Jennifer Westacott panel interview with David Speers, ABC 7.30

11 May 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott panel interview with David Speers, ABC 7.30
Speakers: David Speers, host; Michele O’Neil, president Australian Council of Trade Unions; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: Budget 2021


David Speers, host ABC 730: Let's look at what's in the budget for workers and business. We're joined by Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, and Michele O'Neil the president of the ACTU. Thank you both for joining us. Michele to you first, on that question about wages. The budget's clear they're going to remain pretty flat for a while yet. What is the key to unlocking wages growth?
Michele O'Neil, president ACTU: Well, the government has failed to do two key things that are critical in this budget, and that's to address the fact that we need to increase wages and see wage growth, as you said, David. But also, that we need to deal with the crisis in insecure work. There's nothing in this budget that means that we're going to see the creation of secure, reliable jobs that workers can see pay increases coming along out of. If you don't create secure jobs, if you don't see jobs where people know how much they're going to earn week to week and month to month, then they've got less bargaining power, and we're not going to see that wage growth. And in fact, the forecast in the budget is for wages, real wage growth to be flat right through to 2023-24. We've got a crisis in wages in Australia and nothing in this budget is going to address that.

David: Jennifer Westacott, the biggest spending measure tonight in the budget isn't actually aged care it's continuing the business investment incentives - loss carry-back and so on. Is this what business was after?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Look, business was after, obviously, a budget that drove private-sector recovery. Many of the measures are going to do that. Not just the tax measures you've just talked about, but the huge investment in skills, infrastructure, the digital announcements that were made a couple of weeks ago. Those are all going to drive stronger business investment. And look I agree with Michele. We want to see higher wages but the way to get that is higher productivity driven by higher business investment, making it easier for businesses to expand, grow what they're doing, export more, do more. Of course, all of this relies on us getting our economy open again – a gradual, careful plan to get our domestic borders permanently open and get our international borders gradually open.

David: Let me ask you both about that. Michele, the international border is not due to begin reopening until mid-next year, according to the budget. Is that appropriate? Would you like to see it sooner than that? Or are you happy to lock out migrant workers, for example, until then?

Michele: Well, we've always said border decisions have to be based on the very best medical and expert advice. That continues to be our position. Also, we don't accept this notion that what's needed in terms of getting workers into the sectors that are crying out for it is short-term visa workers. What we know is needed is to make sure there's improved security in those jobs and wages in those jobs. What we've seen government do is put billions of dollars into the private sector in this budget, but it's without strings attached. It doesn't link that money, that large amounts of money that Jennifer was just talking about, to the fact that it needs to be tied to the creation of secure, reliable jobs with better pay. And this, of course, would make a difference in terms of many of the sectors that are saying they have trouble in terms of finding workers. And if we're going to do something about people coming back to the country, we need to do it in a careful and staged way, and in a way that's going to support local jobs as well. So an example would be overseas students. That would be a group of people that we should look at coming back when it's safe to do so. But it would support increased jobs and job security in the higher education sector, which has been abandoned, as well as providing more workers that would be available who are those overseas students too.

David: Jennifer, just a quick one finally to you while back on the border issue. There is a bit of vagueness, a bit of uncertainty around how this will happen. Would business like to see more certainty, more clear benchmarks around how and when the borders reopened?

Jennifer: Yeah, we've been calling for this for a long time, as you know. We want to see a plan that shows, as we roll out the vaccine, what can we start to open? Obviously, international students are a priority, but so are those skilled workers. And I just take issue a little bit with Michele there - what companies say to me is, if you want us to invest in Australia, we need some of these skills. We need to bring them from other countries because we don't have some of these skills in Australia. And that will get us the capacity to create these new industries, these new higher-paying jobs. And obviously, bring that innovation and drive into the economy. So we need to be firing on all fronts. We need to be thinking big. If I've got one concern about the budget, David, it's the low growth rates in the outer years. We need to think bigger than that. We need to have a bigger level of ambition because that's what's going to drive up wages.

David: Jennifer Westacott and Michele O'Neil, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us tonight.



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