Jennifer Westacott - RN Breakfast

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast 
Jennifer Westacott
21 September 2017
Energy and marriage equality


Fran Kelly, host: The same sex marriage postal survey is dividing some families, certainly some communities and dividing the business sector it would seem. Prominent business leaders on both sides of this debate have come under fire for taking a stand. The supermarket giant, Woolworths, was forced to re-state its support for same-sex marriage after former CEO, Roger Corbett came out in favour of the no-vote this week. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, has been targeted in the past for his strong 'Yes' stance. It's a vexing issue for business which normally tends to steer pretty clear of controversial social campaigns. Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the sector's peak body, the Business Council of Australia. She was an early and prominent supporter of marriage equality. Jennifer Westacott, welcome back to breakfast.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Thanks Fran.

Fran Kelly: This week Woolworths faced some kind of backlash from some customers after Roger Corbett, who did run the company for 10 years, doesn't anymore ... I mean 10 years ago, sorry, told the 7:30 Report this week that he would vote 'No'. Before that we've seen Alan Joyce, from Qantas, face criticism and have a pie in his face for high-profile campaigning for a 'Yes' vote. What's your view, should businesses get involved in these sort of social campaigns?

Jennifer: Well, the first thing is, I don't think there is a division in the business community. People have got different views and that's perfectly fine. Look, I think the issue for business is first of all, they employ millions of Australians. They stand very strongly for diverse workplaces and some of them have very strong views that this is a kind of symbol of kind of that diversity in the workplace. But I think it's not fair to say to business we want, you know ... It's okay to speak out about gender equality, about women in leadership, it's okay speak out about and support the arts, it's okay to kind of do things in the community but it's not okay to talk about marriage equality. I don't think people can have it both ways and I think businesses who employ so many people, who are big parts of communities are entitled to take views on this and entitled to take kind of have strong opinions either way, providing it's respectful and informed.

Fran Kelly: And are you supported in that view by your members of the BCA? The BCA in the past is not a very outspoken body generally on a range of social issues on some of these like equity, gender equity. What was the tipping point for you in deciding that you would take a stand on this?

Jennifer: Well, obviously, I'm in a same-sex relationship, I have been for, you know, over 30 years and to me this whole debate and the decision for Australian people is one about respect, about acceptance, about legitimacy. I mean, I spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. I spent my whole life and the long relationship that I've been in, which has been a happy and loving relationship, feeling like it doesn't have the same legitimacy, the same respect, the same acceptance as other people's relationships. And to me, it's important for people like me to kind of come out and say ,"For me, that's the fundamental issue, that my life, that my relationship ought to be treated with that same level of respect."

Fran Kelly: And given that personal level of investment, are you feeling that is being personally respected in this debate as we're hearing ... at the moment?

Jennifer: No, I don't. I think there are both sides of this debate that have got, I think, somethings to answer for, in terms of extreme views either way. But, you know, when I hear people talking about the children are not going to be okay in same sex relationships I mean, I am deeply offended by that. I ran the Department of Community Services, I was the deputy director general. I ran the Department of Housing in Victoria. I was the Secretary of Education in Victoria. I actually know quite a lot about what's good for children; I can tell you this: children are better with people who love them and respect them. And I saw some horrific examples of what happened to children in heterosexual relationships; terrible abuse, neglect. Kids are well off when they are with people who love and respect them and as a society we should love and respect them. So, when I  hear people saying that I and people like me are not capable of caring for children that is deeply hurtful, deeply offensive and deeply wrong.

Fran Kelly: And so, feeling are being hurt and it is deeply personal. But there are strong feeling on the 'No' campaign as well and we've had an example this week of a young employee being sacked because she was outspoken with the 'No' vote and her employer thought that was inappropriate.

Jennifer: And I think that's wrong. You know, I think this is ...

Fran Kelly: But we have laws to deal with this.

Jennifer: Yeah, and this will be dealt with, as I understand, in the Fair Work Commission I’m not on top of the detail of of that, [00:04:20] but clearly people are entitled to have to different views. What I would like to see is that it's respectful and that it's informed.

Fran Kelly: You're listening to RN breakfast. Our guest is Jennifer Westacott, she is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer, on another issue, a former Prime Minister is now threatening to cross the floor if the coalition legislates any kind of clean energy target. Earlier in the programme, we heard from Ross Garnaut who is the chair of Zen Energy, which is just inked this deal with the new British owners of Arium Steel to provide solar and battery storage for the Whyalla steel works. Clearly pushing ahead with their renewable solution there regardless, I guess, of government policy in the future. Is this the way forward for business now, given this apparent paralysis within government, within our parliament over the best way to proceed? 

Jennifer: It's a very important question. I mean, can I just say what's really at stake here: why are we in this position? We're in this position because we've had a decade of terrible policy, we've had failed starts on the carbon pricing scheme, we've had a mishmash of poorly designed green schemes and renewable schemes, we've had states putting moratoriums on gas supply; there's really restricted gas and now we've got capacity coming out of the system as these plants age. And what I'd like us to do Fran is have a debate about "Now what do we need to do to fix it?". And it won't be one scheme, one project; we need a comprehensive plan that says, "Okay, we’ve got to get security right, we’ve got to get reliability right, we’ve got to get affordability right and we’ve got to get sustainability right that is meeting the carbon target".

So, very briefly, security and reliability I think Alan Finkel's review has largely fixed that with the rule of changes in the medium term. Affordability and sustainability are complicated and you need to deal with them together because there's things on the sustainability side that impact on affordability. But very briefly, what do we need to do?

On affordability we have to deal with capacity. We have got to stop capacity coming out unexpectedly. And that's what AGL has done. They have given early notice, as people like us suggested, of their intention to close. We've got to stop capacity constraints. You know we've got coal not being supplied to some power stations. We have got to get gas supply happening. It is the best transition fuel and states have put these restrictions on it against the advice of their chief scientists. And we have got to stop making mistakes. Now, the Business Council as you know oppose the renewable energy target. Very strongly...

Fran Kelly: You also opposed the carbon price?

Jennifer: We opposed the design of the carbon price under the Gillard government. The Business Council had agreed to the CPRS and that's a whole other interview. But, let’s just go back to capacity. If we were to get rid of the RET now, it is the only investment coming into the system. And there is an expectation it will have a reduction on price. If we get rid of it just out of the blue that reduction is at risk. So, on affordability there's a suite of things we could do. On sustainability, meeting our carbon target, you know we've got to remember that electricity couldn't be doing all the heavy lifting, we should be looking at vehicle standards, building standards.

But here's the thing Fran, and this is a really important point I want to make. If I had said to you, "What would be the carbon price in 2036?" You can't answer that question for me. "How will it be designed?" We do not know how emissions are going to be treated in this economy. And that is the investment problem. I agree with Rod Simms yesterday, investment's not the only problem, but it's a big problem. If we want affordability to actually be solved, we have to have investment, we have to have capacity. And whilst ever companies cannot answer that question, not just about price but whether their product will actually be viable, than we will not get that investment. And if we're going to do it through the taxpayer, well than that's something else the taxpayer won't be able to do...

Fran Kelly: Okay, so when Tony Abbot says it will be unconscionable for government that was originally elected promising to abolish the carbon tax, for that government to now go further down the renewable energy path, what do you think of that? Because as we mentioned, you didn't support the carbon tax, so you supported the Coalition scrapping, and here we are.

Jennifer: Well, what we have to have is a set of policies that get you an energy mix ...

Fran Kelly: Is that a clean energy target? ...

Jennifer: Well that's one way of doing it. It's the one on the table at the moment absolutely. But, companies have to understand how emissions will be treated in the economy. And I agree that we should not have technology bias there, we should be designing whatever it is so that it is technology neutral and that it's capable of responding to new technologies that we don't even know about. But part of our problem here Fran, is that the debate for years has been about acronyms. An ETS, an EIS, a CET. And if I had said to people on the street, "What do you think that means?" Most people would say, "Well, I don't know." We have to get back to a practical discussion about how do we fix affordability. How do we fix reliability and security. How do we meet our carbon target going forward. And the part of that that is not solved, is how we will treat emissions going forward. Let's have that debate, and let's have that debate in a non-technology biased way.

Fran Kelly: Okay, just as part of the reliability, you know what we're having at the moment is the Prime Minister pressuring AGL to keep its ageing Liddell coal generation open, even accusing the company of abandoning the public interest in the pursuit of profits essentially. Where does the BCA stand on that? Is the public interest paramount? Or should AGL be able run its assets as it sees fit?

Jennifer: Well couple of things there. We were the organisation that suggested early notification of closures. So that you could actually plan for that to be replaced. Now, AGL has done that. Second, they have made it very clear what the cost of keeping that plant is. You know, 160 million a year leading up to 2022. They have made it clear that it is un-viable beyond that. And you have to remember that only 1% of coal-fired power stations stay open past this 50-year life that they have across the world. So you know, their job is now to identify how they're going to replace that capacity.

Fran Kelly: The governments job is to make sure there is enough capacity?

Jennifer: Well that's right. But I'll tell you something Fran, when governments start telling companies what projects they should invest in, how much they should spend on it, who they should employ, how much they should pay them. Then they need to absolve directors of liabilities and they need to turn them to the AGM.

Fran Kelly: Well just on that, because there is quite a bit of intervention going on from the government at the moment, and some other businesses as well. We've got the government looking to get gas exporters to keep some of their gas here rather than ship it overseas. The government's introduced a new accountability regime for banks that could force top executives to be registered with the regulator. What do you think of those moves? Are you surprised that it's a conservative government doing this?

Jennifer: Well I think everyone's surprised it's a conservative government doing it. I mean, people forget that our business community's been a very strong one. We have not seen the sorts of things that we've seen in other jurisdictions. And as I've said, directors have liabilities. Once government starts blurring that accountability start to blur. But let me just go to the gas market issue. Since the government has had to do this to be fair, because state governments, who have been happy to take the royalties, happy to use the gas, have acted against often the advice of their chief scientists and restricted supply. What is important now for government on this gas issue, on this market issue is to sit down with business and make sure that we are not doing something that is going to actually give unintended consequences, reduce investment and distort the market in a very, very unhelpful way. But this is about cooperation, this is about working together rather than blaming each other. We need a cooperative approach and frankly the states have to be at the table because they're half of the problem.

Fran Kelly: Jennifer Westacott, we're supposed to be talking business tax cuts as well but we're out of time, we'll have to come back for another interview. Thank you very much for joining us.

Jennifer: You're welcome, thank you.

Fran Kelly: Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.