're concerned about it, but what they want to see is a plan. What we want to see the election being about, is how do we skill Australians so they've got good jobs, great jobs, job security, how do we get our economy really thriving. How do we make our country attractive for investment? How do we make sure that every part of Australia and every Australian person gets access to the opportunities that are ahead of us. That's what the election should be about.

Patricia: Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Jennifer: You're very welcome. Thank you.

Patricia: Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia.



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