Jennifer Westacott interview with Peter Stefanovic, First Edition

04 June 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Peter Stefanovic, First Edition

Speakers: Peter Stefanovic, host; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 4 June 2021

Topics: Temporary COVID disaster payment; Victorian lockdown; national cabinet




Peter Stefanovic, host Sky News First Edition: I'm joined by the Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott. Jennifer, good to see you as always. Thanks for your time. So these cash handouts that will be available next week for those aged over 17, with less than $10,000 in liquid assets, of $500 payments if you're working more than 20 hours a week, is that enough?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Look, I think it's a pretty good contribution. And obviously, the Prime Minister's made it clear that this is still the subject of negotiations. But what's important Peter, is the federal government's put a lifeline for people who were worrying about whether or not they could pay their bills next week. It's $50 million a week as I understand it. That's pretty substantial. What's important though, is that we get our systems under control, that we get proportionate decisions by premiers to outbreaks and that we get, particularly Victoria, moving again. Because we just can't keep going on like this. This is a terrible toll on business, a terrible toll on families. And I think people are entitled to say, ‘how did we end up here?’

Peter: Do you think the current situation is proportionate in Victoria?

Jennifer: Well, you have to look at New South Wales. So first of all, you've got some real system problems in Victoria and across the federation we still have problems with quarantine. Albeit I think quarantine has been a pretty big success. But you do have to ask, we know New South Wales has taken the lion's share of quarantine, hasn't had the same sort of problems. Then you've got, on the 28th of May is the first time you've got a uniform QR code operating in Victoria, whereas you've had one for 12 months in New South Wales. And then you've got these false positive tests yesterday. And of course the extended lockdown was based on some of these numbers. So look, you look at something like New South Wales where you do get numbers five, six, and so on, but the state gets it under control and doesn't feel that the people of Broken Hill should be shut down because of something that's happening in Sydney. So if you're in Mildura in Victoria you're entitled to ask, ‘well if this is happening in a particular area in Melbourne, why are we having to shut down?’ Obviously, regional Victoria is opening up now. But I think we've just got to get proportionality. And the good thing about what the federal government announced yesterday is that this cash assistance will be tied to the national hotspot definition. And we need national cabinet to reaffirm that today.

Peter: And it doesn't act as an incentive for trigger happy premiers to shut down borders moving forward.

Jennifer: That's exactly right. I mean, we've got to get proportionality here. We've got to get consistency. We've got to make sure that of course health has to come first, and the safety of people must come first. But New South Wales has proven that they can do this. And we've got to remember, we don't have a Victorian strain and a New South Wales strain. We've got a state that's got its systems in order, and we've got a state that's still getting its systems together. And they need to do that more quickly so that these rolling lockdowns, which are costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's the personal toll Peter, it's someone who was going to open on the long weekend, who has put on an extra few casuals who thought things were going to get a bit better. They're now, they're not opening, their inventory, if they're running a small cafe, they're going to throw it out. That's the toll that I think we've got to keep remembering. Statistics are one thing; this is about people's lives.

Peter: Yeah. You did mention that point about fleeting transmission. That ended up not being the case. It ended up being false positives. So with that in mind and there's a few other examples as well. Are you questioning this extended lockdown?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think certainly last week they had to do something. They were clearly getting some big numbers. But whether or not you needed to lock down the whole state, I think there'll be different views about that. But this one where you're starting to get three, five cases, you're starting to be able to track. I think you've got to look at New South Wales that's had similar numbers but hasn't shut down the whole city, hasn't shut down the whole state. Now, surely the health advice between the two states isn't that inconsistent. And I think there's just got to be a more predictable, more certain approach that allows businesses to say, ‘well okay, fair enough, we're now at this kind of number.’ But when they see numbers consistently going down or they're starting to see false positive tests, people are entitled to say, hang on, what's the trigger here and why are we doing these things when we'd reached these numbers versus New South Wales that has its systems in order? I think people are entitled to say, how did we end up getting into this position? And of course, I think the other point is we've got a communications challenge here. We've got to make sure that we don't, we keep people obviously alert, but we do not frighten people. Calling this thing a beast or whatever expression was used yesterday. I mean, that's just frightened somebody. Why do people think it's appropriate to frighten people? We've got to make sure, and that's the proportionate point I'm making, that we've got careful, considered advice and of course, consistent advice about the vaccine.

Peter: And at the end of the day, there's only been a few dozen cases that are active at the moment. So is the state government of Victoria in danger of falling into a ‘boy who cried wolf’ kind of trap moving forward? Because the next time it uses this big talk, people might well go, ‘well, I'm not sure about that?’

Jennifer: Exactly. And that's the point about really consistent, clear, careful communication. And I think it's really important that national cabinet today reaffirm what's our objective here which has always been containment, suppression, making sure the health systems at capacity, and obviously really clear about where we're up to with the vaccine rollout. Where are we? Where are we going? What can people expect? What are the priorities? And of course, what we'd like to see is that as we reach key milestones with the vaccine, that we're able to see more and more of the economy opened up, particularly where we've continued to have closures. Obviously not a wholesale opening, but a carefully targeted staged approach to reopening parts of our international economy. So that we can get things like international students, skilled migrants, and of course, returning Australians as a priority. So that we can start to get momentum in the economy. And of course, as we reached certain milestones in our view, as we've vaccinated vulnerable people, we should put an end to state border closures that are very disproportionate based on the case numbers.

Peter: And the quarantine facility at Avalon airport would help?

Jennifer: Look, I think so. I think, we've got to remember here, we're in for a long haul here. We don't know what's around the corner. We don't know about emerging strains. So we need that backstop of having really effective quarantine. This was one of the recommendations that Jane Halton made when she reviewed quarantine. But we've also got to remember that again, if I point to New South Wales, they've taken a big share of the international arrivals and they haven't had the same number of breaches in the system. So that I think Australians need to remember the quarantine system has worked overwhelmingly pretty well, but you know, if this means that we've got even more protection, more of a belts and braces, that will give us more confidence to open up parts of the economy. So a sensible idea.

Peter: Jennifer Westacott, always good to have you with us. We'll talk to you soon. 

Jennifer: You're very welcome.


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