Address, Business Council of Australia Annual Dinner - Sydney, NSW

19 Apr 2021
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, g’day everyone, or should I say kia ora because today the Tasman is open. In a few weeks’ time, maybe a little later than that, I’ll be going across the Tasman for my second international visit this year, after visiting Western Australia last week. Now all the Western Australians in the room, I told that joke in Western Australia last week, as well. I say the same thing on one side of the country as I do on the other.

It’s a great privilege to be here with all of you tonight and seeing so many of you here, and I want to join with Tim, and thank you Tim for that introduction and Jennifer for the great work that is done here, in, for saying thank you for the wonderful job that businesses across Australia have done, particularly over the course of these last 18 months.

Before I go further, can I also acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and thank you very much for the welcome to country this evening. Can I acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging.

Can I also, particularly this day, when I have announced our intention to call a Royal Commission into defence and veterans’ suicide, acknowledge any servicemen and women who are with us here tonight, or perhaps looking on, but any veterans who are here tonight, and simply say to you on behalf of a very grateful nation, thank you for your service.

To Tim and to Jennifer, and Jennifer thank you for moving the flowers, they would have gone in about the first 30 seconds I think, so good call.

To all of my Ministerial colleagues who are here, my very good friend Josh Frydenberg, who joins us here tonight. Josh and I, together with Birmo and a range of the ERC Ministers are very heavily involved in the final stages of the Budget preparations, and so we will be meeting again in the morning, as we have been so regularly. And thank you Josh for your leadership, in particular, of our economy over the last 18 months. It has been a great team effort from my team, so many of whom are here with me this evening, but Josh you have led that from the front as Treasurer. I know a bit about that job, and you have been doing an outstanding job.

Senator Marise Payne who’s with us here, our senior NSW member, amongst many other great accomplishments of Marise. It’s wonderful to be here with you. To Stuart Robert who’s here, Jane Hume is here as well, of course Angus Taylor who I’ll speak a little bit more about. We were in South Australia together yesterday. Senator Zed Seselja is here tonight, as is Ben Morton. And I want to thank all of you colleagues for joining me here this evening. To any other parliamentary colleagues, I saw Trent on the way in here, I’m sure there are many others.

Can I particularly acknowledge here tonight the former Governor-General Sir Peter and Lady Cosgrove. Peter and Lynne, and I’m sure they don’t mind me referring to those in those ways, they have served our country so famously. They are both friends and former neighbours of mine, over in Kirribilli, and I’m so pleased the service that they have continued with after leaving that high office, and they are tremendous friends and they are great Australians and they give us all tremendous encouragement.

Many members of the Reserve Bank Board who are here this evening, my favourite Dr Phil is here tonight, Dr Lowe, it’s good to see you here, as well as so many great and distinguished guests who gather.

Tonight I want to touch on what we have achieved as a country in what has been the most challenging of circumstances that we’ve seen in our country in some 75 years. And I also want to draw attention to some of the key areas of policy focus as we embark on, in the Budget, the second phase of our economic recovery plan. Now the Treasurer, of course, Josh will have much more to say about that on 11th of May in the Budget, and I don’t want to steal his thunder too much this evening.

The world is in the grip, still, of a raging global COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes hard for us here in Australia, I think, to appreciate the scale of that. It’s raging around the world. More than three million people have lost their lives. Right now there are an average of 750,000 cases of COVID every single day.

That is not Australia’s experience today. If Australia had experienced over the course of this past year the same fatality rate from COVID-19 as the average of the OECD, sadly we lost 910 Australians during this time. If we had had the average of the OECD, 30,000 more Australians would have died. Just let that sink in.

In most other countries they don’t talk about someone they know who might know someone who had COVID. They talk about someone they know who has died of COVID. That has not been Australia's experience. Australia is leading the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global recession it has caused. That is a sobering achievement. In a global pandemic, there is nothing to celebrate, I think, because the loss is so great. There are achievements to acknowledge, and I look forward to you doing that this evening.

But this state that Australia has arrived in has not been the product of luck. It was not luck that meant we entered this unprecedented crisis from a position of fiscal strength, with the Budget back in balance in the first time in 11 years. It wasn’t luck that saw Australia be among the first countries to close our border to mainland China, under great criticism including here. It wasn’t luck that saw Australia call the pandemic early, some two weeks before the rest of the world. It wasn’t luck that led our federation to come together and respond decisively – and I remain to this day very proud of the work of the National Cabinet, as indeed I know all the members of the National Government, as heads of Government, do feel that confidence in the work that they continue to do and the shared purposes that they have demonstrated, and I thank them each for that, and the cooperation we’ve had and continue now to protect Australians in a time of crisis. It wasn’t luck that saw our Government, together with the Reserve Bank and the business community collectively step up to the task, firstly of economic survival, followed so quickly by economic recovery. And as Dr Lowe and I were discussing before, a lot of those charts I’m looking at at the moment Josh, they look like v’s to me. It wasn’t luck that resulted in world-leading policies, Liberal Coalition policies like JobKeeper, that actually brought together Government, business, employers and banks together, to save the livelihoods of over three million people. That was innovation, and alongside the critical fiscal supports where Australia has invested heavily to preserve the fabric of our economy through its most significant challenge. These are things that aren’t the product of luck, and it wasn’t luck that meant we kept industries operating in a COVID safe way. That was your efforts - mining, construction, manufacturing, agriculture. Or that we were able to keep those vital supply lines that Tim referred to operating, everything from supermarkets to freight.

And in that context let me acknowledge, in particular, the great work done by Nev Power, who is here with us this evening, and the National COVID-19 Advisory Commission on these very practical tasks. Nev and his colleagues answered the call when they were needed and have worked so incredibly hard to support the Government’s plans for managing the virus and to lead our economic recovery. Nev is someone who knows how to get things done, that was his reputation, and it was him that I turned to at that time as the pandemic was ravaging. And his work at Fortescue obviously and in many other projects since, a great Western Australian and a great Australian, so thank you very much Nev for your tremendous work.

Tonight I stand here with the Australian economy that has so far recovered 85 per cent of its COVID-induced fall, six months earlier and twice as fast as we might have expected in last year’s October Budget.

Jobs are now above the level they were before COVID-19 and we have continued to maintain our AAA credit rating - one of only nine countries in the world to do so. In the last 10 months alone, 947,100 Australians have gone back to work - 947,100 Australians have gone back to work. There are more Australians in work today than before when COVID hit.

Unemployment has now fallen to 5.6 per cent, down from the recent peak of 7.5 per cent in July of last year, lower than it was when we came to Government and that is after a global pandemic and recession. But we all know that figure doesn’t capture the full extent, with the effective unemployment rate hitting 15 per cent at its peak at the start of COVID. The participation rate, people are voting with their feet, has risen to a record high of 66.3 per cent. Female workforce participation, as I know my colleagues would be very pleased to hear, particularly Marise Payne, is now at a record 61.8 per cent, Jane also, above pre-COVID levels.

JobKeeper, the coronavirus supplement, the CashFlow Boost, support payments to millions of pensioners and others on income support, have helped cushion the blow, as we said, but it’s also, as Dr Lowe said at the time, helped build that bridge that we’ve been travelling across over these past 18 months to ensure that Australia’s economy now is outperforming virtually any other major advanced economy in 2020. There are some, obviously, who are in that club, but it’s a very small club. Importantly, the fiscal support we have provided does not just end suddenly. There is not just one measure. It has a long tail, as those balance sheets of households and businesses have been filled again through this support.

But the pandemic has not changed our view that the private sector should remain the primary engine of growth in our economy. Of course in the middle of a pandemic it is the task of Government to step in, as John Howard reminded Josh and I on I don’t know how many occasions, in a pandemic, in a global crisis, in a crisis there is no such thing as ideology. You do what you need to do, and that’s what we did. But we did do it in accordance with Liberal values and Coalition values.

Today, business conditions are at their highest level ever, according to the NAB index, and consumer confidence is at its highest level in a decade. And with a growth rate last quarter of 3.1 per cent, Australia continues to lead the world out of the global COVID recession. But there is no room for complacency or even congratulation, as I said before. None. And my Government is a humble Government and we don’t think that way. There remains much more to do.

We have a long way still to go to deliver the jobs, to guarantee the services that Australians rely on and keep Australians safe, both  now and into the future. And our economic recovery plan, the second phase of that which will be in the Treasurer’s Budget, is geared to keeping our economy on that right track. To protect and preserve those lives and livelihoods, but also to build a strong and durable recovery for the future. Not one that depends on the taxpayers’ continued subsidy, but one that is based on a robust, vibrant, business-led economy that can stand on its own two feet. Stage Two of our National Economic Recovery Plan will be in that Budget in a few weeks’ time, and it builds on the strong foundations laid in last year’s October Budget.

A plan that retains a clear focus on lower taxes, competitive policy settings for Australian industry, sensible industrial relations settings, deregulation, open trade, open markets. A plan that does not sacrifice our traditional industries in regional Australia by seeking to tax our way to lower emissions and a net zero economy. A plan that invests in our people and new technologies – whether it be in our manufacturing plan, our plan to become one of the world’s leading digital economies by 2030, and our plan to take full advantage of the big global energy transition that is taking place around the world. A plan that very much puts business and the private sector in the driver’s seat for a durable and strong economic recovery.

Now let me illustrate what I mean in just a few key areas in the time we have remaining. I’ve spoken in many forums about the nation’s workforce challenge. I consider this the single greatest economic challenge that Australia faces to date - workforce, workforce, workforce - and the particular trends coming out of COVID-19 that we need to respond to in relation to workforce.

To make the obvious point, the way you approach this challenge is critical to your capacity to meet it, and from the outset, going right back to when we commissioned the Joyce review - prior to the last election - into vocational education and training back in 2018, we have made it plain that our Government is prepared to invest more, as we have, particularly during COVID but not just then, in skills and training, in a better system. Not the same broken system. I’m not going to pour money into a dud system that hasn’t been working the way we wanted. We’ve got to fix the system and we will invest more in it, as we’ve already demonstrated our willingness to do. To fund a responsive model, not a unresponsive, supply-driven model geared to providers rather than the needs of employers and the employees who need the skills to work in those businesses. That’s why we’re determined to make our VET system more responsive to the needs of employers and employees, so it meets their needs.

The new Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business Stuart Robert has taken that mantle now from Michaelia Cash, who is now our Attorney, and he is working to deliver a new National Skills Agreement that reflects the needs of employers and employees.

Initiatives that in just a five short month period, through our apprenticeship scheme, saw 100,000 apprentices and trainees get a job in five months. 100,000 apprentices and trainees got a job in the middle of a global pandemic coming out of a recession in five months. We thought it’d take 12 months. Jennifer’s always been a passionate advocate for skills in the workplace, and BCA’s advocacy on this did not fall on deaf ears in this government. And I’m so pleased, as I’m sure Jennifer is too, to see just how strongly the economy responded to those messages. My worst fear at the outset of the pandemic before it had really materialised in its most horrendous forms, is that we would see apprentices and trainees lost, those who’d spent two, three years already in training, the first to go as the storm hit. We kept them with the retaining apprentices initiative and then got 100,000 more and we’ve extended that program out for the full year.

Now, at the same time, Stuart’s working to finalise a new Employment Services model better tailored to the needs of jobseekers. This is about making our institutions more responsive to what’s needed, the demand that’s there out of employers rather than focusing on the needs of suppliers.

Now under the leadership of Senator Jane Hume, working with other Ministers and the private sector, Jane’s here tonight, we are delivering on our strategy to make Australia a leading digital economy and society by 2030. Now we’ll have more to say about that between now and the Budget but tonight I just want to say COVID-19 we know accelerated the take up of digital technology and highlighted the role it can play to support and enhance business operations and the delivery of government services.

And the Budget again will go further. The next phase of our plan, building on the $4.5 billion invested in upgrading the NBN, our $1.7 billion in our Cyber Security Strategy and our $800 million following through on the commitment I gave at this very platform several years ago after the election saying the digital economy we wanted to lead in, that plan was delivered in last year’s Budget and prior to that. $800 million and there’ll be more to come.

This is in addition to the significant investment the Government is making in digital skills. Digital jobs have been identified by the National Skills Commission in the top 25 emerging occupations and it will be critical that we continue to deliver the skilled workforce that can fill those jobs.

The JobTrainer Fund, together with the states and territories $1 billion, support for apprentices and trainees, together with the Advanced Apprenticeship program, additional university places – 30,000 there, 300,000 on the JobTrainer program - short courses upskilling the current workforce.

The next Skills Agreement will ensure we continue to deliver the skills for the future workforce, together helping businesses develop the skills they need to engage in the digital economy.

On energy, Angus Taylor’s here tonight and I want to commend Angus for the great job he’s been doing on energy and emissions reduction. Major climate summit occurring this week, I’ll be joining with President Biden. Now as a Government, we are also charting our own course to ensure Australia is well placed to prosper through the great energy transition of our time, consistent with the strong action on climate change. To ensure we can get to that net zero economy as I said as quickly as possible and preferably by 2050 and I’m increasing in confidence with the plan that we’re developing to achieve that. 

The key to meeting our climate change ambitions is commercialisation of low emissions technology. We are not going to meet our climate change targets through punishing taxes. I am not going to tax our industries off the planet. We are going to meet our ambitions with the smartest minds, the best technology and the animal spirits of our business community.

We need to change our energy mix over the next 30 years on that road to net zero emissions. Last week I was in Western Australia and saw first-hand the ground breaking work that Andrew Forrest and Fortescue are doing as part of our energy transition as a way of sustaining jobs in the resources sector.

The work that’s being done on green hydrogen is already attracting considerable interest from many countries. I spoke with Ken McKenzie earlier today, here this evening, about the work that BHP is doing to unlock the potential of CCS and introduce emission-free surface mining vehicles in their fleet. Have no doubt Rio Tinto when we meet soon will be telling me similar stories.

We’re seeing AGL and Idemitsu Australia Resources near completion on an early study for a pumped hydro energy storage facility in a former coal mine in the upper Hunter, ensuring these sites can continue to generate investment and jobs.

We’re not going to achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities. It will not be achieved by taxing our industries that provide livelihoods for millions of Australians off the planet, as our political opponents sought to do when they were given the chance.

It will be achieved by the pioneering entrepreneurialism and innovation of Australia’s industrial workhorses, farmers and scientists.

It will be won in places like the Pilbara, the Hunter, Gladstone, Portland, Whyalla, Bell Bay, the Riverina. In the factories of our regional towns and outer suburbs. In the labs of our best research institutes and scientists. It will be won in our energy sector. In our industrial sector. In our ag sector. In our manufacturing sector. That’s how you get to net zero. 

That’s where the road to net zero is being paved in Australia. And those industries and all those who work in those places, will reap the great benefits of the changes they are making to the businesses they work in and that they are pioneering.

We are seeing creative solutions already being put in place in so many industries. The combination of our natural resources and the strength of industries presents a huge opportunity to capitalise on the new energy economy.

Through our Technology Investment Roadmap, that Angus has driven so well, we are helping drive down the cost and accelerate the deployment of low emissions technologies.

And let’s not forget that Australia already produces many of the products that will be in growing demand as part of a low carbon future – from copper to lithium.

It is this practical approach of making new technologies commercial that will see not only us achieve our goals, but those we work with around the world, in the developing economies of the world. And without taxing the life out of industries that are a source of high wage jobs to so many Australians, especially in regional areas. And we are making real progress. We have met and exceeded our emissions reductions targets for Kyoto in 2020, we are well advanced on meeting and exceeding our targets for 2030.

Our current target will see Australia – this is for 2030 - reduce our emissions by 70 per cent per unit of GDP on 2005 levels, and halve it when considered in per capita emissions.

Already total emissions in Australia are 19 per cent lower at the end of 2020 than they were in 2005. 19 per cent. That’s a further improvement on the 13 per cent reduction by 2018. How does that compare? Well in Canada it was zero, in New Zealand it was eight (sic: 1%) per cent, and Germany, Japan and the United States it was 10 per cent over that same period. So don’t let it be said by those who want to talk Australia down in what we’re doing on emissions that we’re not carrying our load. We are, and we are leading the way. Our domestic emissions have already fallen by 36% from 2005 levels. That sounds to me like Australia doing its heavy lifting in our part of the world.

Australia has deployed renewable energy ten times faster than the global average and four times faster in Europe and the United States. One in four rooftops have solar, more than anywhere else in the world. We take our emission reductions targets very seriously. They aren’t proclamations, they are commitments. And we don’t make commitments lightly in this country. We prepare our plan to achieve them and then we follow through. And we meet them, and we beat them. That is how we are addressing the challenge of the future net zero carbon economy which of course is coming. And we will be ready for it, and we will succeed in it.

Now the other area I wanted to talk about tonight was deregulation. A pillar of our recovery plan, again with its core of how we do things as a government, as a Liberal National Government. It’s led by Assistant Minister to myself Ben Morton, who’s also here.

From well before COVID, deregulation has been an integral part of our economic plan. I’m tempted to say this is not a topic that excites many, including our political opponents, but it is one that our Government believes in very deeply because we know how important it is to businesses doing business every day. We are determined to take unnecessary regulatory burdens off business, off employers, to unlock investment and to create jobs.

Our Deregulation Taskforce has produced initiatives to make it easier for small businesses to do the following - put on their first employee; bust congestion for agricultural exporters; modernise Australian business registers; establish a 21st century environmental approvals process, in the first instance in partnership with the Western Australian state government in WA; and to establish a modern export documentation system and a new trade information service.

In taking this agenda forward, I’ve asked Ben to really get under the bonnet on this, working across Government with all Ministers, with my authority, to come up with solutions in a very granular way. You’ve heard plenty of people talk to you about deregulation and cutting red tape, that’s fine, but you need to have the detailed plan of what you have to change. And to my mind, there is no real substitute for that.

You can have all the lofty communiques about regulatory reform you like, but ultimately it means working through the detail with those who have to live with this depressing level of regulation that prevents you from employing more Australians. Obstacles that need to be stripped away in order for you to grow your business.

And so, a few examples. In the Budget, $120 million will be invested in a deregulation package that I am announcing tonight.

The benefits to businesses, individuals and not-for-profits in reduced compliance costs under this package are estimated to average some $430 million annually.

As part of reducing the regulatory burden for business interactions with government, we’re streamlining reporting under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme. This will dramatically reduce time spent preparing reports in some cases by around 70 per cent, benefiting more than 900 companies reporting on 7,500 facilities every single year.

We’re also streamlining digital services in the health sector. This will reduce the regulatory burden on around 400 companies that currently lodge 2,000 applications annually in the pharmaceutical, medical technology services and medical software industries.

We’re helping an estimated 1,220 commercial fishing businesses meet data provision requirements to enable more informed decision making. And at the same time, we’re improving electronic monitoring systems that will assist around 610 fishing businesses to more efficiently meet their regulatory requirements.

One that I know sounds dreadfully technocratic, but that is very meaningful to people in this room, we are improving the technology neutrality of the Treasury portfolio legislation. Regulated entities across banking, insurance, superannuation and capital markets will benefit through increased flexibility for regulators to obtain information without prescribing the method of communication.

We’re also making it easier for business to get Australians into jobs, including providing additional assistance to small businesses with RegTech solutions to help them comply with modern awards, cutting costs and improving compliance.

A further measure vital to our recovery in supporting the implementation of Automatic Mutual Recognition. This will mean ultimately, if we get this right, that around 124,000 Australians who currently require multiple occupational licences – so you need a license to be an electrician in Queanbeyan and then you need another license to be an electrician about 100 metres or a kilometre down the road in the ACT. Go figure. That will no longer be required, and a further 44,000 individuals are now likely to work interstate who would not have done so otherwise. That’s going to help portability of skills, that’s going to make a big difference.

These are granular things, but they make a big difference to the operations of business which means you can invest more confidently and you can employ more confidently.

Now of course our economic plan is working in tandem with our plan to stay on top of the virus to rollout vaccines. We continue to work in partnership with the states and territories on this critical task and this afternoon – I won’t delay us all tonight by running over all of that, it’s been reported – we met again and we remain fully aligned on that task of vaccinating the most vulnerable members of our community as a priority.

The medical advice remains – and this is important - that AstraZeneca is a safe and recommended vaccine for Australians over 50 and today National Cabinet further agreed in-principle to a series of changes to the Strategy that will be put forward for approval at the next meeting of National Cabinet. This includes options to bring forward the commencement of vaccinations for over 50s under priority group 2a, and to establish readiness the states and territories to operate - vaccination sites from additional sites to mass vaccination sites as we move through the year.

National Cabinet reinforced that general practice will continue to be the primary model of rolling out vaccinations for Australians over 50 years of age, and with states and territories to consider options to supplement roll out through expanded state vaccination centres.

Our vaccination strategy is being delivered at the same time, we continue to implement our national health response and our successful suppression strategy across the country in partnership with the states and territories that have continued to keep Australians safe during this pandemic.

So ladies and gentleman, Australia’s comeback is well under way but there’s further distance to travel. From the depths of pandemic despair a year ago, here we are, fighting our way back. Fighting our way back.

The Budget next month will lay out the next phase of Australia’s economic recovery plan, to grow our economy so we can deliver the jobs and guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on, and continue to keep Australians safe.