Event Jennifer Westacott interview with Adam Steer, ABC Darwin

Speaker Jennifer Westacott

Date 8 August 2019

Topics Northern Australia, investment, population and education and skills


Adam Steer, host: It’s been a rough time in business over the last few years. Lots of people with solutions have come forward, but the figures don't show any reprieve. Things are spiralling downward. And every time you hear about developing the north or NAIF loans, your eyes roll upwards because you think it’s all pie in the sky. Can’t these guys even solve a problem, who can. The Australian Business Council is in town to hear what you have to tell them. Jennifer Westacott is from the Strong Australia program and from the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer, very good morning.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Good morning.

Adam: Let's start with that North Australia because you're up here talking, well let's start at the beginning, you’re going to some of the regional places outside Sydney and Melbourne basically to hear what people have to say.

Jennifer: Yeah, so look we felt a couple of years ago that the kind of message of the role of enterprise, the role of business, it's not getting heard in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney and most importantly, Adam, we thought that the voices of the rest of Australia weren't getting heard. So, we basically have just gone out and started talking to local communities about what do they need, what would help, what would get things going in terms of their economy, what can business do? And I represent the large corporate sector. What can large corporates do? What can governments do? How do we get the country working using regional Australia as a foundation for stronger economic growth? It's very important because the economy is not growing fast enough. When the economy doesn't grow very fast, it's very hard for governments to get the revenues they need. It's very, very hard to get people's wages up and we've got to do something about our rate of economic growth.

Adam: You’re basically representing the top 150 companies in the country. We hear a lot over the last couple of election cycles about developing the north. Things like the NAIF funding. What do you make of it? What's does business make of it?

Jennifer: I think it’s an important idea. I think that, you know, the problem we have in Australia is we never stick to anything and we get these good ideas and we do two things. We don't build it up from a regional base. So, one of the things we've been doing is we get around to Cairns a few weeks ago here in Darwin today, you know, Geelong, Bathurst, Toowoomba, Townsville, all these places we've been trying to get to and take CEOs to those communities. The thing we hear is this, that the planning around infrastructure and major projects is never done with the sort of thought of what's going to make, what are all the things that are going to make Darwin and the Northern Territory work. So, we tend to take a project and we say that's going to be a solution to everything, well it's not. You have to take multiple projects over long periods of time to get economies really thriving. And the second thing people tell us that drives them mad is that people change their mind. Governments change, and they chop and change these big projects. Now if you're a big corporate, governments chopping and changing, you just go and invest your money somewhere else. So, I think the NAIF is a good idea. I think the Northern Australia focus is a hugely important idea. What we have to do is get it to be more locally focused and to get it to stay the distance.

Adam: To get some more stability with governments would big business like to see fixed terms for a federal government? As much as similar as we see in many of the states and territories, we have it here in the Northern Territory, four years.

Jennifer: Yeah, look, it's one of those things that I think, you know, where people see it at a state level it works. But you know, I think people forget we've been able to do really important things in this country in three-year terms. You know, if you think about the Hawke years, you know, the Howard years, we do get important things done in this country. That's why we haven't had a recession for 28 years. So, I think, you know, if I was going to say what's the most important thing to do in Australia, it probably wouldn't be that. It would probably get on with some of the things that are actually going to grow the economy, make us more productive. Like get rid of some of the red tape that’s strangling business, but particularly small business. Get our skills system fixed. Why are kids going to university when some of them should go to TAFE. It's crazy. We're not getting the right skill system working. Why have we got the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world that is not going to get investment into the country. So, why can't we then, if we're not going to lower the rate, why can't we have an investment allowance to drive companies to invest in projects. You know, why have we got the stop start approach to infrastructure. Why have we got this kind of industrial relations system that is so inflexible, it doesn't allow people to kind of be able to change really fast. I want us to focus on those things and get the debate about, we have got this window now post the federal election of political stability, however you think of that. What are we going to do with that time?

Adam: You're on ABC Radio Darwin, it’s 12 past nine, Adam Steer with you. You’re also hearing from Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council of Australia. One of the big challenges that we have in the north of Australia is attracting people here. We've got a population decline. We are on the precipice of even losing a federal representative in Parliament and in Canberra because of it. What from a business point of view would be a good idea to help try and boost that population?

Jennifer: It's a great question. So, what we would like to see is a national population focus and how do we give incentives for people to come to the Northern Territory. So, you've got what's called the DAMA status, the kind of preferential status already. Are there more things that could be done there to kind of make it attractive for people to come and stay. Can we give people incentives, and give them like a fast track to permanent residence for example.

Adam: Well, the government's literally throwing money at people, at Australian nationals to move here. Those results really haven't been visible, should we be looking overseas, is that your suggestion?

Jennifer: Yeah, maybe and certainly trying to, for those people who come to Australia, in the skilled program particularly, to try and get them to think about coming to the Northern Territory. I mean you've got a lot of projects happening here. It's not like nothing is happening here. I mean the Jemena project, you've got huge opportunities that Origin and Santos are exploring. You've got a big aquaculture kind of industry. There's lots of things happening here. The challenge I think is to promote the positive stuff, but to get the migration arrangements so that they are attractive. Because you know, I mean you know this, everyone knows this listening. You start living somewhere for three and four years. You've got your kids at school, you've made friends, you're not going to want to move. And having just come out of minus two degrees in Canberra, you know, I'm just thinking of staying here because you know, it's fantastic.

Adam: Good work!

Jennifer: We've got to promote that to people. But, also Adam, you've got to get the economic activity floating around people because you can't have people come here if there's no work. But I also make this final point. People create economic activity and Sydney and Melbourne are bursting at the seams, so why aren't we, and I think the government's trying to grapple with this, how do we get the incentive for people to come and live here, to come and work here, build their lives here, stay here and get the economic activity wrapped around them so that they're coming here for a good job, a better job, and a good life.

Adam: Jennifer, good to hear from you today. Today at noon, there's a Strong Australia panel that's going to be moderated by soon-to-be Insiders’ host David Speers. You'll be speaking there, who else will be?

Jennifer: So, Mike Schneider from Bunnings, the head of Jemena and obviously, you know, about 150 local business people, Frank Tudor from Jemena. So, we've got, you know, two great CEOs, Bunnings, a great story, we were out at Bunnings yesterday looking at what they're doing, not just in selling their products and their fantastic products that people love, particularly blokes, but stuff they're doing in the community around the Clontarf program for Indigenous kids. You know, Bunnings is a great story about a great store, but a great community participant. Obviously, we're going to talk about the big Jemena project, what it means for the Northern Territory. And then we've got a lot of local business people coming. We've got a really good crowd and hopefully we can get an insight into the sorts of things that are going to make a difference in the Northern Territory, a difference in Darwin, and what we as the corporate sector can do, and also how we can push governments to do more, get a bit more focused so we get the place really thriving.

Adam: Jennifer Westacott, good to hear from you. Thanks very much for your time.

Jennifer: Thanks so much.

Adam: That’s Jennifer Westacott, she's from the Business Council of Australia.

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