Jennifer Westacott interview with Sally Sara, ABC RN Breakfast

04 June 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Sally Sara, ABC RN Breakfast

Speakers: Sally Sara, host; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 4 June 2021

Topics: Topics: Temporary COVID disaster payment; Victorian lockdown; national cabinet; vaccine roll out; international border; quarantine hub


Sally Sara, host RN Breakfast: Well today's national cabinet meeting is expected to sign off on plans for a joint federal-state quarantine facility in Victoria. The federal government has committed $200 million to build the dedicated facility to take the pressure off hotel quarantine. The new facility could be up and running by January. And that cannot come soon enough for the thousands of Australians who are still waiting to come home. And for businesses keen to speed up the reopening of Australia's borders. Also, on cabinet's agenda is how to pay for the new temporary COVID disaster payment for people in declared hotspots. Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business of Australia. Jennifer Westacott welcome back to RN Breakfast.

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

Sally: This disaster payment which was announced yesterday for people in hotspots. Do you think that's the right move?

Jennifer: I think it's a really good idea. Obviously, it's an emergency payment. It's quite substantial. You're talking between $50-$100 million a week according to the Treasurer based on how many people take it up. I think the thing Sally is it's a lifeline for people and a lot of people who are thinking can I pay the rent next week? Can I pay the bills? That's going to put a floor in their capacity to stay afloat and get ahead. So I think it's a really good idea and I think the other really important thing about this payment is that it's tied to the national hotspots definition. And as you know what business has been asking for is a bit more consistency across the states about when we do these local lockdowns, getting some proportionality into these decisions based on the case numbers and the risk. So that we can get a bit more predictability but more importantly, so we don't go through this endless series of really dramatic lockdowns based on quite low numbers where you cause very substantial hardship to businesses, to families. Not just financially but in terms of their mental wellbeing.

Sally: We've had news that couple of the cases in Victoria have now been identified as false positive. What's your reaction to that?

Jennifer: Look I think this might just be one of the inevitable things about this disease. But I do think what we've seen time and time again in Victoria is some quite serious systems issues. I mean, quarantine across the federation has worked very, very well and Australians should be very confident about it. But we have seen mistakes obviously continuing. Obviously, this one was in South Australia. But it was only on the 28th of May in Victoria that we've now got a uniform QR code whereas we've had something like that in New South Wales for nearly 12 months. And then these false positives and making decisions on those false positives. I think Victorians are entitled to ask how did we end up here? Most importantly, how do we avoid going into a series of lockdowns all the time? Because of each time they happen for a small business it's harder and harder to get back up on your feet.

Sally: What about businesses roles Jennifer Westacott? There has been some criticism of businesses that received JobKeeper and then have posted very healthy profit margins. There has been some criticism in particular of Harvey Norman. Should those businesses pay that money back if their bottom line is healthy?

Jennifer: Look I think it's case-by-case decision making for those businesses. Certainly JobKeeper had to come to an end because it did have these distortionary effects. That's why we supported ending JobKeeper and going to the targeted assistance we saw the federal government do yesterday. Look businesses are going to have to make that call. But clearly JobKeeper did the work that it was meant to do. It kept people working, it kept businesses going, it kept people tied to their employer and it gave us the capacity that we now see where the economy is bouncing back even stronger. 

Sally: Is it a bad look though?

Jennifer: Look I think it's a judgement call for those businesses. Each business is going to be unique, and they'll have to make those decisions but that's why it's important that we got off JobKeeper and that we go to these more targeted measures that the government announced yesterday.

Sally: The other big issue around today is this purpose-built quarantine facility. The federal government has signed an MoU and we're expecting further decisions from federal cabinet today. Was the federal government late to get onto pushing forward this proposal that was put up by Victoria to get a dedicated quarantine facility?

Jennifer: I don't think so. I think again, Australians should be pretty pleased with quarantine. It's done incredibly well. If you look at the numbers, I mean I think we've lost proportion in terms of the kind of numbers here. It's gone very well. But I do think it's a common sense decision because I think we're going to be living with this for quite a long time. We've got these emerging strains. We're not really sure how this is going to play out over the long term. So it's really good to have that belts and braces approach if you will, a backstop, a dedicated facility so that we can have more confidence and more importantly, that we can start the process of gradually, carefully, reopening the economy. What we want to see national cabinet do today is be really clear about where are we with the vaccine roll out, where do we want to get to and more importantly how do we start carving out this roadmap that says when we reach certain milestones certain things can happen so that we can get that sense of a gradual, careful, targeted reopening of the economy so that we can manage health but start to get a bit more activity going. That's what business hopes to see from national cabinet today. 

Sally: This facility will have 500 beds which will certainly help but there are thousands of Australians who are still stranded overseas. And obviously there's also a need to get some of the skilled migrants back into the country as well. Should there be more of these dedicated facilities? Should this be a beginning rather than be seen as a solution?

Jennifer: I think we should be open to these things. I think the lesson for managing this has been flexibility and a capacity to say well if that's not working then let's do this. And I think we've got keep that mindset going. That's been the case with income support, that's been the case obviously with this quarantine decision. But again I emphasise that overwhelmingly this has worked very well. If you look at New South Wales, they've taken a very big share of international travellers. But their systems have been very good and that we haven't seen the lockdowns, we haven't seen the systems failures, and we've also seen very proportionate decisions by the New South Wales premier where an outbreak in Sydney does not trigger the shutting down of Broken Hill. We need to make sure we keep vigilant for the long-haul and medium-haul here about our systems, our tracking and tracing, and our quarantine. And we should be open to changing them when things aren't working.

Sally: One of the other issues on the agenda for national cabinet is the possible compulsory vaccination for some workers such as aged care workers. What does business think about that?

Jennifer: I think we have to take whatever steps are medically appropriate, scientifically appropriate to make sure that we protect vulnerable people. I know that the health advice is that mandatory vaccines aren't necessary. I guess just with my common sense hat on I guess I say, why not? Because we do need to make sure that we go back to basics on this. Our strategy has been about suppression, containment, protecting the most vulnerable people and obviously making sure our health system has the capacity. And so national cabinet is obviously got to look at that health advice, but I guess as a citizen I say with my common sense hat on well why wouldn't we do that?

Sally: Jennifer Westacott the Australian Industry Group has actually questioned the effectiveness and the value of national cabinet. Do you share that view?

Jennifer: Not at all. I disagree with my good friend Innes on that one. I think national cabinet has been a huge part of the effectiveness of how this country has managed the pandemic. And if you just look across the rest of the world and you look at how successfully we've done it. Of course there are things that haven't gone according to plan. If you look at where we're at compared to other countries, Australians should be really proud of all of our leaders for the way they've stepped in and got this under control. So I'm hoping that it stays and I'm hoping it can start to do other things like start to look at some of the big reforms we need in this country to make sure that we get another 30 years of terrific economic growth.

Sally: The bigger issue of getting the borders reopened, the international borders, how much of a sense of urgency is there for business at the moment?

Jennifer: Look I think it goes to the point you're making. I don't think anyone wants to see just a wholesale reopening of the borders. It's got to be targeted and careful. So what we've said is as you roll out certain stages of the vaccine as you get some of those milestones and based on risk factors, why can't we do international students, and we need to signal that right? Because you want those students starting to think, ‘okay well on this date subject to these things I can go back and enrol in a university in Australia,’ rather than making a decision, ‘I'm not sure, I'll take that place in a university in the United States or the UK.’ And then to your earlier point skilled workers now is a very, very priority. Companies are telling me constantly now that they cannot get the workers they need and that's very important if they're to grow and expand. And of course we hear from the farming community that they're not able to get people to do some of the harvesting. So again, careful, targeted, and thought through approach. But the most important thing business wants is to see the plan, to see the signal so they can start planning. Think about an airline, they run their schedules at six months in advance. They can't do this on a week-by-week basis.

Sally: Jennifer Westacott chief executive of the Business Council of Australia thank you for joining us again on RN Breakfast.

Jennifer: You're very welcome thank you.


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