Jennifer Westacott interview with Will Koulouris and Sri Jegarajah, Squawk Box Asia, CNBC

05 July 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Will Koulouris and Sri Jegarajah, Squawk Box Asia, CNBC

Speakers: Will Koulouris, host; Sri Jegarajah, host; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 5 July 2021

Topics: COVID management, Living on borrowed time discussion paper, National Cabinet


Will Koulouris, host CNBC Squawk Box: Joining us live now from Canberra, Jennifer thank you so much for being here. Just firstly, in terms of where we stand now after the National Cabinet meeting with this phased recovery. Does it worry you when you think about it from the perspective of business that even though we do have this strategy now because of the to and fro between the states we don't necessarily have any clear framework as to the numbers that it's going to take, in terms of vaccinations for example, for businesses just to get back to work and for the borders to be reopened and re-established?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Look I think the plan was good, but it needs to have some more precision to your point. We need some really clear targets, we need some really clear thresholds, we need those to be realistic and then we need to be able to be quite clear when certain things will happen. When we reach those thresholds so business can start planning, airlines can start planning, small business can start planning. We need a lit bit more precision. It was a really important step that the national cabinet took on Friday. But I think all businesses are now saying, ‘well we want a little bit more precision in that plan about thresholds and timeframes,’ so people can actually plan and get their lives back. I'm actually in Sydney actually not in Canberra so I'm in lockdown. So I think everyone is wanting to see how this week goes. I think there's a lot of trust in the NSW government. I know business feels that when the Premier says I will do everything to get us out of that, everyone trusts her, and they believe that she's got the right systems in place. But I think nationally we need all the premiers to be pulling in the same direction to make sure that what they say we can actually deliver on. And that will give business a lot more certainty going forward.

Will: Yeah and there's sort of two ways of looking at it. You can look at it from the perspective I suppose as well that with international borders closed here in Australia, you're obviously assisting the labour market and all of those outcomes here in Australia. You know you can perhaps put a little bit of wage pressure to the outside. But on the flip side, you really are impacting a lot of the high skilled work, you're impacting productivity. So how do you think the governments are going to be able to balance that perhaps over the next year if we are only to have our international borders opening mid-2022 like some are suggesting?

Jennifer: Well I think we've got to get this plan in place, and it's got to have two other elements to it. We've got to have a staged approach to bringing in skilled workers and bringing back international students. Because if we don't they'll make choices that are permanent choices, and we’ll lose that comparative advantage we've got in international education. So we're calling for as we release certain stages in the vaccine rollout, we should be bringing back internationally skilled workers where you need obviously to continue to manage quarantine. But we can't wait for 2022 to get skilled workers in the country. Because what that will mean is not just at the high end either. I mean farmers are telling me that they can't get people to pick their crops. People can't get basic skilled people in some of their industries. That means our capacity to ramp up slows down. But it also means that companies just don't do stuff here. So an investment, a big project that they were going to do, they put it off they do it somewhere else. And that's a real risk to the economy. So we're really clear. We cannot wait until 2022 to start bringing international skilled labour into the country. No one is calling for a wholesale opening of the borders until we've reached those vaccine thresholds. But we have to have a staged and careful approach to skilled labour. 

Sri Jegarajah, host CNBC Squawk Box: Jennifer your SME members especially do they need more support at the national government level then to get them through this?

Jennifer: Well in NSW the government has put a pretty comprehensive package together. I think the one thing we've seen in this outbreak is very rapid action by certainly the state government to provide assistance. We've seen all the way through the pandemic the federal government and the state governments being willing to put their balance sheets to hard working, particularly supporting small business. So I've just been talking to people from small business this morning they are anxious about it. I think what actually has more harm is the unpredictability of these things. So if you think about a restaurant or a cafe they get their inventory, they stock up, they hire extra casual workers and then suddenly they're shutting down. And of course, they've got nothing they can do with that inventory. I think that's causing more harm so getting that certainty. But look we've seen all the way through this governments at a state and federal level being willing to basically put whatever assistance is needed to keep small business going. 

SriAnd this crisis Jennifer has uncovered a shortage of skilled labour as you've been highlighting. So what's being done in terms of longer-term solutions to close that gap? Whether it's related to upskilling and retraining to ensure this problem does not arise again?

Jennifer: Yeah look there's a few things. The government has done quite an important thing with global talent where they're now getting a whole stream of activity to attract some of those very high skilled workers into the country. And obviously that's got to roll out in line with how we open the borders. There's a tremendous focus on skill development in Australia particularly around short courses and micro-credentialling so that people can upskill more quickly. And there's something like over a billion dollars that federal and state governments are putting into fast track that capacity to upskill people more quickly, so people aren't trying to get a four-year degree or a four-year qualification. But we've got a long way to go on this. Like most other countries around the world this is not a problem unique to Australia where we've got to start targeting those workers who've got those very high-end skills. Keep the flow of permanent skilled migration running and make sure that behind that we've got a different looking skills system where you've got a capacity to keep people being retrained and reskilled all their lives. And making sure that they can work simultaneously. It's very hard for people to exist the labour market and get skills. You've got to find a way of doing that while they're working and that's also got to be industry led. This has got to be less about the old-fashioned way of institutions deciding, particularly qualifications. It's got to be a much more collaborative effort between business, universities, technical providers to say these are the short courses. These are the combination of short courses so that we can close this skills gap.

Will: Jen just speaking about things being industry-led and collaborations. Do you think there should be more collaboration, or I suppose a fast-tracking of collaboration between business and the government in order to really supercharge our vaccine rollout? Because we're sitting at seven per cent at the moment. There's been just a lot of talk that business does want to get involved in this process.

Jennifer: Absolutely and we're working closely with both the state government here in NSW and the federal government to say, ‘what can industry do?’ Because many big employers already do things like they provide the flu vaccine is that something where we could get those providers accredited to give the covid vaccine when the supply is in place? And we've got to remember this is about taking pressure out of the system to make sure that we get as many people vaccinated as possible. We've got quite an active program amongst employers to encourage their teams to get the vaccine once the supply is in place. So there's a lot we could do in business to give people information, to give them incentives, to give them time off, to give them a voucher to pay for their uber ride and then on top of that actually the very big employers who've got long standing programs where they've got flu vaccine providers actually giving their teams the vaccine and taking pressure off the public health system. 

Will: Jennifer a number of challenges there some of which are being addressed which is encouraging. Jennifer Westacott there thank you very much indeed for joining us today. The CEO of the Business Council of Australia.


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