Outbreak of peace in Canberra is a massive opportunity

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in the Australian Financial Review on Wednesday 24 September 2019 

After more than a decade of bruising, and at times venomous, politics, a welcome sense of calm has descended on the national capital.

There’s now a bipartisan approach to civility and certainty, and relationships have been reset. This return to normal means business and the two major parties can work constructively to strengthen the foundations that Australia relies on to get ahead and lock in our future prosperity.

The phoney war on private enterprise has been replaced with the recognition that vibrant and growing businesses doing the right thing are the lynchpin of a stronger Australia, generating jobs and opportunities from Bathurst to Busselton.

We need to collectively take advantage of this climate to fulfil the aspirations and ambitions of all Australians by delivering the right environment for businesses to invest, drive improved productivity and to thrive.

We witnessed this return to normal last week when the Business Council of Australia held its annual political forum in Canberra, attended by about 80 chief executives, managing directors, chairmen and business leaders.

Under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the government has purpose and a clear direction. It is committed to reviving productivity, reducing red tape and unnecessary regulation, driving a stronger economy, expanding avenues for trade, and improving the skills and training system.

And, no one should underestimate the importance of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg returning the budget to balance. This isn’t a bookkeeping exercise. It restores confidence in the stewardship of the nation’s finances and will make the country stronger. A budget in endless deficit shows we cannot live within our means and there is no capacity to respond to unexpected shocks.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has been quick to understand Australians, as he says, are “suffering conflict fatigue’’. Under his leadership, the Opposition is reflecting his long-standing recognition of the importance of business. An opportunity exists to work with Labor on national priorities.

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ben Morton made clear that while the Coalition understands the importance of business to the economy and creating jobs, the government doesn’t represent corporate Australia – they represent hardworking middle and aspirational Australians.

Business doesn’t expect a side of politics to represent us; we’re only interested in good policies, not politics.

The reality is that the Australians that Ben Morton talks about are exactly the same Australians that business represents. This includes the 11 million Australians who work in a business, the millions of mum and dad shareholders, the customers, the small and family business suppliers and the communities we operate in.

Business is interested in pursuing a sensible agenda of bite-sized and achievable reforms that will improve our productivity and grow the economy. Again, as Ben Morton says, this is because “what is good for business is good for all Australians’’.

We believe companies have licence to talk about social issues – after all, they do so in the interests of the Australians they represent– but there does need to be a balance.

Corporate Australia needs to be louder on economic issues, and we need to megaphone our virtues: creating jobs, growing businesses, innovating, exporting, and paying the tax revenue that contributes to the services the community needs. An economy cannot grow faster without strong businesses, and a growing economy has more to share with all Australians.

With the partnership between business and both political parties now reset to normal, we need to come together to focus and put in place the right environment to allow business to continue doing the heavy lifting on the economy.

Well-regulated markets allow businesses to thrive and their biggest virtue is overwhelmingly as a force for good, acting in the interests of the community.

Strong and growing businesses drive investment, higher productivity, innovation and wages growth.

Australia is currently caught between a current of optimism derived from our long-standing continuous economic growth and a deep undercurrent of concern being fuelled by unpredictable global events.

We need to build on our positives and play to our strengths, and this means sending the right signals.

The dialling down of the combativeness in Canberra and the collective leadership on display last week from both major political parties are welcome signals.

The clawing of the budget out of deficit is enormously important, along with the balance of strengthening our enduring alliance with the United States and preserving our economic and trade relationship with China.

Let’s seize the opportunities afforded to us by the current political climate in Australia, but let’s not lose a day or our sense of urgency as the global environment around us becomes increasingly tougher.

To forge ahead and optimise the strengths of Australia’s people, capabilities and places, the challenge for all of us is to reinvigorate the non-mining private sector economy.

It is a task the Business Council is up for and a task we want to achieve working in partnership with the government and the Opposition. After all, what is at stake is not the interests of the business community, but ensuring the jobs and continued growth in the living standards, opportunities and wages of all Australians.