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Jennifer Westacott's interview with Ross Greenwood

  • Written by Ross Greenwood

Ross Greenwood, host, Business Now:

Joining us is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott. Jennifer, many thanks for your time as always. Quite clearly the government is setting out its agenda. It's saying that things, perhaps are tougher than what has been told to us during the election campaign. But that also means that business and individuals have got to understand that maybe there are going to be some difficult choices ahead?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia:

Yes, I think we've been saying this for years, Ross. There are going to be difficult choices, but our starting position, I think is pretty good. We have record unemployment, the economy is roaring along, but there's no denying there are some big structural changes or challenges we have to confront. We have a labour shortage that is really serious, and that is actually going to hold back businesses. It's going to hold back projects. It's going to hold back economic growth. We've got these big inflationary pressures that you've been talking about for a long time. We've got obviously a very high level of debt. So, all of these things are going to have to be managed. That is why it's great to see that both political parties took to an election a view that you have to have a growth agenda, and that it was the private sector that had to drive that growth. We're really keen to sit down with the government and map out how the private sector can deliver that growth.


Okay, so then let's start with the labour shortages, that I think is key for business right now. Is there a silver bullet here that can basically fix this? Is it literally trying to encourage more people in from overseas? Is it about childcare? Is it about trying to get more people and particularly women into the workforce? The participation rate, for goodness sakes, is already at record highs in Australia. Where is the answer?


I think it's in all those areas. I don't think there's a single silver bullet there. So, let's go through them. On opening the borders and migration, we've got to encourage people to come in. One signal, Ross, that's important for the new government to set is to give people confidence that we're not going to be shutting borders again. We're not going to be shutting state borders. Because when we talk to companies, we say, ‘Well, why are you having so much difficulty attracting people?’ They say, ‘Well, people are nervous about coming to Australia because they're worried, they're unable to be able to move around the country. They're going to get locked down, and so on.’ We've got to send that message that we're open for business, that we're open for migration. We've got to work hard to keep going with international students, because they're a huge part of the visitor economy. They're a huge part of the hospitality economy. We've got to look at things like backpacker visas or holiday visas and making it easier. We've got to get rid of all the red tape around getting visas approved. A lot of companies say to me, ‘It just takes too long.’ Then we've got to look at the incentives. So, have we got too many of these two-year visas? Do we need to move to four-year visas, which would also give us a bit more of a permanent workforce? Then to your point, yes, we've got participation at very high levels, but women are still not participating in a way that they could be. There's a huge economic uplift there. They're not participating across the whole of economy. Many people still say that they'd work more hours if they could, they'd do more if they could. So, it's not just whether or not they're in a job, it's whether or not they're doing the level of hours. We really have to come to terms with that. Then obviously, and the new government's committed to this and we want to work with them on this very closely, we've got to skill up Australians for these new jobs and these new opportunities. We've got to make sure the skill system is faster for people to get their skills more quickly.


Okay, I just want to get to one aspect of this. Because, in a perfect world, you'd have big reform in industrial relations and in tax to encourage greater productivity. And also, therefore make business want to invest more in Australia. But while you've got a government that's hanging on by a relatively small margin and with teal independents coming in as a new influence across the political spectrum, it makes it much more difficult to get that reform through that might drive the country forward?


Yes, although it's funny, I think about it slightly differently. Because I think what people voted for on the weekend was change. I mean, whether people agree or disagree with the composition. I think Australians said, ‘We don't want the status quo.’ I think they said, ‘We want change. We want quite dramatic change.’ And if you look at the primary vote of the two major parties, surely that's a message for us all to take that the community wanted a degree of change. But I think, Ross, in the two areas that you've nominated, you can pick off bite-size things to do. So, let's just take industrial relations. Yes, it's complicated, but the thing that we would zero in on is the enterprise bargaining system. The system which allows workers and their teams to sit down together with their employers and work out how to be more productive, how to make the business grow and expand, and how to share the gains of that. That system, a Hawke and Keating system, a system that's falling away. That is the system that pays people more, absolutely uniformly. So, let's bite that one off and have a crack at that one. On investment, we would obviously love to see big tax reform, but you can bite bits of it off. You can bite off things like driving investment through an investment allowance or through an extension of the expensing measures that the former government put into place. You can do tax reform at the state level, and you've seen Premier Perrottet trying to get some of that state tax reform.


Jennifer Westacott, as always, I appreciate your time today.


You're very welcome. Thank you.


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