By Jennifer Westacott
Chief Executive, Business Council of Australia
This time of year can be joyous, but for many families it is also stressful and reinforces how stark the contrast is between the haves and the have-nots.
I know. For my family it was often a difficult time as Mum and Dad struggled to put a special meal on the table and buy Christmas presents they couldn’t afford.
By world standards, Australia is a prosperous country with boundless opportunity, a stable society and clever people who can do anything if given the chance.
We shouldn’t accept a situation where year after year it’s often the same families who miss out.
With an uncertain world economy and challenges of our own, it’s time for Australia to reflect on what it means to be prosperous, how we shore up and share our prosperity better and how we tackle disadvantage within our communities.
Recently I was asked by the Brotherhood of St Laurence to deliver its annual oration. I reflected on the nature of true wealth and how we can preserve and improve our way of life.
Having grown up in a family that often relied on social security, I do not come from the usual background for someone in a business leadership role. To me, true wealth is not measured by GDP per capita but by stories of opportunity like mine.
When businesses talk about economic growth it’s usually interpreted as self-serving. But I have not met a business leader who isn’t focused on a broad concept of community enrichment, as opposed to getting rich.
A wealthy country is one that can afford to provide quality health care and education for all, infrastructure that allows our communities to function smoothly, safeguards to protect our natural environment – the kinds of things that give Australians a good quality of life.
For them, like me, true wealth is not measured by the wealth of the richest people. It is measured by a sense of confidence and wellbeing in the community overall – confidence that is generated by both economic and social prosperity.
I said in my speech that the wealth that matters for Australia in the future is wealth that benefits the community as a whole. But we won’t have that wealth unless it can be generated by successful businesses, large and small.
That means accepting and embracing that we live in a competitive world.
And it means shedding any complacency that we will be able to afford the health care, education and infrastructure I’m referring to unless we keep our economy strong and resilient. For that to happen, we must have the courage to have tough conversations about what needs to change in Australia with our policies, institutions and attitudes.
One of those conversations is about the adequacy and affordability of our social security system. People cannot live on $35 a day. Entrenching them in poverty is not a pathway back into employment.
But if we are to afford lifting social security payments for those who need them, we must look at where payments are being made where they shouldn’t be.
We must have similarly tough conversations on issues such as whether our workplaces and taxes are competitive enough, how we are going to pay for our ageing population’s services and whether we are properly planning for the growing population we need in coming decades.
These are conversations we must all take part in – business, government, community organisations and individual Australians – because creating true wealth is a shared responsibility that has a shared benefit.
Australians are up for the challenge because, along with us in the business community, they are looking for a plan for the future, a plan that supports true wealth and ensures that every Australian has the chance to be part of it.