This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was first published in The Australian on Friday 27 August 2021.
We’ve had great success as a country and prospered from nearly 30 years of economic growth before COVID hit.
This prosperity has been hard earned through reforms, strong businesses and institutions, and sensible budget management.
We are a great place to work, invest and live. It’s now up to all of us to ensure we build on our strengths as we emerge from the pandemic.
That’s why we’re calling for a return to the Team Australia approach to get as many Australians vaccinated as quickly as possible and then work together to accelerate our economic recovery.
While we focus on the path out, it’s also time to begin laying the foundations for the type of society we want to be in the future and the economy we need to achieve that vision.
Australians in our regions have a crucial role to play in shaping what lies over the horizon. They’re also more likely to face challenges and opportunities as the economy transforms to keep pace with the seismic global forces of change underway.
To make sure we can respond to these dynamics, we have released the Living on borrowed time discussion paper. Our work is designed to encourage Australians to think about the big shifts the country needs to make to respond to change and move into the fast lane of growth.
COVID has accelerated several other changes including the rise of Asia, the digitisation and uptake of new technologies, changing business models and changes to the nature of work.
During COVID it became clear that many technology jobs can be done from anywhere in the world, so why not in our regions?
Global volatility and very high levels of debt and deficit across the Commonwealth have also been exacerbated by COVID.
As these forces converge on Australia, we need to change. In doing so, we need to finally end the divide between the cities and regions to ensure no one is left behind.
To manage and adapt to the forces of change, we believe it’s time to explore six big shifts we need to make. The first is diversification.
Our miners, resource companies and farmers, along with our banks, are the engine room of Australia’s prosperity and the backbone of our regions.
They are also among the world’s most technologically advanced, innovative, and high-performing companies.
We need them to keep doing this, but we also need to complement these existing strengths by further expanding into new high-tech, high-productivity and high value areas. This will be the areas of new job formation and better paid jobs, and many can be performed in the regions.
The second shift is to actively build a low carbon economy.
As a country, we need to do our part in the global efforts to address climate change by adopting a national net zero target of emissions by 2050.
Much of the debate is centred on the domestic economy where important challenges exist.
But the export-facing side of the economy also faces challenges. Forty-seven per cent of our exports are from fossil fuel intensive industries and nearly one in four Australian jobs are in emissions intensive sectors, which will particularly hit the regions.
Now is the time to actively identify and pursue new low carbon opportunities, particularly in the regions. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen will not be found in the main streets of our capital cities.
As we transform our electricity system from fossil fuels to renewables there will be huge opportunity for renewable energy hubs to be built in the regions which can power new industries with clean energy.
Shift three is remaining open to the world and competitive and the fourth shift is lifting the skills of our workforce.
Australians need to be able to upskill and reskill throughout their careers so they can switch jobs, re-enter the workforce, or upgrade their skills within their current job.
This runs alongside the need to have a legitimate debate about the role of migration and population growth.
COVID presents a great opportunity to reset our migration parameters so we can target the skills we need as well as to start to think about the distribution of population growth and the role the regions will play.
There isn’t a region I talk to that doesn’t have the task of getting more people on their to-do list.
The fifth shift is ensuring no one is left behind so all Australians can fully contribute to and benefit from the nation’s economic growth. We can’t move forward if we are divided. Again, regions need to be seen as central to recovery and prosperity.
This leads into the next big shift which is the role of government.
We need to rebuild our public finances, so we have stable debt, a fair, efficient and competitive tax system, and a cohesive and cooperative system of Federation.
Putting all this together, through this process we are aiming to generate momentum in the community to tackle the challenges we face. We can then begin building stronger regions and in turn a stronger Australia.
Jennifer Westacott AO is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia