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Jennifer Westacott interview with Glen Bartholomew, ABC NewsRadio


Glen Bartholomew, host, ABC NewsRadio: Chief executive of the Business Council, Jennifer Westacott will no doubt be attending and joins us now. Thanks for your time.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Thanks very much.

Glen: We heard talk there of a wasted decade of missed opportunities. How big an opportunity is this to look at the big picture and what should be high on the agenda?

Jennifer: Well, this is a huge opportunity. It's a real chance to reset. We've got to reset on migration, on our skills system. We've got to reset on how we create new industries, new jobs. We've got to reset on how to create higher wages that can be sustained over the long term. We've got to reset on women participating in the workforce. There's a big agenda to get through. I totally agree with the Treasurer, the only way we're going to get through this is to come together; find the common ground; try and find a way forward; step out the next decade of big reforms so that we set Australia up for the next not just 10 but 20, 30 years of strong economic growth and higher living standards.

Glen: You are remaining positive saying our economy looks poised for a world beating recovery. But it hinges on our ability to bring everyone to the table and find that common purpose. Where then are the likely areas of consensus, Jennifer Westacott, is there any low hanging fruit? What is it?

Jennifer: I think there is low hanging fruit. I think there's a lot of agreement around the skills system, that we need to find a better way of reskilling people more quickly. So this whole question of shorter courses, credentialing those in a way, getting people to do work-based learning where they're getting some TAFE subjects and university subjects. There's a lot of common ground there. There's a lot of common ground on trying to make sure that we offer people who have got low digital skills pathways back into the workforce. There's a lot of common ground on women's participation, paid parental leave and childcare. There's a lot of common ground, I think on areas like how do we drive investment, that's going to have the effect of making it easier for people to work, attracting new industries. And of course, reducing our carbon footprint. There's a lot of common ground on the need for us to be a destination for those industries of the future so that we're creating those new jobs, higher paid jobs. So you know, I'm very positive about this. I think it's incumbent upon all of us to go to the summit and make sure that we leave the old ideologies and old fights at the door. Australians expect more of us collectively to say, how do I solve the problem that for the average Australian? They haven't had the wage rises that they used to have and that's hurting them and that cost-of-living pressure. Well, how do we get the conditions so that they can get those high wages over the long term.

Glen: And in a secure environment…

Jennifer: Absolutely…

Glen: We heard there the Prime Minister speak of secure employment. You suggested it all must start by managing the chronic labour shortages and investment that's been holding us back. But you also say it's an opportunity to end the deadlock on workplace relations, restore the Hawke-Keating enterprise bargaining system but this will require cooperation between business, government and workers. Is that among the most likely problems or areas of disagreement?

Jennifer: Look I hope not. I think the ACTU and the Business Council worked very strongly together during the worst parts of the pandemic. I think there's a lot of common ground on the principles. I think all of us believe the enterprise system is not working as it should. I think all of us see it as the opportunity to make sure that - we want enterprises to be successful. But we want people to share in the benefits of higher wages and better conditions. And we don't disagree on that. All of these things will come down to the technicalities. I think what the summit is going to be important to do is to set some principles, set some direction. As the Prime Minister and the Treasurer said today, it's not just about what happens in two days, there'll be a white paper produced from it. There'll be a lot of work that goes on after the summit. So I think we can set some principles, set some common goals, set some areas where we agree. Australians expect us to do that, Glen. I think they want us to make progress on this issue. But the simple reality is this. If you're an enterprise agreement, you're getting paid more than people who are on awards, and we all share in that objective. We want people to be paid more.

Glen: You suggest we need to address the investment drought that's holding us back. Why has there been such an investment drought for so long? Why has business been sitting on its hands, as has been suggested?

Jennifer: Well, I don’t think business has been sitting on its hands. I don't think it’s had the conditions to actually drive investment. There is some worldwide trends here but Australia is really at the bottom of the pack here and there’s a lot of things working here. There's a lot of red tape in Australia. I think one of the things we noticed in COVID was how many things got lifted, that people thought, ‘well, hang on, why would that ever there in the first place?’ Some of these really quite peculiar regulations, that deters people from investing. Things like getting planning approvals for major buildings, that takes too long. You've got a tax system that is out of date, that's not generating revenues that are going to be needed for the future, but it's not particularly attractive to investments. You have got a workplace relations system that's clunky and hard to work with, that's a deterrent on investment. We've got to get our energy costs and our energy market back under control, we've got to really drive hard on that low carbon future, and secure energy supply, because that holds back investment. We used to have as a real competitive advantage, low energy costs, we've lost that and we’ve got to get that back in a low carbon environment. So there are many reasons that companies around the world say to me, it's too hard to do business in Australia. We've got to change set of circumstances to get those big investments, because we're going to need that to get those new industries. If it's advanced manufacturing, if it's the big investments we need to get to low carbon technologies, we need to create that investable environment pretty quickly.

Glen: You say we need a migration system that fills workforce shortages across the economy with the right targeting and incentives, does that suggest we don't have that right at the moment?

Jennifer: I think there are some real problems with the migration settings. First of all, we've got to play catch up. Think about the numbers, we used to take about 230,000 people a year. That was a combination of temporary, permanent migration, students and so on. We haven't been doing that, and about 90,000 people a year have been leaving the country. So we're about 300,000, short and we saw some data a couple of weeks ago that showed 500,000 vacancies. So we've got a short term gap to fill. I think that the system is weighted too much to short term, temporary migration, those two year visas. You're not going to up and leave your country and your family for two years. We've got to fix that. We've got to create permanent pathways. But all the time, we've got to make sure that we're skilling Australians. Giving Australians opportunities to get the skills that they're going to need to do those jobs for the future. So it's a delicate balancing act. But I don't really think that we've got some of those settings right. And of course, there are just some real issues about processing visas at the moment and we just got to find a way to get those visas processed more quickly.

Glen: It does seem to be taking a bit long. The Prime Minister seems to agree saying maybe our focus needs to be on less temporary and more permanent migration, residents or even citizens. Let's see what comes of that. While I've got you, finally lots of warnings and evidence of a third wave of COVID wreaking havoc on our workplaces, including here. Business said to be bracing for a record absenteeism spike in the coming month or so. Health authorities urging businesses to review health and safety risks and relook at measures like work from home is there much enthusiasm for that from employers? And if you don't, do you run the risk of losing even more staff through infection?

Jennifer: Well, I think that's the issue, isn't it? So, I think there's a couple of things here. The first is we've got to make sure that that the health of our people remains the paramount topic and we've got to make sure people are safe. The second issue to your point is to make sure that we don't have more workers off because someone who was sick came to work. We've got to make sure that the environment is right for people to work from home if they're sick. And obviously people are sick, I think we forget with all this Zoom and Microsoft Teams that if you sick, sometimes you need to spend two days in bed actually rather than be on Zoom all day. Some of these things have got to be about individual workplaces, people are going to have to decide what work needs to be done where. But we can't return, obviously, to some of those Delta arrangements. They're not going to work, particularly with the high vaccination rate. So, there's a few things we’ve got to do. Keep the focus on the vaccine, getting the fourth booster. Common-sense decisions around the public health orders, allowing people to work with their teams. But then to your point, if people are sick, or they're positive, they've got to stay at home because you run the risk that if two people have and then ten people have got it, then you've got a real problem in your business.

Glen: Jennifer Westacott, many thanks.

Jennifer: You're welcome, thank you.

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