Jennifer Westacott interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC NewsRadio

22 October 2020

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC NewsRadio

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive; Thomas Oriti, host ABC NewsRadio

Date: 22 October 2020

Topics: Domestic and international borders, COVID-19 economic recovery



Thomas Oriti, host: There are calls this morning for federal and state leaders to open up their borders before Christmas. Now, new figures released this morning by the Business Council of Australia show the Australian economy is haemorrhaging $319 million a day in domestic and international air travel. The economic analysis by Ernst and Young shows a loss of $17 billion from domestic flights and a staggering $61 billion from international air travel. For more I'm joined now by the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott. Jennifer Westacott, Good morning.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Good morning.

Thomas: Thank you very much for your time. I mean, these are extraordinary figures, what will the economy look like if the borders aren't opened in time for Christmas?

Jennifer: Well, I think you've given those numbers, we're just haemorrhaging on a daily basis over $300 million but the most important thing, Thomas, is jobs. The job's that are related to international students, 250,000 jobs just in that one sector alone, we're losing tens of thousands of jobs or we're holding back the creation of tens of tens of thousands of jobs by not reopening our borders domestically, by not gradually and carefully opening our international borders. I think the other problem is that we're losing the planning time. So, what I know from other countries is that it does take a long time to do things like trade and freight routes and air routes, and other countries are getting on with that. 80% of freight goes out in a passenger plane, other countries are getting on with planning those routes. Other countries are targeting those international students, the United Kingdom, the United States, those students that haven't enrolled yet and trying to get them to go to those countries. We'll lose our competitive advantage and we'll become a more isolated country.

Thomas: Sure, but just to point out, I mean you mentioned the UK there, for example some of these countries have extraordinarily high coronavirus figures at the moment. Did you acknowledge that ours have been kept low? And there could be some, some very important reasons as to why

Jennifer: Absolutely, but that's about not a free for all. That's about a careful, calibrated risk approach to gradually and carefully opening our international borders, maintaining a very strict and consistent quarantine, making sure that are very clear about those quarantine procedures and that we focus in the domestic economy on those local containment strategies that have been executed so well in New South Wales. What we've seen in New South Wales is over 360,000 jobs return to the economy. So no one is suggesting that we have a free for all here, what we need is a planned, careful, calibrated approach to gradually reopening firstly our domestic economy by Christmas, that's a $3 billion gift to Australians, that's tens of thousands of jobs, and then very carefully our international economy. You've just run a story about backpackers, you know, we've got the best harvest season we've had in almost a decade and we don't have the people on the ground to do the harvesting. That's bad for farmers and that's bad for regional communities.

Thomas: When I look back a few months, I mean, things have changed a little bit since we saw these, these high numbers in April, for example, we are already seeing some domestic routes back up and running. Obviously with limited services from the airlines, I acknowledge. I mean, will that take some of the pressure off.

Jennifer: It takes some of the pressure off but we need to really scale up dramatically and we need to reopen our domestic borders and focus on those local lockdowns, focus on that local containment that's being done so well in New South Wales because the state border restrictions are really arbitrary, we need to focus on that local containment. We're talking tens of thousands of jobs in the aviation sector, tens of thousands of jobs in tourism. This is about giving the country a $3 billion Christmas present and getting a plan. And that's the other really important thing, Thomas, getting a plan. We've got a plan for this and make sure that we've got everything right, and that we don't make mistakes again.

Thomas: I mean, you mentioned aviation there. We have seen thousands of airline industry workers retrenched, that have lost their jobs, planes have been grounded. How long do you forecast it will take for the industry to get back to pre COVID levels or anywhere near pre COVID levels?

Jennifer: I think that's a long way off if you factor in international travel but domestically, we are not doing the same as other countries. We are not operating at the same pace. We need to open those domestic borders. The really crucial thing is to give the airlines time to plan. You can't just do this overnight, to get an aviation sector going again you need to plan it and you need to give some certainty and you need to give some timeframes, so that the two airlines can actually start making plans, getting people rehired, getting people trained again, think about pilots and the amount of time they've got to spend in a simulator to get flying again? That's the sort of plan we need so that we've got some certainty, we've got some direction and we can get cracking again.

Thomas: We are coming up to traditionally a very busy period as you've pointed out, Christmas time. For businesses, particularly in Victoria, there's this anxious wait for them to reopen their doors. The Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate told a summit yesterday that Australians are expected to spend a record $4 billion online this Christmas. Now, what will the increase in online shopping this year mean for the business sector?

Jennifer: Well, it's hugely important because it puts a lifeline for retail in place and retail has been so impacted by these lockdowns. It doesn't substitute for the fact that we really do need a plan to open the retail sector again, because that's very important for job creation, for wellbeing, for people wanting to shop but online is a very important part of retail now. I think the other benefit that probably people don't talk about, is that it also allows us to kind of quickly move to a digital economy, and what we've seen over the last six to eight months is that that capacity to get that digital economy working. Online trading at the scale that Christine is talking about allows people to start thinking about how they really get their online systems to be sophisticated. So, look it's a good thing, but it's no substitute for a careful reopening of our economy.

Thomas: I'm talking to you just a day after the CEOs of seven of Australia's biggest employers wrote an open letter to Daniel Andrews, the Victorian Premier. They're urging him to let more Victorians get back to work. It's been a tough time in the state and over time we have seen those numbers very high in terms of coronavirus cases. I mean, do you agree with them?

Jennifer: Oh, absolutely I agree with that letter. And I think what they're saying very clearly is that we want to work with government. We want to work with the Victorian government so that we open Victoria and we keep it open, but it's a plea that letter, it's a plea for common sense. A plea for cooperation. It's a plea to get people's jobs and their sense of hope back. We stand ready and as does, you know, the entire business community and those seven companies in particular, to work side by side with government to say, how do we work with you, given the number of people we employ, to make sure that we are open, we open safely and we stay open.

Thomas: Okay. Jennifer Westacott. Thanks very much for your time.


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