Event Interview with Brian Carlton, Tasmania Talks, 7AD

Speaker Jennifer Westacott, Brian Carlton

Date 14 February 2019

Topics Post-secondary education, Tasmanian economy, big and small business, Strong Australia


Brian Carlton, host Tasmania Talks: I don't want to muck around too much and I certainly don't want to take up too much of her time here. Let me bring in Jennifer Westacott, who is in Hobart at the moment. She's the CEO of the Business Council of Australia and will be part of a forum that kicks off just after midday today, where she, Alan Joyce, and Michael Bailey, who's a good friend of the show, the chief executive officer of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Of course, Alan Joyce the CEO of Qantas. Frances Bender will be there as well, the executive director and co-founder of Huon Aquaculture and Mike Grainger who is the managing director of Liferaft Systems Australia - a particularly impressive business. If you don't know too much about it, it's absolutely worth a Google. Jennifer Westacott, welcome to Tasmania. How are you?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Well thanks Brian, and you?

Brian: I'm very well, thank you. You’re talking today about a range of different things but you're hooking Tasmania's, and I guess regional Australia's, development around education reforms. It is a huge issue here isn't it?

Jennifer: It's a big issue, particularly in Tasmania, but it's a big issue around the country Brian. And we've got the apprenticeships system pretty much in disarray. We've got the VET system that's lost a lot of money. We've also got this cultural bias that says, you know, when young kids leave school the only thing for them is to go to university and if they don't go to university somehow, they've failed in life.

Brian: It's funny that, because that's relatively new isn't it Jennifer? I finished school in 1980, so I did the high school certificate in 1980.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: At that stage about three per cent of kids went on to university. You were considered a bit of a dweeb if you did back then.

Jennifer: That's right. I mean when I went to uni, the same sort of thing. You know, it was pretty rare to go to university but now, you know, a lot of people are going. And look there's nothing wrong with going to university but for some kids, as you know, it's not the right choice.

Brian: Yeah.

Jennifer: And then they drop out and they can't get a job and they would have been better going into the TAFE system.

Brian: Has that devalued the value of degrees people are achieving?

Jennifer: I think so, but I feel what it has done is that it's really devalued TAFE and I think VET. And I reckon governments have just stopped investing in it and yeah, if you think about what's going to happen in the economy, you know, more technology, jobs that are currently medium skilled are going to become more skilled, more digital. We've got to get people skilled and sometimes going back and doing a degree is not going to be the answer for someone who's 50.

Brian: Right.

Jennifer: They’ve got to retrain in their job. It would be better if they were able to get a VET course and, I mean, what I'm proposing is that every Australian gets a Lifelong Skills Account that when they need to retrain they can do a module from there, do a module from uni. So that they can stay in the workforce.

Brian: Okay. So utilising all the various elements of post high school education. Be that university, be that TAFE, be that some other kind of private provider.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: All that would be taken into account and you would be able to what? Access various bits and pieces at different times over the course of your life?

Jennifer: Correct.

Brian: Okay.

Jennifer: Exactly right.

Brian: Alright. Well one of the difficulties here is when a big project comes along and they are often on a project by project basis. I'm thinking about the university move here which you'd be very across.

Jennifer: Yep. Absolutely.

Brian: The demand is going to be fairly instant for a wide range of fairly skilled workers in a whole range of different areas. The genuine fear here in Tassie, particularly in the north, is that we don't have that workforce. They're not trained, we have not really got into that process of training enough up to handle that kind of work and when the jobs do come on, we'll import people to do the work.

Jennifer: I couldn't agree more. We need to get ahead of these things. I mean it's not rocket science.

Brian: No, it's not.

Jennifer: We kind of know what's happening. We know that, say in Tasmania, you know, you've got some big industries growing now. Particularly, tourism. So, how hard can it be to sort of start forecasting that? And say, okay we've got to offer more people opportunities to get into the hospitality industry. We've got to tailor some courses particularly for Tasmanians, instead of giving people just general stuff. And really importantly, we've got to make sure there's an opportunity for people who are in industries that might decline to sort of say well okay there's going to be opportunities in tourism and hospitality. So, we want you to be able to do a couple of modules. I'd love to see the Lifelong Skills Account piloted somewhere like Tasmania. So, we can say here's a state that's going really well. Its economy is growing pretty fast, but we've got big issues in terms of workforce and you've still got a lot people unemployed here. I'm mostly talking about young people here. You know, 14 per cent of young kids are still unemployed. So, I'd love to see Tasmania being, sort of, like a pilot for the Lifelong Skills Account.

Brian: One of the things that I have heard is that if you don't have an inter-generational education, there are plenty of disincentives from within families for young people to go off and study. Have you observed that as a phenomena here and indeed in other parts of the country?

Jennifer: Absolutely. You know, I've been calling on governments to do an inquiry into entrenched disadvantage because there's a lot of kids, Brian, that you know that have never seen anybody go off to work. Now that's a terrible thing. And I think, you know, I think about people who are really disadvantaged. How are they going to break the cycle? How are they going to get ahead? And welfare is not a career. It is a last resort for people.

Brian: No it's not.

Jennifer: And it can't be that the bulk of people either work for the government or get paid for by the government. You just can't go on like that. So, you know, we need to get people skilled but the kind of traditional way of thinking about it is they've got to go do a uni degree or they've got to do a certificate III and it's got to go for three years. It's not going to work. We need to get people faster through the system.

Brian: And we seem to have a bulge at each end too. We've got the excess number of people going through to actual university and getting degrees that are worthy or otherwise. And at the other end we've got a large group of people who are unemployed and probably will be for the rest of their lives. There's a huge gap in the middle there, isn't it, that needs a lot of focus?

Jennifer: You bet.

Brian: Okay.

Jennifer: I'll tell you one of the things is literacy. We have dropped the ball as a country on this. You know?

Brian: Oh it's shocking isn't it? Jennifer, I see the OECD stats that come out every year and I'm sure you do too and all the various reports that come out. And I just think, when I first started my broadcast career 30 odd years ago, we were number one in literature or number two in maths or number three in science. And now we're ranking behind [inaudible] in some measures.

Jennifer: Yeah exactly. And it goes to this issue we just need to spend more money. We have spent more money.

Brian: Bucket loads of it. Yep.

Jennifer: But we have gone backwards on some of these key areas. So that's about teacher quality, teaching standards and teaching kids differently. Like, you know, teaching kids phonics to help them later in life.

Brian: Oh thank you. Bless you, bless you Jennifer Westacott. Bless you, Jennifer Westacott. I have been banging on about the teaching of phonics now for probably 20 years. I was an early reader. I'm still a vigorous reader and have been my whole life. It's the best way to learn to read and actually be able to not only read but spell. And also recognise a word off a page without having to sound it out. Yep.

Jennifer: Exactly.

Brian: Okay.

Jennifer: We've got to fix this because a lot of employers tell me that people have got really poor literacy and that it matters. It matters a lot.

Brian: How do we get there? How do we get there Jennifer?

Jennifer: I reckon some of it is that we've stopped doing stuff that really helped kids, like phonics. We don't seem to, kind of, assess people any more. You know, all the basics but also you've got to get kids up on the visual stuff. It's all very well for them to be playing Fortnite and stuff like that on their iPads. But, you know, there is a kind of digital stuff around coding, around understanding what the technicians call computational thinking. We've got to get back to some basic stuff and I think we've got to really look into our schools and also ask is this the best way of teaching kids too? A classroom. When I was in America a couple of years ago, they've got this thing called the Khan Academy which is, kind of, a video thing to help kids learn maths. And the job of the teacher is to coach kids and make sure that they are paying attention. Rather than teaching kids on a formula basis. But there's lots of things that we could do. But we've got to be willing to do them instead of just pouring piles of money in and thinking that is going to solve the problem. It's not.

Brian: Yeah. The thing is too, a child only needs one spark to kick it off.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Brian: And it becomes a lifelong love affair with learning and reading and all of those things.

Jennifer: Yep.

Brian: It often just takes one person, one individual or one book or one exposure to something that just triggers something in them. Okay.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: Let's park that for a minute. One of the drivers of economic growth here in Tasmania is small business.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: Overwhelmingly the businesses that operate here are very small, operated by families more often than not. They've often got their houses mortgaged to finance same. How do we more leverage, or how do we more focus on small business here in Tassie? To produce the sort of outcomes that we all want, which is hundreds and thousands of crackingly successful small businesses operating in niche sections of our economy all over the state. How do we do that?

Jennifer: Yeah well it's one of the things that I want to talk to people about while I'm here. But, there's a few things that we could do. First of all, I mean people talk about this, and then they never do anything about it. We do need to look at the red tape people have got. I mean I talk to people all the time and they tell me about the compliance they've got and the number of things they have to fill in and the amount of time they spend doing compliance rather than growing their business. So, one thing I would do if I were, you know, the federal government is do a big initiative in helping small business get up to the digital economy. So, the Business Council and the Small Business Council of Australia, we've introduced this code, this voluntary code to get big business to pay small business on time. Which is absolutely crucial, and we've got Woolworths and we've got Coles and we've got Nestle and we've got MARS. We've got all these huge companies and they've got to pay on time. But the other side of it is they've got to help small business help get onto electronic invoicing. So, the digital stuff is hugely important, and I think we need a national initiative on that. And then we just need to get rid of the red tape that is on steroids for small business. I mean big business has a lot of that itself. And the other thing that I do think you need and certainly while I have been talking to small business organisations over the last couple of days, they are telling me that we still need big businesses to be investing. You still need those big business to be partnering around agricultural produce, to be buying the stuff, to be helping with the freight and you know, I think trying to make sure that we remove all the obstacle to getting stuff out of the country. If we want to send, you know, from Premium Fresh asparagus to Japan in December/January, let's not make that as hard as possible. Let's make that as easy as possible. So, it's direct freight. Get rid of some of the rules and red tape that just cost people lots of money.

Brian: Jennifer, gee you make a lot of sense. Are you sure you wouldn't just like to be Prime Minister? I don’t know, for four years, just do one term, three years please. I can't imagine it being too much worse than it is now. One of the other things is some of the disincentives for people to move to regional areas that are in place.

Jennifer: Yep.

Brian: Things like stamp duty. You've written about this widely. What other sorts of things could we encourage some of the population bulges that are emerging, in say parts of western and south Western Sydney and in North Western Melbourne. How do we smear them more across regional Australia? How do we do it? What's the way?

Jennifer: Well I don't think 'the big stick' is the answer to this. What I've been calling for is that we take, I don't know how many...let's say for argument’s sake, 25 places across Australia and we say 'we are going to make these the regional growth centres and we are going to prioritise roads and investment. And we are going to give these a priority’. Because, you know, every child can't get a prize in this world. So you've got to sometimes prioritise things. And we say, you know, we're going to try and get an airport here, a rail system here, a freeway here, we are going to connect these to major centres and we prioritise that. And we prioritise funding the TAFEs in those centres. And we prioritise making sure that we support population. Maybe we get people fast-racked visa concessions. I think the carrot is better than the stick but whenever I've been around Australia. I've been doing that for ages. When I go to places like Busselton, they are crying out for skilled work.

Brian: Yeah, same here.

Jennifer: But you've got to make sure it's easy for people. The other thing we need, you know, is proper planning. So okay when the population gets to this, we need to release more land and let's release more land before the population tips over and then we have a housing affordability problem. So, to me it's kind of common sense and we should kind of just get one with and say, okay, and let's not have a three-year barney about which places because they kind of speak for themselves. We are going to prioritise infrastructure, we are going to make sure that we've got housing working well in those places. We are going to put the money back into TAFE and the VET system, we are going to support the universities in those locations and whenever I go around, there's sometimes there's little things. When I was in Busselton last year, a $15 million airport, this is not, you know, massive amounts of money, would allow Virgin and Qantas to run commercial flights there. Well, you know, how hard is that?

Brian: Yeah. It's interesting isn't it? We've sort of lost the incentivise for what I call public works spending.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Brian: It seems to have got lost, if I can use this term, the economic rationalism period where the sense was, leave the market to do what the market does.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: Because the market will solve all of the problems. And clearly that's not happened.

Jennifer: I totally agree. And I'm the queen of capitalism, right?

Brian: Yeah me too Jennifer. You'd never hear a sort of socialist word come out of my mouth. But we have a problem.

Jennifer: Markets exist in a regulated environment. We've got to make sure the market doesn't do this, and it does do these things. But what are governments for? They're to set a vision, they're to get a plan, to make things easier and they're to give people a set of confidence that we can manage population, that we can get stuff done, and that we are going to prioritise things and that we are going to deliver. And, you know, I'd love to see, you know, that both political parties in Australia sit down and say, what are the places that we really want to invest in? So, we don't have this crazy thing where we've got more people in Sydney and Melbourne and other places are crying out for population.

Brian: What are the politics around this? Is that kind of spending that you're talking about and the focussing on regional development, is that likely to tank a political party in the polls? Because I would have thought it would resonate with the average Australian because we've been crying out for that stuff forever.

Jennifer: Well I think the problem is that it always ends up with we want it to be here versus here because people vote for us here and they don't vote for us there.

Brian: Yeah, it's called pork barreling. We talk about it a lot.

Jennifer: Yeah. That's the problem.

Brian: Okay.

Jennifer: You've got to make choices and you've got to make choices based on what's actually happening on the ground not places where people just want to win seats.

Brian: Okay.

Jennifer: You can't run the country like that. So that's one thing. You know, people say it's naive to call for bipartisanship and maybe it is. But...

Brian: Oh when it comes to nation building, why shouldn't we be able to call for bipartisanship?

Jennifer: You know, Anthony Albanese and I have been crying out for years to have a fast train on the east coast of Australia. Now, you know, okay the economists say it doesn't stay up, it doesn't meet some cost benefit analysis. That's okay but at least let's reserve the corridors, do the work, get the planning done because when I go to other countries, people have done this work. They've got things ready to go and then when the population reaches a certain amount, instead of starting from first base, you've already done a lot of the work.

Brian: It's funny we had all [inaudible] places a long time resident of Sydney, the transport corridors were always there until they started being flogged off progressively for housing and other things. Jennifer Westacott, I could honestly talk to you for some hours about this. But just in conclusion, Tasmania about six or seven years ago was considered the economic basket case of the nation.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Brian: On every metric. This state lagged and lagged and lagged. We are now in the blessed position of having an economy that I loosely refer to as being on fire. What are the perils for Tasmania? What are the potential pit falls as we go through a sort of golden period at the moment?

Jennifer: Great question. So, first of all what's turned this around? Private enterprise. So, the pitfall, the danger is that people just assume these things go on and they don't need to push it a bit harder. The pitfalls is it making it harder. You know, so if it's private enterprise, and to your point, it's small private enterprise that's got the state ticking again, then get out of the way of those enterprises and allow them to thrive and prosper and do more which is what I'm really keen to say to business people today. What else can we do to make it easy for them to expand and grow? And what can we do to make sure that we're not going to backwards on any of this? Because this is a fantastic place. It's a fantastic state. It's got so much going for it, but you can't ever take your foot off the pedal of making things more competitive, making sure that it's easier to do business - lifting the red tape, lifting the confusion between layers of government. So that people from a small, medium or even a large business can get their stuff into markets overseas, where people are crying out for Australian products.

Brian: And with some certainty.

Jennifer: Yeah, and the other thing to our earlier conversation, get the skills happening here. To make sure that we're not going to be importing skilled labour from somewhere else as the economy grows. Let's do the work now to offer people the courses they need to get them into the jobs that they need and help people make the transition into new jobs.

Brian: I wish I could be there in Hobart today for the panel.

Jennifer: I wish you were there too.

Brian: My understanding is that it's being broadcast on Sky News is it? Is that right?

Jennifer: Correct.

Brian: Are they carrying it live are they?

Jennifer: Tonight we are broadcasting live. The panel we will broadcast with David Speers at eight o'clock on Sky.

Brian: Eight o'clock on Sky. Okay. I would urge you if you have access to Sky News to listen to Jennifer Westacott. She's an incredibly wise woman. Very experienced and has some good things to say. Jennifer I really appreciate your time today.

Jennifer: Thank you very much. Happy to come on any time.

Brian: Best of luck. Thank you.

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