Jennifer Westacott interview with Kier Shorey, ABC Breakfast Far North Queensland

23 July 2019

Event Jennifer Westacott interview with Kier Shorey, ABC Breakfast Far North Queensland

Speaker Jennifer Westacott

Date Tuesday 23 July 2019

Topics Regional Australia, investment, big and small business, and Newstart

E&OE

Kier Shorey, host: The leading tourism and regional development voices of Far North Queensland are today joining the Business Council of Australia's Strong Australia Network event here in Cairns. Now it's being held in conjunction with the Cairns Chamber of Commerce and it's looking at the best ways to further the potential of Far North Queensland. Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. Nice enough to have dropped into the studio. Hello Jennifer.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Good morning. How are you?

Kier: I am well. Now look, I think it's fair enough to say and most people would agree that we've been doing it pretty tough in recent years. There's been some, you know, sluggish retail numbers, a sluggish visitation numbers, our construction industry in the doldrums as well. What positive notes can you bring us for today's event?

Jennifer: Yeah, it's a great question. So, what we're doing, with Strong Australia is getting around to the regions of Australia and talking to people about what's working, what's not working, and what can we do to fix it? What are the practical things? What's the infrastructure that's needed? What kind of investment do we need? I obviously represent very large businesses, I want to send back a message to them: look, why don't you think about Cairns, to maybe think about some of the functions you could put there. Why don't you think about investing in Cairns, and then obviously get a message back to government. These are the sorts of things that are going to make things easier. These are the things that are going make it easier to grow businesses. Think about growing jobs, growing economic activity, growing a better life for people and trying to get those really simple practical ideas. I had dinner with some people from the Chamber and other kind of leading lights last night and they had some very practical ideas and hopefully at today's lunch we get some practical ideas. We've got Sky there, which means we're broadcasting into the offices at Parliament House where they all watch constantly.

Kier: Because David Speers is going to be there, soon to be ABC's David Speers.

Jennifer: Exactly. And look now, that's a great way of getting into those…

Kier: Putting it in front of the faces of those politicians.

Jennifer: Putting it in front of the people in Canberra to say, here's what we need to happen in places like Cairns. And I think the election tells us that regional Australia has a different view about the direction of the country and I think they feel pretty cranky that the conversation is often a conversation about the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. And our job, my job is to make sure that their voice gets heard in that national debate.

Kier: Did it come as a surprise to you that it came as a surprise to them? The politicians, that that was the case Jennifer?

Jennifer: Yeah, it did a little bit. I mean it didn't to me because we've been doing this for 18 months and getting around talking to people all across Australia and a couple of really kind of crucial messages come up over and over again. First of all, this anti-business agenda doesn't exist. You know, you never hear this "top end of town" expression when you're out in the regions. People say to me, "we'd love the top end of town to be here because we know they create a lot of jobs". They know the importance of big and small business working together. They talk about these skills. They want the TAFEs to work. They want TAFE to be a real option for kids. They want investment in really basic infrastructure. Some of these are not billion dollar projects. They're $20-$30 million projects and they want to be heard in the national debate. They do not want someone in a marginal seat in Melbourne telling them what should happen in their community.

Kier: And jobs is a very key issue?

Jennifer: I mean your employment numbers are pretty good.

Kier: I mean it's certainly turned around in the last year and a bit.

Jennifer: In the last year and you've created quite a few jobs but remains an anxiety for people. Two things that their wages aren't going up and that they not entirely sure if their job is going to be there for the next 10 years.

Kier: And so much of it is part time and casual employment as well?

Jennifer: Exactly, and that means their wages aren't high enough and that means they're thinking, well how do I pay my very high energy bills, which they're also worried about. So you know, my job is to listen to those. To try and get into the practical things for this area, go back to Canberra, go back to the state government and go back to corporate Australia and say, "hey, why don't you think about doing some of this stuff in places like Cairns”.

Kier: Can I ask, does the Business Council support the Newstart increase?

Jennifer: The Business Council of Australia, and I have to take credit for some of this, started some of this. I gave a speech in 2011 and I said, and I'm using the figures from then. People cannot live on $35 a day.

Kier: And I have to say that within Far North Queensland, there are a lot of communities heavily dependent on that kind of social welfare, Jennifer. So there will be a direct correlation between that increase and economic development.

Jennifer: Absolutely. You've got to get people back to work. There's no doubt about that but in getting people back to work, they've got to have a capacity to go back to work and if they're in entrenched poverty, if they've lost their house, they've been evicted or they're in real trouble. It's very hard to get those people back.

Kier: You can't afford to print a CV.

Jennifer: To get a CV, to get the clothes to go to an interview, to travel to an interview. So we've got to make sure that we don't have an incentive for people to stay on Newstart but at the same time people have got to have an adequate income so they can pick themselves up, they can get to training, they can get to an interview, they’ve got the clothes and they can look after their health - and they can get back into work.

Kier: I want to ask about the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, but I don't even know how to frame the question, Jennifer. What's going on with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility?

Jennifer: Well, I think some things have been committed and I think you know, the kind of message from locals last night was that not enough stuff that's flown from it yet. So this is one of the things I want to do while I'm here is to say, well what are those projects that are going to get northern Australia really working? Because we should be, I think as a country looking across the regions of Australia and Infrastructure Australia should be saying, "okay, this project here is going to unleash this kind of economic activity, these kinds of jobs. It's up on the priority list". And making sure that those things just don't keep getting talked about. I mean you know this, people in the local community know this, these projects that get talked about forever and don't happen. What are the simple steps we can take to prioritise some of those things? And how do we get them kind of on the queue? Get them moving up the queue. So, look, I think the fund is great. I think the government's commitment to northern Australia is great. Now we've got to see some real action on the ground.

Kier: I want to ask you now about something that's happened here in the last 36 hours, which is that the fibre optic cable, that services northern Cape York peninsula and through to Torres Strait, was cut on Sunday with a fire, which meant that everywhere from Coen northwards right the way through the Torres Strait for a day and a half had absolutely no access to anything. So, that’s no banking, no eftpos, no economic activity at all for 36 hours. What's your reflection on something like that? Hearing that and imagining what that would be like if you know, if Hornsby found themselves without any communications for a day and a half.

Jennifer: Yeah, look, I think it's a, it's a really huge issue. I'm not sure that there's a simple answer to it and we’ve become very dependent on technology.

Kier: And all the eggs in one basket.

Jennifer: And all the eggs in one basket. So, the question I think becomes you know, how do we make that infrastructure more resilient? I mean, we are not thinking about, not just telecommunications, but all of our infrastructure. One of our first priorities before we even think about building new stuff is how do we shore up the security of what we’ve got. And I think that would be something that Infrastructure Australia might turn its mind to that, you know, we've got to make sure that what we've got is working and is able to work all the time and that we've got back up plans and that we can quickly swing into action. But, you know, there's no doubt that in a very connected world, these things are very dependent, on people's livelihoods. And, you know, I know Telstra and Optus are hugely aware of this.

Kier: Oh look, we get the distances, the challenge of the distance, the challenge of the kind of, you know, I mean it's a very, very vast area with very few people and the expense involved, we get that, but it's just, it's very frustrating to be at the same time talking about economic development, but at the same time just not literally being able to get access to your eftpos or your internet.

Jennifer: I think it’s about making sure that we say, look, you know, how this might be just one of those really simple things about how do we make sure that our infrastructure in places that are, you know, weather effected, places that are remote, that we're really prioritising the stability of that infrastructure.

Kier: Jennifer Westacott, really appreciate you coming on. I hope that you have a fantastic time today. But can I just also ask you about the chance to just hang out here?

Jennifer: Yeah, we have, we've been fishing out on the reef, which was great, with the guys from Reef Runner, I'll give them a plug. We had a terrific day and we've been up on the Scenic Railway, which is really just such an engineering masterful thing, really the courage of people to build, I’ve been up on it before. And then we've been up at the Daintree looking at the big crocs and, you know, all the touristy things. But I'll tell you what, you get treated well here as a tourist and, you know, one of my messages back to people will be, you know, think about Cairns instead of Europe because you will have an absolutely cracking time.

Kier: Jennifer Westacott, thank you for your time.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Kier: That is Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia, their Strong Australia Network event, taking place here in Cairns today.