Strong Australia Wagga Wagga panel interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

Event: Strong Australia Wagga Wagga panel interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

Speakers: Kieran Gilbert, Sky News; Jennifer Westacott, Business Council of Australia; Robert Spurway, GrainCorp; Michael Keys, City of Wagga Wagga

Topics: Regional economic recovery; BCA budget submission; Australia-China relations

E&OE

Kieran Gilbert, chief news anchor Sky News: The Business Council of Australia continued its Strong Australia series today. This time the spotlight on the city of Wagga. How are regional cities like Wagga boosting investment, employment and growth in the wake of the pandemic? Earlier I caught up with Jennifer Westacott the chief executive of the Business Council, Robert Spurway, managing director and chief executive at GrainCorp, and Michael Keys the director of regional activation at the City of Wagga. Jennifer, Robert, Michael, thanks so much. Jennifer Westacott first to you, the Strong Australia series from the Business Council continued today. A focus on Wagga and the region. Give our viewers a sense of what the Business Council of Australia wants in terms of your budget submission as it relates to cities and regions like Wagga?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Well obviously we've got to get jobs back in the country. A million people are out of work and that's about a number of things. Obviously opening the country up gradually, carefully. But most importantly, getting investment going again, getting serious investment in infrastructure, making it easier to do business. And we have called for a big focus on the regions. Regions like Wagga Wagga where we heard today from the community so many opportunities in skills, in health, in agribusiness. And if we can really harness that across the country, we'll actually get those jobs back. We'll get the country moving again. And one of those big things Kieran as we heard today is a focus on digital. So our budget submission calls for a fast-tracking of the digital economy. Particularly for the small and medium enterprise sector.

Kieran: Robert Spurway, speaking of agribusiness, what's your focus at GrainCorp in terms of what you'd like to see from the federal government a month or so away from this delayed budget? But it comes at a pivotal time amid a once in a century pandemic.

Robert Spurway, managing director GrainCorp: Well continued investment and infrastructure is good for agribusiness and agriculture generally. Agriculture is going to be a big part of the economic recovery in Australia. And as part of that, we've got one of the best harvests coming up in years. More than double the area planted in New South Wales this year versus last year. So a real opportunity to make the most of that harvest. And as part of that we need to move agricultural labour and equipment around Australia. We need freedom of borders open to do that as we get ready for this next harvest.

Kieran: Yep well that's good news that it's going to be a good harvest. Good news indeed. Michael Keys with us as well from the City of Wagga. Michael, when you look at the future for that region, for your city and region, it's not just about agribusiness though is it? You're talking about a world-class health and knowledge precinct for example as well with a number of university campuses in that part of the world?

Michael Keys, director of regional activation City of Wagga: Absolutely. We've got a very diverse economy that has carried us through the difficult times that we've had. But it will also be looking to build on that into the future. And whilst agriculture is a very big and important aspect of our region, certainly health and knowledge, education, research and building collaborative partnerships with our universities as well as defence, government admin, and freight and logistics. So freight and logistics are going to be a big part of the future as well for the region.

Kieran: Michael Keys, we've seen such a change during the pandemic in terms of work, workforce, people working remotely and so on. Is there an opportunity for a place like Wagga to capitalise on that?

Michael: Well certainly we're seeing a lot more interest and the challenge that COVID has presented to businesses, just thinking outside the square, to take some of those barriers that would have been sitting there otherwise and to knock them down so they can be competitive and they can continue to compete. But that's also denied those new opportunities to work remotely so people, in particular highly valued staff, can enjoy the lifestyle opportunities that regional cities offer without all the costs and impacts on their lifestyle that come with living in metro areas. So we think it's a fantastic opportunity to explore further. 

Kieran: Robert Spurway, how does it relate to an organisation like yours? That sort of remote workforce? 

Robert: GrainCorp is all about partnering with growers. Growers and ag businesses by nature are based out in regional Australia. We moved a number of people from our Sydney office out to Wagga Wagga and indeed Tamworth. Those regional centres support the whole of our operations across east coast Australia. Having those people living and working in the same communities where we're working with growers just improves the connection, the understanding of what's important to our key customers.

Kieran: We've seen many things change Jennifer Westacott. What would you like to see change for good? I mean the pandemic has been a terrible experience for this nation, for the world, but there'll be changes in terms of workforce, in terms of operations, that I think probably won't go back, will they?

Jennifer: Well I think some of them won't go back. And look if you say what's the positive sign of that? I think we've learned to work flexibly. I think many companies have completely transformed the way they're working. And we've stayed connected. People have adopted these new technologies. And that's allowed people to do a lot more looking after their kids at home, a lot more flexibility in their personal life. And we know, in terms of women's participation in the labour market, which is a huge contribution to productivity and economic growth, that's going to be easier if we're a more flexible workplace. And so I think some of that will stay. I think, hopefully, I'm hoping hygiene will stay. Because I think we've also seen things like the flu go dramatically down and hopefully we'll all stay really conscious about that hygiene role. Some of the things that I think are not so good in the long-term Kieran, is I don't think it's good to have empty CBDs. Empty CBDs are dangerous CBDs. Empty CBDs where the supply chain, if you will, the coffee shops, the people who make the stuff for the coffee shop, the people who make the muffins and cakes, those people don't have customers at the moment and they would be doing it very, very, very tough. And I think fundamentally we're also social beings. We collaborate, we engage with one another. I'm not sure we'll stay at home. I hope we don't. I'm not sure that will be a good thing into the long-term.

Kieran: Now you look at Wagga as an important part of the supply chain Jennifer Westacott. In eastern Australia, it's an important agribusiness town. And more broadly, how important is it that the state borders reopen? Not just for Wagga, but for the nation?

Jennifer: Well I think it's hugely important for the nation. And we saw a real ray of hope on Friday at national cabinet with a plan to get them open around Christmas. And we've got to stick to that plan because they're arbitrary. The better strategy is the local containment strategy which we're seeing in New South Wales, really effective, very, very tough local containment, very effective tracking, tracing, and isolation. And of course we're seeing in New South Wales the benefit of that. 314,000 jobs back that were lost in the first lockdowns. It's really important. But if we want to get the country going again, our airlines, our tourism, our services sector which is 70 per cent of the economy, we have to carefully open these borders up again.

Kieran: Robert, for your organisation, how do you reflect on the need to open back up?

Robert: Critically important, not just to GrainCorp but to the whole of the ag sector. Cropping is a big part of the Australian agriculture industry. That harvest gets underway over the next number of weeks. And moving people and equipment around that is going to be critically important. GrainCorp alone is currently recruiting for 3,000 harvest casuals. We've had applications from over 4,700 people. That employment is going to be critically important to many regions across Australia. And doing that efficiently and moving people to the areas that they need to be for the harvest is really important to not just our business but the whole sector.

Kieran: Michael Keys, how do you reflect on that from your perspective? But also if you could go more broadly and tell us about how local organisations and communities have adapted in the face of this very unusual time, in the face of the pandemic? Although it hasn't affected Wagga thankfully to a great deal in the health sense.

Michael: We've been very fortunate in that our local community hasn't been drastically impacted with the COVID restrictions. But it's challenged businesses in the way that they undertake their work, deliver their goods, and provide their services. And I think it's been a positive in the way that they've responded. We've seen some fantastic results and some really strong support from our local community for local business. I think they're the real big positives that have come out of the crisis. We've seen business change the way they operate and adopt new practises which they're going to continue with. It's opened up new markets but also reinforced their business models. And we've seen others work together more collaboratively. Particularly that local community support has been a great outcome. I would reiterate Robert's comments though, across the region that ability for staff or manpower to provide support for the harvest. And that's across all industries including viticulture and the like. They are very strong sectors in the Riverina. They're going to be some key challenges in the coming months.

Kieran: Michael Keys, you've spoken about some of the possibilities for the City of Wagga. Where do you see the city and the region in 30 years from now?

Michael: We've got a target of a regional population of 100,000 that we're certainly aspirational for and working towards. To do that we've got to continue to provide new employment, new investment opportunities. We're working very closely with the different levels of government. And I think a whole of government approach as well as private sector partnerships is going to be critical and important to lift us out of where we are and to create those new opportunities to build the potential. And that includes inland rail, our freight and logistics hubs, a key partner there with Visy Logistics, as well as our health and knowledge precinct, and those relationships with universities, and TAFE, training and education, and research.

Kieran: Jennifer Westacott, as we await the budget, there's going to be a big focus we know in terms of trying to prompt and promote private sector investment. When it comes to the public sector though, commonwealth and state, how important is it that their spend, their infrastructure focus is coordinated? Particularly in a region like the one we're talking about around Wagga.

Jennifer: It's hugely important Kieran. If you can get the commonwealth, state, local government spend working together, you start to get that scale that Michael is talking about. And that gives you not just national standing but international standing. And suddenly you become an attractive destination for a global company to maybe put its data analytics centre or something in a city like Wagga. And then if you combine that with private sector investment, which is why we're calling for this 20 per cent investment allowance, which would power up investment. People putting on plant, machinery, equipment, digitising their businesses, training their staff, that allows them to compete more readily on those international markets. You get all those things working together and you start to get real momentum. Which is why in our budget submission we say you've got to focus on regions. You can't focus on every region. You've got to pick particular regions which have got the sort of ingredients that the city of Wagga has got. And really power them up. Because that will power the country up as well.

Kieran: One of the other things that we should touch on before we wrap us is the challenges with China affecting various sectors but also two journalists returned to Australia today. From your perspective Robert Spurway, we saw beef, wine and then barley impacted. Are you concerned about where things are between Australia and China in the trade sense?

Robert: Look what's important is an enduring relationship. Agribusiness and food generally, it's a great time to be a farmer, a great time to be in food because people always need to eat. There's good demand around the world. China's a big part of that. So our Chinese customers need our supply, we need them, making sure we're working together to achieve that is so critically important over the long term.

Kieran: Jennifer Westacott, your thoughts? Obviously, a concern to see this new low with the two last Australian correspondents back on Australian soil.

Jennifer: Look these are very serious developments today. But as Robert says we've got a strong trading relationship; we've got products that people want to buy. We've got some of the best agri-products in the world. People want to buy them. Businesses continue to trade together. The trade relationship remains strong. Governments, of course, have got to act in our national interest. They've got to protect our sovereignty and security. And they've got to get that balance right. But I do believe that we've got mutually dependent economies. We've got to make sure that we run that balancing job that I think governments of all political persuasions for long periods of time have done very well. We've got to remember we're not the only country in the world that's having a challenging relationship with China. We've got to try and stay the course. And we've got to keep those business-to-business relationships as strong as they can possibly be.

Kieran: Jennifer Westacott, Robert Spurway and Michael Keys, appreciate it. Thanks so much.