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Jennifer Westacott interview with Ross Greenwood, Sky News Business Weekend

  • Written by Ross Greenwood

Ross Greenwood, host: Jennifer, many thanks for your time. This is the thing, these border closures, they do hurt. Lockdowns do hurt businesses, they hurt employees. So, it's to no benefit. And yet, safety still becomes a part of this, as well.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Yeah. It's a difficult one because they've clearly got a big problem. I mean, their case numbers are quite high, they're growing. Here's my frustration, we don't have a Victorian strain. New South Wales has done the bulk of the heavy lifting on quarantine, and yet, for whatever reason, the Victorians have not got their systems right. They haven't got their tracking and tracing right, they haven't got their local containment right. And so the whole state has to then suffer the consequences of these lockdowns.

Ross: Are you telling me this is a political problem?

Jennifer: It's a systems problem. They've got a systems problem, and I can't understand why they can't get this right. New South Wales, as I said, has taken the lion's share of the quarantine but they don't have these problems. They don't shut down the whole state. They don't have these sharp lockdowns. They get on top of these outbreaks, they get on top of them quickly, they track and trace. What is the difference in the Victorian systems, that keeps going wrong, that forces these lock-downs? To your point, these hurt and they hurt at an economy level but they hurt at an individual and family level too. You and I are meant to be in Bendigo this week. We're meant to be in a place where 120 people have booked, it's a sell-out event. My concern is that little venue would've ordered a whole lot of extra food in, some family would've thought, "next week's going to be a bit better, because I've got a few extra hours or mum's got a few extra hours of catering work." Now, they're staring down that’s not going to happen. It's that effect on people. And then there’s the cumulative effect. You’ll keep doing this, time and time again if you can't get the systems right. Every time you do that, particularly for small business no so much larger ones, the capacity for people to get back on their feet over and over again - they just can't. They don't have balance sheets to do it, they don't have inventory to do it and I think, in some cases, they're not going to have the will to do it.

Ross: Okay. There's a second part to this and that is that we've just seen, not just the Federal budget, but we've seen the Victorian budget where we've seen increases in not only payroll taxes, but also in stamp duties, as well. What are your big business members telling you right now, about their frustration with the Victoria system and government, and in regards to where they're going to allocate their capital?

Jennifer: It's a great question. I think that this will ultimately be self-defeating, these decisions. Because you've got to do the maths. In a mid-size company, employing around 200 people for every employee, they're going to have to pay an extra 200 dollars. Now, that might not sound a lot to people, but it is a lot. If you're a mid-size company, those margins may be different. And I'm sure that the bulk of Victorians would like that 200 dollars in extra pay. People's wages are pretty depressed at the moment so, that's a tax. If you're a bigger company, you're looking at four or five million dollars a year, on top of your payroll bill. That's a lot of money, that's money that could be used to employ extra people, invest in your business. Take New South Wales as contrast, if I'm thinking about a new venture and I qualify for the Premier’s really innovative JobsPlus program, where you bring forward investment and employ 30 or more people, you're going to get a payroll tax deferral for four years.  A company is doing the maths, asking do I expand my operations in New South Wales, or do I expand in Victoria? When I'm looking not as you rightly say not just the payroll tax hikes, but stamp duty if I want to buy a new premises or whatever…

Ross: And the risk of business

Jennifer: And the risk of business in all of these rolling lock-downs. What do you think people are going to do? And ultimately it's self-defeating. The final point is just the principle of it. We all want mental health systems to be better, but state governments have known that the mental health systems have been not working for years. And to say that we've run out of ideas on how to make our budgets stack up so we're just going to slug companies, because they’re big businesses and we think that’s politically sellable, to pay for things, the principle of that is a very bad precedent to set. And I think the other point is, many of these big companies paid people during the lockdown, when they had no work to do. They didn't lay them off. They continued to pay them. I know, talking to all of these big companies in Victoria, they have spent so much money on people' mental health, and what do they get? They get slogged with a tax.

Ross: Okay. Then there's one other aspect of this, because this is the first lockdown that will take place without JobKeeper. So, this is another test, or stress, that's going to come on?

Jennifer: Absolutely. And we have very strongly supported the Treasurer and the Prime Minister in removing JobKeeper, because it was an emergency measure. And it was there to make sure that the states could get their systems in order, get their tracking and tracing, get their hospital capacity up. And while we did that, making sure that people could stay attached to their employer. But as you know, it started to have quite a distortionary effect and of course the cost of it is colossal. But I think the basic assumption was that people would get their systems in order. And what keeps happening in Victoria is their systems just don't seem to do the job.

Ross: Okay, but a lot of people may be listening to this, who might be sympathetic to the Victoria government. Might actually say, well hang on, this is all the Federal government issue. If they'd rolled out the vaccines more quickly. If they got more shots into arms more rapidly, then maybe this outbreak wouldn't have occurred. Maybe we wouldn't have had to have closed up, as a result of it." So, does the Federal government have to share some burden here?

Jennifer: Well I think if you say to those people up in Bendigo, who were relying on you and I to go up there and run an event and get their business kicking again, that people are going to play the blame game, I think that they say – “I don't want any of that, I want someone to fix this.” But I think it's a different set of issues. Clearly, we need to roll the vaccine out fast. And business is really willing to step up there. Give people information, lots of companies are willing to give people vaccination leave, pay for their Ubers to get to sites, make sure we roll-out, particularly, the information. In the Business Council alone, our company’s employ 1.5 million people. We could get a lot of information out to people. They've clearly got to go faster. But I think even with the vaccine, you're still going to have people test positive and so we're still going to have some of these local outbreaks, we're still going to have to get them contained. We have to get them managed. And of course, we have to accelerate the vaccine. But one thing I would say about the vaccine, it'd be great if the health professionals could just give one consistent message about the risks of getting the vaccine, versus the risks of getting COVID. And proper information, instead of this very inconsistent advice about the vaccine.

Ross: I want to go with one last thing, and I know this is actually quite controversial right now. That is, the Therapeutic Goods Administration bans companies outright from providing information about a vaccine. This is an interesting thing. I didn't realise this. I presumed a company could encourage employees to get a vaccine. It's their choice whether they do it or not, but try and encourage it. But this is apparently banned, under something between Therapeutic Goods Administration and FairWork. Surely that's something the government's looked at?

Jennifer: Absolutely. Because you just think, businesses including the companies I represent employ 11 million people. They employ the bulk of the workforce.

Ross: That's an easy way to get information out.

Jennifer: And also, then people would say, "On Thursday, we want Team A to go and do it. On Wednesday, we want Team B to go."

Ross: But they can't do that.

Jennifer: But they can't do that. And not being able to give information. And companies are itching to say, "Look, we can provide facilities." That's more complex because of the temperatures you've got to keep the drugs. But we could be a partner with governments, in getting this thing done faster. Getting people information. But the first starting point is to clear that up and secondly, for consistent, predictable information from the health officials and the health experts, about the need to get the vaccine, because we're getting a lot of inconsistent information. And people are worried, and you can understand people being anxious. But we have got to get people vaccinated, because then we can get our lives back, and we can get our country going again.

Ross: Well can I just say, that particular aspect about companies being unable to give information. That's bonkers, right?

Jennifer: They've got to fix that.

Ross: They've got to fix that pretty quickly.

Ross: Tell you what, always great to have a chat. Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia.

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