Never the same again - coming back better, speech to the Sunshine Coast Business Council

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive

Event: Sunshine Coast Business Council forum

Date: 26 November 2020

 

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land that we are meeting on today, for me that is the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and pay respect to their elders past and present.

Thank you for the invitation to join you today.

After the year we’ve just had – fires, floods and COVID-19 – it begs the question, at a time of crisis:

  • What is the right response?
  • How do we make the right decisions?
  • How do we lead?

The answer is - you play to your strengths.

You concentrate on the things you know you are good at.

You don’t put your weakest team on the field when it’s the most important game of the season – unless you’re the New South Wales State of Origin coach.

In all these endeavours – whether it’s sport, business or government – you put your best foot forward.

And you put your best team forward.

You don’t say to your opening batsman ‘sorry everyone else is hopeless, you’re going to have to do all of the work’.

You rely on the team and you play to your collective strengths.

This is what we must do as a nation – play to our collective strengths and play as a team.

If we want to use the next decade to position ourselves for the next 30 years of growth and prosperity then we have to think about the following things, which I’m going to talk about today:

  • places
  • potential, and
  • the policy settings that bring out the best in people, places and industry.

I’m focusing on these things because the future will belong to the planners.

It will belong to the people who seized the opportunity of this crisis and took a set of options, whether that’s in:

  • their local community
  • their family
  • their business, or
  • across the entire nation.

It’s now time to move beyond the language of recovery to the language of opportunity and potential.

We won’t be the same after this crisis and we shouldn’t aspire to be.

Returning to pre-COVID Australia should not be our aspiration – our communities, our nation deserve more than this.

  • We shouldn’t aspire to low economic growth
  • We shouldn’t aspire to low wages growth and low productivity growth
  • We shouldn’t aspire to historically low rates of business investment - the driver of wages growth and innovation
  • We shouldn’t aspire to some of the highest energy costs in the world
  • We shouldn’t aspire to the failings in our education system that saw us lagging behind the rest of the world in basic maths, science and literacy skills, and
  • We shouldn’t aspire to our continued inability to close the gap for Indigenous Australians despite good will and good intentions.

These were the conditions before COVID – albeit with a stronger economy and a much better budget than anyone else.

We can do better.

We are obliged to do better.

Now that the recovery is well and truly in hand because of:

  • the way we’ve managed the crisis
  • the way the community has pulled together, and
  • the resilience of business.

We should aspire for nothing less than greatness.

So, let me start with places.

It’s important we not only unleash the potential of our people - but also our places.

I believe for too long we’ve approached development as a pattern of projects, rather than looking at the opportunity of places.

We have a chance now to rethink the way we plan.

We can start to prioritise around key places, paying attention to the places that will make the greatest economic contribution to their regions, their states or territories and the whole country.

Let’s start thinking about what makes great places, how we plan and prioritise infrastructure, create jobs and provide services.

We have to think about places as a whole, not just a couple of projects.

We have to think – what is it going to take to make this place the best it can be?

What will it take to help it realise its potential?

It’s a myriad of things and a long-term proposition.

As I travel around the country, I hear too much about how a particular project will save a place.

It might be an important project – but it won’t be the only thing you need.

So, the first point I want to make is that a lot of things really need to come together to really get places cracking.

Here on the Sunshine Coast, you already are a tourist mecca.

With the borders reopening and flights restarting – including Qantas now flying direct from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast for the first time in three years - you have the chance to turbocharge your tourism industry.

My question to you is whether you have the right infrastructure and facilities – and not just in key places like Noosa - to make the most of it?

Do you have the underpinnings in place to make this a game-changer for the national economy?

We are a long way away from the return of international tourists but with Australians unable to go overseas, you are an extremely attractive destination.

So, what are you plans to make this an even greater tourist destination – I would love to hear them.

But you have so much more to offer.

It’s critical to be more than a one-dimensional economy.

Here on the Sunshine Coast you are ideally placed to leverage your strengths to attract major private sector investment and activity.

You have nearby gateway infrastructure

You have the capacity to attract more investment and build successful industries

You have a university and TAFE that can work together to drive the new skills agenda.

You have a health service that can support an expanding population.

You have the capacity to increase the supply of housing and industrial land, and can I also add an enviable lifestyle.

And, you have an appetite for more people to take pressure and congestion off the major cities and in doing so create economic activity.

To really move forward across the nation, we need 30-year infrastructure plans.

We need to apply government balance sheets to fast tracking big and small infrastructure projects.

We need to start looking at the value of these projects through a dual lens.

They not only create thousands of jobs, but they change the nature of the economy, especially outside our major capital cities.

Infrastructure can transform a place.

It can unlock growth by paving the way for us to be more competitive and productive.

Whether it is a major road or rail project, a port or airport facility, improving infrastructure means we can more effectively get our goods and services around the country.

We can also then move them into incredibly lucrative export markets.

Getting infrastructure right enables people to come together to share resources, create and innovate.

We know that commuters are spending longer travelling than they were fifteen years ago.

That’s time they’re not spending with their families.

That's time they’re not at work because of traffic delays.

To really unleash the potential of places, we really need to get infrastructure working for us.

We suggest an initial step would be having the Commonwealth and states agree on the extent and sequencing of national public infrastructure projects.

We could also start talking about a strategic pipeline which is developed from the ground up from a community level that can deliver what a place needs to really get going.

And we must get better at the system of delivering infrastructure including approvals and contracts so that we can say to people across the country with confidence - we can deliver these things.

We need to take a broader view of infrastructure.

For places to excel, they also need the right digital and telecommunications infrastructure in place.

As we’ve seen during COVID-19, Australia’s transition to a modern, digital economy has been accelerated as we’ve worked, learned, conducted business and shopped online.

Here on the Sunshine Coast, you’ve seized the initiative to future-proof your digital capabilities.

Through the new international submarine cable, you’re getting ahead of your competitors to develop the region as a digital trade hub and make yourselves a really attractive place to do business.

To succeed, places also need services that improve the lives of people such as schools, training facilities, hospitals and community facilities.

To be a magnet, great places must have affordable and readily available housing. We really do need to think more carefully about releasing land for housing.

We must also think about liveability – not just open spaces but also cultural and active recreational activities.

Let’s make our places truly stunning.

But to get the place bit right we need to think about the policy settings that will drive a stronger Australia – no matter where you live. 

If I now turn to skills, this is one of my priority policy areas.

You have to have a skills system that works.

I was on a panel yesterday with the Managing Director of IBM Australia, Katrina Troughton, who said when they are looking to set up in a location they look to see if the skills are there.

It’s clear that having the ability to retrain and upskill has never been more important.

It’s critical to not only help people back into work but also to help them manage technological change.

It’s why we continue to call for a rethink of the post-secondary education and skills system.

We have to remove the cultural and funding bias that treats vocational education and training like a second-class system.

It’s great to see here in your backyard the partnership between:

  • the new Sunshine Coast University Hospital
  • the Sunshine Coast University
  • TAFE Queensland, and
  • Griffith University to establish the Sunshine Coast Health Institute.

This facility, located alongside the hospital, is delivering education programs, clinical training and research for university and TAFE students.

Students can experience hands-on clinical training in state-of-the-art simulation suites, including:

  • exact replicas of the new hospital’s operating suite
  • the intensive care bedroom
  • the birthing suite, and
  • emergency resuscitation bay.

Through a shared facility, people on the Sunshine Coast can get the skills they need in the area’s biggest employing industry.

That’s the type of forward planning and coordination we need and we need this across the country.

Skills is fundamentally about the potential of people not just curriculum and courses.

Next, if I think about other policies that are crucial – my second priority is industry policy which is central to our ability to play to our strengths.

That is about unleashing the potential of whole sectors across the country.

The challenge we face is getting this conversation unlocked from its historical stranglehold of picking winners.

We can go around and around in circles having an argument about this but the reality is that there are a couple of things we do have to focus on.

Let’s take the lessons from other countries that do this well and focus our efforts, whether it be expenditure or policy, where we can:

  • accelerate investment
  • incentivise, and
  • drive creative collaboration between universities and businesses.

We can’t choose one thousand things – we really do have to narrow it down to about ten.

And we have to be focused enough to say – if these are the ten things that the country is the best at or can be the best at – we can’t put roadblocks in the way of getting even better at them.

Then we need to get the policy settings right to encourage the investment, collaboration and incentives I am talking about.

This will drive commercialisation.

We will need to take stock and decide what the competitive reality of focusing on our areas of strength and comparative advantages really means.

This starts by concentrating on the areas where we already beat the rest of the world – things like mining, oil and gas, and agriculture.

When people call these areas ‘the old economy’, I get really annoyed.

Resources and agriculture are still at the frontline of our competitive advantage.

They are no longer the industries they once were and are continually adapting as technology, circumstances and markets change.

Our resources giants have evolved into manufacturing and technology companies.

Resource management is a capability that powers up many companies across many industries.

BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue are among the lowest cost iron ore producers in the world.

And here on the Sunshine Coast you know all about how agriculture is innovating to get premium value-added products into lucrative markets.

This sector is readily adopting advances in technology.

Farming communities are constantly finding new ways of doing things better.

Playing to our strengths means evolving our existing industries as well as developing new ones.

Together this will drive our recovery, set us up for the future and create new and highly skilled jobs.

We should start to think about ourselves in terms of our potential growth in the South-East Asian region in advanced manufacturing.

What do I mean by that?

This involves new techniques and new technologies in areas such as additive manufacturing, advanced food manufacturing, and making components that are central to global supply chains.

If you think about satellites, defence, autonomous and renewable energy projects all of them are going to require specialist componentry.

All of these things are going to have highly specialised parts and specialised capabilities.

And advanced food manufacturing means we can do so much more than export raw produce – we can value add and use the manufacturing methodology to get it to scale.

If I’m a specialist manufacturer, where would I want to be?

I would want to be near an international airport, a very high-quality set of education institutions, a terrific lifestyle – and I would want a streamlined approach to getting my plant and equipment established.

Ahead of this year’s October budget, the federal government announced a targeted strategy to usher in a new era of Australian manufacturing by making it easier for business to:

  • commercialise ideas into high-value products
  • compete for lucrative overseas markets
  • create new highly skilled jobs, and
  • grow to scale.

Through its $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative, the government plans to leverage co-investment across six priority areas where Australia has a competitive advantage.

These areas are:

  • resources technology and critical minerals processing
  • food and beverage
  • medical products
  • recycling and clean energy
  • defence, and

Australia is in the right part of the world with the right products and services at the right time but our economy won’t become stronger by doing nothing.

The way we ensure we get the most out of our industry policy is through a place and precinct level.

It’s where you have the opportunity to scale up.

It’s where industry truly partners with government and academia.

If we really want to do this properly, we need to collaborate with universities.

We need our skills system to line up with our industry policy because we need the density of skills to make it attractive for companies to scale up.

And we need to get research working with industry to identify the areas where we can build a world-leading advantage such as quantum computing.

As a country we’ve been slow to this – but it’s great to see industry, government and academia now working on ways to improve collaboration.

We’ve set up a Business Council working group to feed into Education Minister Dan Tehan’s expert panel on accelerating university research translation.

Through this cooperative process, we’re working together to help solve the problems that stand in the way of commercialising the nation’s research and know how so it better enriches all our lives.

Now I’d like to turn to the not so secret key ingredient that determines your ability to play to your strengths – and that’s investment.

This is my final policy area today. There are many others but I chose skills, industry policy and investment because they are the most important at a place level.

If it’s not attractive to invest in Australia, then it’s not attractive to invest in Queensland or the Sunshine Coast.

We need to make it easier to do business here and that starts with having the right environment.

It’s crucial we focus on getting companies to invest.

It was great to see in the federal budget the announcement of an investment allowance and I really hope you are going to take advantage of it.

Now is the time to think about your plant and equipment, what can you bring forward?

And what upgrades can you make to your digital systems?

But over time we cannot continue to linger on with an uncompetitive company tax system.

The idea that we can turbocharge our economy with one of the highest company tax rates in the world is unrealistic.

We need to aspire to be better than this.

Next, we need to remove the handbrakes on business.

I'm sure you could all tell me your horror stories about red tape and regulation.

No one's saying regulation in and of itself is bad, but bad regulation is bad for business.

Small business is crippled by it.

You as a community have got to push back at the excessive regulation that our society finds itself in.

Now is also not the time to re-regulate the economy.

Unnecessary regulation was one of the first things to be jettisoned during the pandemic in areas such as delivery curfews for supermarkets.

Let’s not be tempted to bring needless red tape back.

And we need to maintain Australia as an open trading economy.

We need to welcome trade and foreign investment.

Make no mistake - a closed Australia is a smaller Australia, a poorer Australia.

So, I ask you to think about every decision you make, every idea you have, whether this will trigger somebody to put a dollar of their money at risk – because that’s what investment is all about.

In conclusion, I want to return to why I spoke about places first.

It’s because places are where people live, where they relate, and where communities are formed.

I follow the world view of former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – that the big divide in our society isn’t between rich and poor, it’s between local and global orientation.

It is the inability of the so-called elites to understand the importance of place.

Places are where people bring their kids up, go to work and it’s where their identity is forged.

In Australia, places are hugely important, particularly in your state.

But sadly, we’ve often let our places down, especially in regional Australia.

As we plan for the future, now is the time to have a vision for our places.

We spend too much time quibbling over what not to do – as opposed to what we can do.

If we want to be the best place on the planet and play to our strengths and back ourselves in then we have to make sure:

  • we do not leave people behind
  • we do not leave places behind, and
  • we do not leave whole groups of people behind.

Because I think this is the big defining force of our modern age – there are many people who feel they have been left behind by systems.

There are many people who feel their place – or their place in the world – doesn’t matter.

People talk about COVID as the biggest event in over one hundred years – and it’s certainly up there.

But we can do this. We can rise to the challenge.

Think about the huge events of the last 100 years and how we have overcome often huge adversities.

Think about how we set up our prosperity after the war with projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Think about the decisions we took in the 80s and 90s that set us up to have one of the highest living standards on the planet.

And now – this is the time to harness the:

  • ingenuity
  • the character
  • the courage
  • the imagination, and
  • the team spirit that we have found in times of adversity and in times of opportunity.

We have to do nothing less than remember the country has been built by places like yours and people like you.

Thank you.