Transcript: Business Council evidence to Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements

31 July 2020

Event          Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements

Speaker      Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council; Lisa Paul, co-ordinator of BizRebuild    

Date            31 July 2020

Topics        Bushfire recovery; BizRebuild

Read the written submission to The Royal Commission here.


***Check against official record***

Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC (Retd), Chair, Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements: Ms Westacott, Ms Paul, thanks for joining us this morning, appreciate it.

Dominique Hogan-Doran SC, Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements: The witnesses will both affirm.

Clerk: Miss Westacott, do you solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm the evidence you shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia: I do.

Clerk: Thank you. Ms Paul, do you solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that the evidence you shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Lisa Paul, co-ordinator BizRebuild: I do.

Dominique: Good morning. The Business Council of Australia has launched a number of initiatives to support relief and recovery efforts since the 2019/2020 bushfires. Our time this morning is limited, and I wanted to indicate that I want to focus on the financial assistance and in-kind support. First with you, Ms Westacott. And then the rebuilding initiative with you, Ms Paul. Finally, if we have time I'll ask you to comment on the measures to develop an app to support in-kind initiatives. I'd like first, though, to start with your personal reflections. You both have deep personal experience involving senior leadership positions and roles in the public sector in Australia, before taking on these roles with the Business Council of Australia. What do you consider are the key challenges in the public and private sectors working together in recovering from natural disasters? And how can those challenges be overcome? Now that's a question without notice, and I might go to you first, Ms Westacott.

Jennifer: Certainly, thank you counsel. Look, I think as we've said in our submission, in both our first submission and in our supplementary submission. I think the principal challenge is coordination. And so one suggestion going forward is that, given that we have established BizRebuild as a structure, with a unique DRG status, that should be a body that government can work with in a permanent way. And we've also suggested that a permanent recovery agency be established so that it can respond quickly, and that becomes a predictable source of coordination for both the business community and obviously for the communities impacted by any disaster. And on top of that, there were capacity to put a BizRebuild in the architecture of recovery. We believe that would be a better way for galvanising the business community, coordinating their efforts more substantially, and allowing people to mobilise more quickly. The second challenge was of course complexity and information. And I think if there were a better architecture linking both the business entity and government entities, and the non-government entities, then we would be able to work more effectively together to get information to people impacted, and to make sure that people were getting that timely assistance.

Dominique Hogan-Doran SC: Ms Paul, I might go to you. Why is coordination so hard in Australia?

Lisa: There are many, many players, that's part of it. I think the thing that's really, and having been involved, as you say, for many, many years myself variously, I think the thing that's really touched me about BizRebuild and this initiative of the BCA's is that it's underlined the importance of helping small businesses recover, and the vital role that small businesses play inside communities. And it's something that Sir Peter Cosgrove, the chair of the initiative, said when he talks about small businesses being the glue in communities and I've really seen that. And so I just would back in what Ms Westacott is saying by way of BizRebuild and the corporate centre and business communities becoming part of the national natural disaster response and recover architecture.

Dominique: And you've both spoken about architecture, and I sense in that sense you're speaking of the need for a permanent arrangement, rather than after each disaster there needing to set up and scramble together and pool the goodwill of the different agencies and members of the community together, and the business community together. But facing issues that continue to re-emerge each time, and we seem to be seeking to need to learn afresh. Is that the key advantage of having an established architecture?

Jennifer: I think that's right, counsel. And yes, one thing that I think we've learned is that there are some predictable things that could be done, that if we had a permanent capacity to do them, you can ramp them up and ramp them down depending on demand, but you're not having to create the very architecture itself. So the first thing would be obviously a permanent recovery entity, working with a permanent entity coordinating business and then obviously the non-government sector as I've said. But in addition to that, in our two submissions, as we've said, what we've learnt from our work on the ground that Ms Paul has led, has been that people need cash assistance. So JobKeeper, which I have described in my BCA role as a nation-saving initiative, was absolutely essential. So we call for something like JobKeeper, a wage subsidy, coming into place very quickly in the advent of a disaster. Because what we know is two things. People either are directly impacted by a disaster. But in the case of many small businesses, they're indirectly but similarly quite critically impacted by a loss of demand, a loss of customers, a loss of business. So some of those permanent things, counsel, that we could just ramp into action, rather than having to design them, would give everyone that sense of being able to get business continuity and obviously our focus in BizRebuild is business. And the second would be those $10,000 grants. And then we would be able to swing in the sorts of things we've done, which we can talk about more this morning, our voucher program and so on. And then we're all working together. And the other thing I think we could do in a more structured way is assemble the people from the business community who are wanting to volunteer, and the one thing I'd say, that I was very proud to represent the business community on, was how many people wanted to come in to BizRebuild and get out on the ground, and work with communities and give their advice. Whether it was from a law firm or a bank or an accounting firm. That we could coordinate that, so we had a team of people with business expertise, working with local business people, helping businesses get up and running again. That would be I think a tremendous assistance going forward. But it is those permanent, both architecture and forms of assistance, that I think we should just have a national, permanent capacity to put into place when these disasters happen.

Dominique: Commissioners, I'll just have brought up for you the supplementary submission of the Business Council of Australia, that's BUC 500 00-2 00-26. See that. And if we could go to page 00-40, which is page 14 of the actual submission, this is the first of the two pages of recommendations. And I just want to start with the first one if I may Ms Westacott. Which is about, earlier in the submission it makes the observation that cash is king, particularly for small business and communities affected by natural disaster. And you've mentioned in passing the cash support and grants schemes that BCA has had a role in. And I'll just ask you to speak to the three things that are proposed here, which extend the work of what has been done in the bushfires, takes on some of the developments in the financial assistance packages that have been rolled out during the coronavirus epidemic, sorry withdraw that, the COVID-19 pandemic, and our proposals for the future, I take it, adapting the learning from both of those experiences. And we might just take the first one, which is a disaster wage subsidy scheme, and then move to the others, thank you.

Jennifer: Yes, certainly. What we found when we got onto the ground was that people just didn't have money coming in. I think people often forget that small businesses and sole traders in particular, live on very thin cash margins. They do not have big balance sheets like a major corporation would have. And so the immediate cessation of that cash meant people could not see beyond the next couple weeks. They could not see how they could get back up on their feet. So if there was something like a JobKeeper program, which as I said has been, in my view, a nation-saving initiative, that we knew how it was designed, we knew eligibility, we could quickly swing it into effect in the event of a disaster. And we could design it in a way, like it's been designed, where you've got a lot of revenue. So in the case of JobKeeper, as you know, 30 or 50 per cent loss of revenue. And we think that design parameter is very effective. And then a disaster supplement, such as the coronavirus supplement. Because, again, some people tragically do lose their jobs, because they are not able to be kept on as part of a small business. Or demand simply drops off. And that supplement, on top of what was the traditional Newstart allowance we believe, would allow people to have that cash adequacy and would give them a capacity to not fall into abject poverty. And then a third thing is a low-documentation grant scheme, like the $10,000 grant scheme. But we are deducing, respectfully, that the documentation required for that being as simple as possible, and as easy to access as possible.

Dominique: Could I just ask you two aspects of those last two. The first is, one of the things that we've heard in evidence is that the indirect economic impact of the 2019/2020 bushfires has been, in some respects, more significant than the direct economic impact, particularly because it was at the height of the holiday season, the fire-affected areas were largely tourist areas. And as I understand it, this disaster supplement would capture those effects on workers in small business and in those communities affected in that indirect way. Is that correct?

Jennifer: That's correct. So we have tried wherever we can to make sure that people could keep people working. So we've given you a case study of Beach House Stairs in Batemans Bay, which was about to lay off all of its apprentices because they'd lost their tools. We sought the assistance of Bunnings, and they gave around about $15,000 of tools. That meant they could keep working and they could keep those apprentices in place. However, it is not always the case that people can keep their workers on. And tragically, people then are stood down. And so this supplement would allow people to stay afloat, to not fall into abject poverty. Because in many respects, as you say, it's not that something has been permanently lost, in the sense of the destruction of a building, it's just that there is no demand coming in. And so the question becomes, how do you keep people in an adequate state of income until demand rebounds?

Dominique: The second aspect is this low doc grant scheme. Elsewhere in your submission you make the observation that the vouchers that were being provided by the BCA were effectively… well, I might just get you to speak to describe the way in which that system was administered.

Jennifer: Well I'll start and then hand over to Ms Paul. But I think one of the things that we have learnt is that small is often very effective. So we were giving vouchers for tools, and we were giving cash vouchers for people to get assistance from their local accountants and their local law firms. It's very important that when organisations like some of our big accounting firms come in to assist, that they're not taking the work off those local accounting and law firms, that we're trying to help the whole economy and the community. But we've given around about a million dollars in those vouchers, and I'll get Ms Paul to talk about this. But we basically decided that we would not seek application forms, that we would not pick people through a long process. But of course we're not spending taxpayers' money here. And I do think we have to be respectful that the governments are spending the taxpayer's money, and they're often giving much more substantial grants. And so to some degree they do have to give a level of assurance. But we did take a risk management approach. And we did decide that the most important thing was to get money on the ground as fast as possible. I'll hand over to Ms Paul to talk about how it worked.

Dominique: Thank you.

Lisa: We literally went out into the communities in the field and carrying vouchers with us. And we would sit down with people from council, chambers of commerce, local businesspeople. And basically work out who was in need. Because those local people are there, they know who actually needs a $2,000 voucher to retool, or needs $500 to get some marketing, or digital, or accounting or legal advice from their local providers. And so we just would give them the vouchers. And then the accountability trail came later, after they'd used it. And we actually do get the invoices. It's fully accountable but at the back end. No application forms, no red tape and no delay. There it was, and it was in their hand on the day. And I just would underline the importance of getting cash assistance to businesses, to business owners, immediately. Literally within days of a disaster being declared in a particular area, and it would make an enormous difference to their future. And just to also reiterate, yes the indirect effects were much more profound on businesses than the direct effects in some ways, or at least more widespread. I can't say more profound on an individual basis, obviously. But the number of small businesses that reported to us, they've not been flame-affected, they've not even been smoke-affected, but they've lost their entire summer season, which might represent anywhere between 40 per cent of annual revenue to 90 per cent. We heard that again and again.

Dominique: So, of course, there were, as you say, some that were flame-affected and directly impacted by the fires themselves, and we've got a photograph, commissioners for you, of the town of Mogo and its CBD. BUC 501-001-0006, you have that displayed. And I have a subsequent photograph I'll take us to, Ms Paul, but I might just get you to speak to what the initiative was with the Business Council of Australia. And I think it then has led to other initiatives as a response to the 2019/2020 bushfire season.

Jennifer: Well perhaps if I start, counsel, 25 per cent of businesses were lost in Mogo. And they were very unique businesses that were actually, in the case of Roman Leather Goods, a magnet for tourists to come to Mogo. And so we found that people basically had not just lost a van, they had lost their building. So we approached, and I'll get Ms Paul to talk through the details, we approached the company ATCO, who provide demountable buildings. We then galvanised a lot of local support, including Beach House Stairs, and we basically built a pop-up mall.  And that mall is now operating, people are trading again. And I guess it goes to our central thesis for BizRebuild, that the crucial thing for people, from both an income point of view, but I'll be honest, from a dignity and purpose and sense of hope point of view, they want to get up and running again. And so, Nancy Southern, the global chairman of ATCO, Sir Peter Cosgrove, myself and Lisa, Ms Paul, were able to celebrate the trucks coming into town with those demountables to set up that demountable mall. Land generously given by two local doctors. So it's a great example of some of the things in our recommendations. A personal approach, a face-to-face approach, a highly coordinated approach, but going to the issue. What really mattered for that community was getting their businesses up and running. But I'll hand over to Ms Paul to talk about how we did that.

Dominique: And just while you do that, I'll just have brought up alongside that, if I would, operator, BUC 501-001-0003. I think this is the artist's rendition of the pop-up mall. There we go. Thank you, Ms Paul.

Lisa: The first time we drove into Mogo, which is as you well know by now 10 minutes south of Batemans Bay on Princes Highway, we found Lorena Granados from Roman Leather Goods trading from a little marquee, literally in the gravel on the side of the road. Her site, which was their home and their business, is one of those on the left. We sat down with the local council and the local business owners and the chamber of commerce and said, ‘Would it help you if you could start trading well before your sites get cleared, and you go through your insurances and go through the [inaudible]?’ And it's a beautiful example of the combination of in-kind assistance from BCA members and the use of the tax-deductible trust, the Community Rebuilding Trust. In that, as Ms Westacott said, ATCO donated generously 13 demountables, which are supporting six businesses to trade again. And also the Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council, whose building was totally burnt down as well. So you see in the photo on the right, it's actually much higher up than that, with some lovely stairs built at cost by Beach House Stairs, who we got back into business through those nine toolkits from Bunnings. And the trust fund paid for the branders and the decking and all the rest of it. And those businesses started operating again in March, which is absolutely sensational. And they're still there. So this initiative will last for two years, and basically cover the time in which all those businesses are going through their rebuilding. We're looking at something similar at the moment in Cobargo, and we're looking at a business, something similar for businesses on Kangaroo Island.

Dominique: I might just have brought up, if it's possible, operator, BCA's earlier submission, which is BUC 500-001-0001. And if it is possible to do, can we have 0008, the figure there? I'm showing this in a part to remind us of the impact of a number of towns across Australia, across the south-eastern segment of Australia. You just mentioned Kangaroo Island and Cobargo. And there's obviously a large number of additional towns there. And with the BizRebuild project, you've mentioned the community fund, the community resilience fund that's been established, the trust. Which as I understand it was facilitated by reason of some legislative amendments that were done in about February. Is there an intention to make that a permanent feature, as well as the proposition you've made about architecture more generally?

Jennifer: Yes, it is. And I think we realised there were two things that needed to be done on a permanent basis. First is for us having a fund like this, which has got a unique DRG status, which allows us to assist businesses and provide infrastructure. And secondly, we needed a permanent entity to coordinate for impact. Because business is always magnificent at stepping up. Business donated $70 million, that's just Business Council members. They gave the full leave entitlements, they paid their small suppliers as quickly as they could, almost immediately. They gave extended leave to volunteers. But we needed to coordinate, particularly the recovery effort. And so the intention is to establish a form of, certainly the trust is a permanent feature, and then an organisational arrangement that becomes a permanent feature.

Lisa: To commend the government for creating a DRG1 fund, the community rebuilding trust, for which the charitable object is community rebuilding. And therefore can give donated funds to infrastructure and to small businesses.

Dominique: Commissioners, you'll hear some more evidence in the course of today from the charitable sector. And I think one of your questions is, to what other objects our charities can provide their donations. Now if we could just go to one last matter I wanted to raise. Figure two on the next page, that's 0009. Early on in your work, Ms Paul, there was a round table convened by Sir Peter Cosgrove in Parliament House of local government associations and local councils, and a vast number of other people. And there was a survey undertaken, I understand, after that round table. And what we see here are the survey responses. And what is very significant, I thought, from this, was that the two ... Sorry, I'll start that again. The top two of the top ten was business development and cashflow and cash relief. Which really stand out beyond the other concerns and surveys. And you've addressed this issue of cashflow relief in your response already, Ms Westacott. But the business development aspect, I wonder to what extent that continues to be a concern in a post-COVID, or in a continuing COVID-19 pandemic response environment?

Jennifer: That's definitely correct. In terms of the actual bushfire response, not only did we give vouchers and tool et cetera, we also gave a lot of advice. And that was very important in terms of assisting people to quickly assess their cashflow situation, their business recovery effort. And we held things like turnaround forums, and we had a mental health trauma expert on the team helping people in business just deal with the traumatic circumstance. What I think COVID has done is make that demand recovery, that indirect aspect, much more difficult. I think it's had two very profound effects. Obviously, for quite some time, people could not get that demand back. So you think about something from Batemans Bay, that has a very big catchment in Canberra, people travelling, that has not been able to happen, or certainly not until recently. And that has had a profound effect on businesses in the area of Batemans Bay, just to give one example. So I think this question of business development has not been fixed by us or fixed across the board. And one of the things that Ms Paul and I have been talking about is what we want to start turning our people to now is what I call ramping up strategies. So obviously if we can continue to unlock the economy from COVID-19 restrictions, then helping businesses with their development plans for ramping up for that summer period. As you said earlier, many of these businesses impacted were in tourist locations. And given that we're not bringing international travel, then there's an opportunity for them to really ramp up and have quite a successful Christmas/New Year’s season. And so we're going to start working with businesses on forums, on one-to-one strategies, to assist them to think about, are you properly on Trip Advisor, are you on Wotif? Are you getting your digital stuff right, is your marketing right, and helping them tap into the ongoing and very generous government assistance that's there, that might allow them to do some of that capital expenditure. So the government has done a tremendous amount under COVID-19, such as this instant asset wrote-offs, accelerated depreciation, that would allow businesses to think about, "Well I could actually do some investment on my accommodation, I could do some investment on my truck, on my tools." And try and help them bring it together, so that they can get a strategy for the next three to five months.

Lisa: And please note, counsel, too, that those top two bars are in their own way both about cash.

Dominique: Indeed.

Jennifer: Correct.

Lisa: Cash remains king. This survey was taken in the first week in February and they just wanted to get back to business.

Dominique: And I would perceive cash remains king. That is it continues to be an ongoing even struggle for those fire-affected businesses.

Jennifer: Absolutely. As we know, across the country COVID-19 has been exceptionally dramatic for tourism and hospitality. And for the ancillary businesses that relate to it. I mean, a lot of people I think about tourism just as a hotel, or a restaurant. But what about the service station that expects all those people to be coming in? What about the local store that expects people to be coming in? That's not happening in many of these communities on the scale that they would have needed. And of course, it's important that we get people ready for hopefully an excellent summer, where they can ramp up and utilise what has been a very, very generous government program, around JobKeeper and those things I mentioned around accelerated depreciation. But people need that assistance to work out how to get it and how to apply for it. And they're some of the things that Ms Paul's team will be focused on now.

Lisa: Can I just say also, counsel, that this initiative has brought home to us the impact that small businesses have in their own generosity on the rest of their local communities. So for example, on Kangaroo Island, there was a scholarship program to support the living costs of young people studying tertiary studies in Adelaide. That was sponsored by the local Kangaroo Island small businesses, they could no longer sponsor it. So we matched up Seek, who have now delivered donations into the trust fund to replace what small businesses would have supported. And so you get this, small businesses are the heart of local economies in all sorts of ways, not just their own revenues.

Jennifer: And then just to add to that, counsel, very briefly. Sir Peter and myself were very concerned when we started this, that many people, you don't want people leaving communities because they can't find work, or they can't get their business up and running. And I think it is something that we need to think about as a country, that we don't want to see population losses in these communities. Because it then has this profound and lasting effect. If 25 per cent of people up and go because they can't get things up and running again, that has a profound effect on the local.

Dominique: Just two last things. One is, we heard in earlier hearings from local government, city local councils adopting a rural or a regional local council and providing staff or other support in the recovery effort. And you have in the supplementary submission at page four, the proposal of examining an approach which could involve adopting a community. So a business community might adopt a disaster-affected community. What would be needed to make that happen? Who would need to lead that? It might lead on to the second question I have, which is, to go back to the original question of coordination. Since the fires, we've had the pandemic and the establishment of the National COVID Coordination Commission, which is now becoming an advisory body to national cabinet. How might this proposal of adopting a community, or other kind of measures, help coordinate the response with business?

Jennifer: Look, I think it would help. I think we're very focused on place-based approaches. Because if you take Mogo by a way of example, it wasn't just the pop-up mall that needed to be done. It's rubbish removal, there are piles of things that just have to be done at a place base. But potentially getting businesses through a better coordination mechanism, such as a BizRebuild working with a permanent recovery entity, will allow us to say, "Look, we really want these three companies working." Whether it's a [inaudible], that's been magnificent in doing some of the clearing work, whether it's a major retailer providing goods and services. Just to say, "Look, let's really concentrate in the areas which have been most impacted." So that the community feels that they as a community, as a whole, are making progress. Versus our traditional approach, albeit this is not just in government, of taking programs of things, and saying, "Let's do the clearing program, let's do the rubbish removal program, let's do the start-up program." Let's actually remember that these are connected ecosystems of communities getting a place-based approach, a coordinated approach, and starting to get people to coordinate the impact in those severely affected locations. We're just suggesting it might be worth thinking about as part of ongoing architecture, that I believe and I think Ms Paul believes, having dealt particularly with people in Mogo, that that would have a more significant impact in people feeling that things were getting back on track more quickly.

Lisa: Yeah. It's really important to have capacity for glue inside a community. And that glue might be supporting the local businesses, or it might be getting, as Ms Westacott said earlier, people on the ground, from government or other places, who can sit down with a small business or a family and help them navigate the plethora of assistances that are available. And that is still a call that we hear all the time. So if it's impossible to be as coordinated as we we'd love to see, because there are so many players all trying to do the right thing, then at least let's coordinate on a place basis, with some folk who are committed to a community, and who get known by the folk in that community. We actually, for your interest found, counsel, that some companies did adopt tail. So EY, for example, has done a lot of work in Lakes Entrance in Victoria, and so on. And there would have been more of that had COVID not.

Dominique: I see.

Lisa: In terms of getting councils to adopt councils, it's just a call-out. And we certainly have heard of that being attractive as well. But once again, it needs to be invited by the fire-affected or the disaster-affected community. And I would underline what Ms Westacott said, by adding that it's not just a case of coordinating in place. It's a case of not assuming that what you're hearing from one place can be applied to everywhere.

Dominique: Commissioners?

Commissioner Binskin: No, that was a great summary of the good work that's been done. I'll go to Commissioner Bennett first for a question.

The Honourable Dr Annabelle Bennett AC SC, Commissioner: Thanks, chair. I'm interested in a couple of aspects in particular of the things that you've raised. And it all does make sense, and it follows a lot of evidence that we've heard otherwise. But also to deal with two of the concepts that you've raised. One is the permanence of some sort of coordination mechanism, to deal with that. But also the specific coordination that has taken place and is likely to take place. Just dealing with coordination, you say in your submission, you point out that you developed a very close relationship with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. And I'm assuming that means that there is coordination with them in what you are doing. In that, you know what they are doing and they know what you are doing. That would be right, wouldn't it? Yes, you're nodding. Transcript, note they're nodding. But I'm now looking, you also may have heard the opening, for example, of the enormous amount of money that's been received by the various charities. And I was wondering of the extent ... I know that you're focused on business and that the charities are probably not necessarily focused on business, but they're focused on the people who run the businesses as well. So I was just wondering also whether you would have been coordinating with the various charities that have been playing in this space of some of the towns in particular that you've been in.

Lisa: Yes we have. So, thank you, commissioner. We've certainly coordinated with Red Cross in particular, in some places. And we also were of course present, not in a permanent way, but we visited the recovery centres and so on. So I think there's probably more scope for that. We're a lean startup organisation. But yes, and we have had the privilege of seeing all the coordination mechanisms that the National Bushfire Recovery Agency has auspiced. So there's charity, there's a charities meeting on a fortnightly basis which we attend as a peaks meeting. I think we attend about four of them on a regular basis. And that started with the prime minister in January.

Commissioner Bennett: Are there similar coordinating mechanisms in many of the local councils that you've dealt with where you've been able to coordinate with, for example, charities or local, not just the big charities, but perhaps more local charities, at the local government and community level?

Lisa: Our main coordination at community level has been with both the councils and their chambers of commerce in the area. Because we've been trying to focus on small businesses, and indeed the Community Rebuilding Trust commissioner has actually funded some project officers to help coordinate local chambers of commerce and local businesses. So we usually sit down with all community, that will of course include charities. We've often run into Minderoo for example as we've been doing our rounds, or Red Cross. But mainly it's been chambers of commerce, in other words, the local small businesspeople themselves, and council.

Jennifer: One good example, commissioner though, that Ms Paul can talk about, which is the Cudgewa Community Hall, where you're working with the local Jewish community.

Lisa: Yeah, that's true. So Cudgewa Community Hall near the border of New South Wales, just in Victoria there. They're quite affected by fire, the community. And the Victorian Jewish Community Cultural Fund is funding the work we're leading with them on replacing and updating that community hall. The hall was used... we've found across our work, commissioner, that community halls were places of refuge, but were often not safe.

Commissioner Bennett: Yes, we know.

Lisa: And they were built a long time ago. So we're actually working on about five or six.

Commissioner Bennett: Thank you. So that leads me nicely into the next question, which is, if you talked about the importance of keeping these arrangements in place, has the Business Council actually made a decision to keep this planning system in place? Bearing in mind recovery is not a six-month or one-year process necessarily. And while we hope there are not future disasters, that hope may not necessarily be well-founded. So is this now going to be a permanent feature of the Business Council of Australia?

Jennifer: Yes. And the community when we set this up we set it up as a five-year initiative. But the intent was always to make it a permanent feature in whatever form was going to work on a permanent basis, on an ongoing basis. So yes.

Commissioner Bennett: Thank you, that's very helpful as well. The question was asked initially by Ms Hogan-Doran about why is coordination so hard in Australia? Both of you have unbelievable insights that could help answer that question. And probably we don't have the time now to go into that in detail. But in terms of overcoming the difficulties in coordination, you have raised a couple of matters, it seems to me. You've raised the concept of a permanent standing disaster recovery agency. Do you see that as being in effect the body that could coordinate? To two things now I'm going to come to. One, coordinate people like yourselves and the charities, or provide a facility for coordinating yourselves and the charities and the local governments and all of the other players in the space, charities large and small?

Jennifer: Correct. And I think part of the challenge of course coordination is, it is complex. And there are many urgent things that have to be done that are about saving people's lives, and saving assets, saving wildlife. And of course, there needs to be very quick recovery that has to be done to actually get people's livelihoods back on track. And so I don't think any of us, and Ms Paul and I have got a lot of experience in the public sector, I don't want you to underestimate how complex this is. But having a permanent body that I guess puts on autopilot the way we do things. Now, to Ms Paul's point, you can't impose solutions on communities, you've got to work with communities, and I'm very proud that our initiatives have been community-led. But having, I guess, a menu of things that we know we have to do. We have to get cash assistance to people. We have to get some kind of grant to people so they can get back up and running again. We have to give advice to people. If we can sort of develop that menu, and then of course you mix it based on the needs of the community, we believe that will be tremendously helpful. And having those single points of contact that people know where to go. And then finally, commissioner, I think this place-based approach that we're recommending is essential because if you're in the position of say the people we met in Mogo, it's very difficult if you've got multiple agencies. Whereas if you've got a sense that that's the group of agencies and businesses working in Mogo, and there's a single point of contact for people. It just makes it easier for people who are very traumatised to navigate.

Lisa: I'd say, commissioner, just to underline what Ms Westacott is saying, you need the coordination at the national or state, the top level, a single body as you've said. And then inside each community, and not necessarily at a shire basis, but at that very granular basis, you need folk in there physically who can be the glue to help coordinate all those players on the ground, and help bring the community together. And it would have been marvellous to see not only the cash assistance coming out within days, like JobKeeper did for COVID, but also a flotilla of folk on the ground who could get into communities and help draw all those agencies together.

Jennifer: And if I might say, commissioner, sorry just very quickly. I think having the people on the ground, whether it's in BizRebuild, whether it's in government, whether it's in the not-for-profit sector, who are a continuous face for people to see, rather than people who've been through, in some case, just astonishing trauma, loss of life. Having the same people that they're dealing with day after day gives them a sense of confidence, I think. Whereas if they're seeing a different person every week, and we know this in both areas that Ms Paul and I have worked in government. If you're dealing in complex situations and complex families, multiple agencies with multiple people turning up is very difficult and traumatic for people.

Commissioner Bennett: We heard that. We've heard a lot about that. And of course there's all questions about information sharing, which is not where we're going to go with you at the moment. But it seems to me that what you're proposing or what you're dealing with, bearing in mind that you've also made the point, and as you've said now, pre-packaged solutions do not necessarily work for individuals when you get down to the individual businesses. Because each business has its own sets of requirements. But what you're envisaging as I understand it is that you can have a national infrastructure, but if you have that integration facility, then within national programs, or state-size programs, or even local area programs, you can have then people such as yourselves coming in with individual programs that can work within that - I hate the word framework, I have to find another word. Within that bigger picture to deal with the individual responses that are necessary. But perhaps that can't be dealt with by way of, say, just a single national set of standards that will apply. Because you've got to get down to the individual. But you can have that integration process.

Jennifer: Correct, commissioner, that's absolutely correct. I think the issue is, if you've got things you can draw down on, say you've got wage subsidies, you've got cash assistance, the government loan program, which is a very generous program, then it's about how you mix and match those in consultation with people on the ground, with a continuous presence of the same people that allows people to build confidence and get to the bottom of things and problem solve together. It's that mix that we're talking about. What is more complex is if you're trying to, and I don't like the word framework either, if you're trying to invent the framework as you go, that is the kind of frustration that people feel about, "I'm not getting support." If we had the framework and we can draw down on things, and bringing them at a local level, I think people will have that sense of confidence. And I do want to commend government though, and Andrew Colvin's agency, because they have been magnificent. The speed with which they got up and running, I do believe that they have done a very nationally significant effort in drawing together what was, in terms of the scale of this national disaster and its breadth across the country, I think they've done a magnificent job.

Commissioner Bennett: I only have one last question, and thank you, that's very helpful. And certainly supports some of the other evidence that we've heard and things that we've read. I've just got one other question for you. And that is, there's been an enormous outpouring of support with regard to the 2019/2020 bushfires. And certainly, it would seem, from the evidence that we've seen and what you've said, that your members have risen to the occasion, in terms of being able to be called on. If we're going to have this as a long-term proposition, do you see that from your members' perspective there's a risk of disaster fatigue?

Jennifer: I think there's a risk. I think it's a very good point you've made there, commissioner. Because one of the things of course that's happened with COVID has been that some of those companies have had to save themselves. If you think about the colossal task facing Qantas and Virgin just to keep their people employed and keep their organisations running. Having said that, and of course given the incredible task of the supermarkets, and Bunnings, and these stores that have kept the country going, and kept food when we were having this panic buying. I do think though that if I think about these companies and the way they run, and obviously I should declare that I'm a director of Wesfarmers, I do think that people have developed and finetuned their crisis response in a way that's been quite outstanding. And I do think there's now a culture and set of systems in companies that we're going to have to deal with these things for quite a long period of time. Be it COVID-19, be it the science I think rightly saying to us we're going to see these natural disasters on a more frequent scale, on a more severe scale. And I do think, certainly many of the Business Council companies that I deal with, there is that acute awareness that we have to develop this rolling capacity to respond to adverse events. And I would say companies, be it from the banks to the supermarkets to GE and Resmed, converting machinery into ventilators, that people have done an outstanding job. Because one thing business is magnificent at is problem-solving.

Commissioner Bennett: But also the DGR1 status would also be of assistance.

Jennifer: Absolutely. And look, I commend the government for getting that done so quickly, and that will be of great assistance. Because that will allow us to quickly ramp in and coordinate the impact. And certainly our Business Council members were very pleased to see us do that, thank God a kind of focal point that they can direct things to.

Commissioner Bennett: Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much indeed, very helpful.

Jennifer: You're welcome.

Commissioners Binskin: Thank you for that. I have 1,000 questions, but I won't. But it's been very, very good, and it's been structured. In fact, I do have one question. And you've been through a structured stand-up, so I'm just interested in a general aspect because timeliness is important here. Having gone through the standing up arrangements, could you give us an example of how much time it would save compared to having standing arrangements already stood up?

Lisa: Oh, weeks.

Commissioner Binskin: Weeks?

Lisa: And would save, it would save some businesses from just folding. What I'm hoping to do, commissioner, to set up the BCA for the next natural disaster season, is to have an effective business continuity plan, where it's really clear what should happen on day one, day two, day three, day four. And as soon as a disaster is declared, or a disaster is even looking like it might be declared, you could get the cash assistance underway on a geographic basis. You could get the folk out on the ground into communities who help coordinate all the various players. You could get the folk out on the ground helping families and individuals. You don't even have to wait for the recovery centres, even though they would have done very well in the past. And I think it will save at least weeks, if not months. And for businesses, it could save their livelihoods full stop.

Commissioner Binskin: In fact, and I'm glad you gave that, weeks and months is life-and-death for businesses. So I appreciate that. And one final question before I go to Commissioner Macintosh, you're looking at a particular part of the sector, Ms Westacott. You mentioned primary producers, wildlife areas, and there's a lot of other sectors out there. Is there a lessons learnt forum that someone is pulling together where they can draw on the lessons that BCA has gone through in standing this up, that they might be able to draw on for the next disaster and the disaster after that?

Jennifer: We haven't thought of that, commissioner, but it's an excellent idea. Because I think the other issue that I know the Minderoo Foundation is particularly focused on is how do we build resilience going forward? How do we build resilience in our natural environment? How do we build resilience in our infrastructure? How do we build resilience in our business community? So that we're faster to both respond to a crisis and recover from one. So it's a very good suggestion, and I'll act on that.

Commissioner Binskin: Okay, thank you very much, I appreciate that. Commissioner Macintosh, do you have any questions?

Professor Andrew Macintosh, Commissioner: Thanks, chair. Yeah, number two. First one, we've heard from a lot of people about the extent of under-insurance, and both households and businesses not having any insurance. I just wondered whether the BCA, through its experience in this event, has any information on that. And any views on what measures could be taken to address that issue.

Lisa: I think the Insurance Council have more detailed information, commissioner. However, it's certainly, I would say from our own observations, that often farmers in particular, are under-insured. So we heard anecdotally several times that the house had been saved, but everything else had been lost. In other words, the tools for livelihood had been lost, and they were not insured. The fences and so on, the big equipment, the sheds and so on, and it was only the house that was insured, and that was all that was saved. But there's a sense of deep irony there. And we have heard it. But I've heard it mainly from primary producers.

Commissioner Macintosh: Is there any issues that you think could be done to promote greater insurance coverage by, in particular, the business sector?

Lisa: By small businesses you mean commissioner? It wasn't so much the small businesses that we found were non-insured or under-insured. It was more on the farmer side of things. Which of course are [inaudible]. And our forums, we actually had the local insurance brokers attend as well, commissioner. And there was a lot of generosity, actually, from the insurance companies towards small business owners, in terms of getting their payments out fast and so on. So we will continue always to encourage businesses to insure.

Jennifer: One of the things with our voucher program is the potential for people to get advice from their accountant about under-insurance. Because many people don't actually realise that they're under-insured. So one of the things that I said at the beginning, sometimes small amounts of money are quite significant. Being able to get that advice about going forward, am I insured correctly, I think is going to be very valuable to people.

Lisa: We've found the network of local insurance brokers quite important.

Jennifer: Yes.

Lisa: They're important local players, and they can be drawn on too for education purposes. For example, that insuring for BAIHZ or whatever the building rating has to be for someone is something that needs to be [inaudible].

Commissioner Macintosh: Thanks both. The next question or issue I'm really interested in is, particularly in the wake of COVID, there's a lot of calls for the government to play a much larger role in this space. And you've touched on that with the idea of having a disaster wage subsidy scheme and have a low doc grant scheme. One thing I am concerned about those sorts of proposals, the potential for, if government plays a greater role, it disincentives businesses and households from taking preparatory measures like getting insurance. Do you think that's an issue, or do you think the extent of government assistance is not of a magnitude that changes particularly business incentives?

Jennifer: It's a very good question, commissioner. We would argue all the time that the crucial role of government is one to provide a floor, to provide assistance to enable people to get back up and running again. And our principal objective has been to see that people have got the advice and the assistance, so that they can actually get their businesses going again. But of course what we've seen is an extraordinary confluence of the bushfires and COVID-19, which of course has delayed their capacity to get back up and running. But there's no doubt that I think government has got to play these kind of roles when they need to. But the crucial thing is to get businesses back going again. And that's where our vouchers around advice have been really important, our retooling vouchers, our laptop program. All of those things that allow people to get started again. And that's our philosophy. Because people do not want to be on government assistance forever. They want to get their businesses going, they're very proud of what they've built, and they want to see those businesses thriving again. And we do have to draw, and that's why in a broader BCA capacity we were very supportive of the government's announcements last week to taper down JobKeeper. It's got to be targeted, it's got to make sure the incentive mix, to your point, is correct, and that the incentives to get going again are greater than the incentives to not get going again.

Commissioner Macintosh: Thank you both. Thanks for your evidence too and thank you for the work of the BCA. Thank you, chair.

Jennifer: You're welcome.

Commissioner Binskin: A good question and a good answer, thank you very much. You'll be pleased to see Commissioner Macintosh sleeps with a Royal Commission banner under his bed, that he can draw out at any time. Ms Paul and Ms Westacott, can I thank you very much for joining us this morning. And I echo what Commissioner Macintosh said. What the Business Council of Australia has done in a structured way for the businesses is very much valued around Australia, so thank you very much for that. And I do encourage you to take those lessons, and try and pass some to the other sectors, I think they'd be very worthwhile. So thank you.

Jennifer: I will. Thank you.

Commissioner Binskin: Thank you.


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