Q&A - Business Council of Australia AGM

19 Nov 2020
Prime Minister

JENNIFER WESTACOTT, CEO BUSINESS COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA: Well, thank you very much, Prime Minister, for that outstanding address about what you've done and what you're going to do and can I echo Tim's comments to thank you for your tremendous leadership of the country. 

The PM's agreed to take some questions, use the raise hand function if you don't know how to do that just un-mute. Let me and of course as with our normal courtesy please introduce yourself, let me start with Karen Dobson from Dow.
QUESTION: Thank you Jennifer. It's Karen Dobson from Dow. Thank you Prime Minister for your comments, very encouraging in purpose and in pragmatism. You spoke earlier to the management of COVID and all the concrete things that have been done. I'm going to ask the crystal ball question, when you think about the interplay between vaccines, local outbreaks and borders, both domestic and international, how do you see the next 6 to 12 months playing out and what would you like to see from the business community? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if I knew the answer to that question I would have known COVID-19 was coming too I suspect, and everything that's followed. But you know, the best way I think to continue to manage what is before us is really what we've been demonstrating and that has been a preparedness to come together, a preparedness to listen to each other, a preparedness not to be boxed in by old approaches and deal with the challenges as they present, now where we go next year and what it looks like, well let me be optimistic. I'm far more optimistic now than I've been for a very long time when it comes to the development of vaccines. Brian McNamee can probably speak more about those things definitely than I can but I'm much more encouraged. I mean, the problem with the vaccine was never that this was some sort of scientific riddle that was insoluble, it was that with [inaudible] - I’ve got a lot of noise and feedback, because people might not be on mute - 

WESTACOTT: Yep, can people please go on mute.

PRIME MINISTER: The science of this is not that mysterious. It's just been there has never been a critical mass of effort that has been justified, and investment to focus on the issue of the coronavirus vaccine in the past like we've seen now and now, it is unprecedented, what we are seeing. So, and we're already seeing those early results, and that's good and so the challenge now is not if there's a vaccine, but how you disseminate it, and we've been spending a lot of time on that. So next year, over the course of the year, I believe we will see a vaccine. Next year I think we will see increased confidence about how we live with COVID-19. We're seeing a different approach in South Australia now. I would hope by this time next week, things are exactly back to normal in terms, from COVID normal at least, and that we will have avoided something far more drastic as we experienced in Victoria. I mean, what I know all the Premiers are trying to do is just learn from each event. Now, the in South Australia, the tracing and the testing is working exceptionally well as is the isolation but there are some curious elements of of a possible additional strain which is causing some consternation and one particular source around a pizza parlour. Now we expect to know more about that in a few days and I expect to see the Premier ease off on some of those initial restrictions soon and and keep absolutely to his word about this being a temporary way of dealing with this so we can get back to normal, as I said COVID normal quickly. 

But next year, what we have to do is just be more confident in how we live with COVID-19 and that's as important for business as anything else and you ask me, what can business do? Well, of course, business can invest, business can get back to the business of employing people and utilising all the various measures that we’ve put in place because they’ve been put there so you can do all of those things but I think the practical management of COVID-19 safe practices, whether that's the development and proliferation of QR code technology to check-ins and how workplaces are managed, how whether they're manufacturing sites, distribution systems or the like. I remember when we were working through the issues in Victoria, there were some quite rigid initial views about how that was being managed by the State Government and how they sought to do that but it was the very practical experience, logistical minds of the various big businesses that understood how they could do it even better and I was pleased that the Treasurer and others could play a role in try and connecting that so you could get better practical business type outcomes. Businesses need to better solve the COVID-19 in their own workplaces. While it's nice for the government to tell everybody what to do, it's it's better that those who know their businesses better than the government does, to put in place those practices which meet outcomes rather than just satisfy prescriptions. I would like to move to a more outcome based way of actually managing this in 2021. I think that will be better for business. I think it will be better for health. I think it will free up resources both in the private sector and in the public sector to better channel it in those areas of greatest need. So there's a lot more work to do. It's not a very concise answer because frankly, it's not a very concise problem. It has many, many it's a many headed monster in the way that it impacts on us and we've just got to keep working together to get the solves and to get them done. 

WESTACOTT: Andy Penn from Telstra? 

QUESTION: Thanks very much, Jennifer and hi Prime Minister and can I add my congratulations and thanks to Tim’s as well. Look, one issue I know is going to be on the minds of the BCA members is really, is the very significant growing incidence of malicious cyber activity, particularly in exploiting some of the vulnerabilities that have been exposed by COVID and in fact, you highlighted this risk yourself a couple of months ago. I obviously have a bit of a window into this via Telstra and also chairing your cybersecurity industry advisory. But I'm sure the members would really welcome an update from you on how you see this landscape is evolving, what your Government is doing, which I know is a lot, and also what business can do as well in the in the fight to protect ourselves?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, step one I think is, as you know Andy, and thanks for those kind comments. I mean, step one is we need to raise awareness. We must raise awareness of the risks that are here. And when I called out some major state sector based cyber attacks some months ago now, we have had a dramatic response from business, which we're thrilled about because it means people have got it and they understand their risk and they're engaging with agencies that have a lot of experience in this area and they're being assisted but it's not only that, it's just when things happen, as you know, Andy, that that means you can respond quickly and there's the trust and confidence for people to come in and assist when these things are occurring and what you do next. But having, having the awareness and having the precautions in place are absolutely necessary and there are umpteen numbers of providers who can support businesses doing that but they are no help to them if they don't know, don’t think they've got a problem, they don’t apply those applications. I mean, much of that is outside government that is actually in the corporate sector, in the private sector, in the same way they take out insurance for aspects of their businesses activity. There's no greater protection they need particularly with the digital transformation of our economy and we want to see more of it and so that does mean it needs to be less vulnerable. So what we have to do is particularly focus, as you know, on our on our big systems and our big infrastructure and whether it's the energy systems that, you know, work between the public and the private sector, our telecommunications systems and our rather sensitive systems through government, Defence and so on and and we need to ensure that we're doing the right thing as well and we're doing that, and providing the framework for businesses to go and support themselves and the community as well. There's $1.7 billion over 10 years to invest in this programme that the Government has put in place. It does involve not just those who work in industry departments and things like that but of course, those who have the technical expertise that actually protects Australia's greatest national interests and their tradecraft and they know how these things happen. I should stress it's not just vulnerability to state based actors and it is vulnerability to criminal syndicates, equally just as voracious for different purposes, but just as damaging and so we we shouldn't limit our thinking to it being just in one area, but that the spending will focus on the Australian Signals Directorate cyber enhanced situational awareness and response package known as CESAR, and strengthening counter cyber capabilities in our government agencies. There is also an important amount of work and this is the same in every area, whether I'm addressing mental health challenges in the community, aged care, disability care, the same as cyber, the reason you hear me talk so much about cyber and our skills agenda it's is one of our skills deficiencies in the country while I would say, great skills needs hopefully becoming less of a deficiency and more of just we just need more of them and we need them to be good and so growing cyber skills and bringing people through organisations that have a keen awareness of these things, as well as finance, accounting, engineering or maths, marketing or whatever it happens to be, people who get cyber and the digital space as Tim would appreciate, are vital, as vital as your financial controller, particularly when it comes to protecting the assets of your company and it's also about helping small and medium sized businesses as well get this and this is where, and Andy and I have talked about this before. What I'd love to see, whether it's through a big utility, a bank, Telstra, a telco provider or even an airline, I’m sure Alan’s there but if you're working with your suppliers or you're working with your customers who are small and medium sized enterprises, I would love to see greater bundling of these types of technologies into their systems. If there’s an accounting system, then there should be a cyber system as well, or whatever the package has to be or what their needs are but cyber needs to be bundled up because they won't necessarily always take the initiative themselves but if it comes in as part of a supplier relationship in a supply chain, which a large businesses sits on top of, then that's where I think you guys can play a huge role. You get cyber security. You spend incredible amounts rightly on protecting your companies from cyber attacks but small and medium sized enterprises that sit in your supply chains may not and in the same way you want them to be good engineers or or have good tradespeople working in their processes in their supply chain well you want them doing that as well, because you know that can present a vulnerability for yourselves and we're also investing in the cybersecurity capabilities of universities as well for all that incredible collaboration that's going to happen between the private sector and universities but thanks for your role in all this Andy, I appreciate your leadership there, is an outstanding report. 

WESTACOTT: Prime Minister have you got time for a couple of more questions before I head over to [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Sure! I’m in iso so I'm not going anywhere. 

WESTACOTT: Okay, so Robert Spurway from GrainCorp.
QUESTION: Thank you Jennifer. Good evening Prime Minister, and thank you again. My question is also about a topic that not be so concise and what’s your views on our relationship with China and the various trade bans and export bans that some sectors face and importantly your comments on what we can do as business to manage business to business relationship and trading partnerships from a business point of view? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is a very difficult issue and I won't pretend it's not. There are clearly tensions there and have been played out again over the last couple of days but I think what we've seen over the last couple of days is you know what is more at the source of these tensions. Australia has always been keen for a productive, open, respectful, mutually beneficial partnership with China and we've put a lot of effort into that over a long period of time as have, as have the members of the BCA who sit around this table and so many outside. Australia has not changed, our view is the same. Our view about our national interests, our view about securing those interests, whether it's on foreign investment or technology or communications or wherever it happened to be, our Ag sector, how our polity runs, how our freedom of our press, our parliaments, our views on all of these things haven't changed they're exactly the same but I, I had not seen before say, 10 or 20 years ago, and I often have these conversations with former Prime Minister Howard. It was a very different China back then. You wouldn't have seen a list of alleged grievances come out of the Chinese Embassy that we've seen in the last 24 hours. You wouldn't have seen that list 15 years ago. That was not the outlook that was there about Australia but Australia is no different to back then. Australia's democracy, what we stand for how we stand up for those things when we speak out, what we believe is important, the integrity of our systems. These are things that we won't compromise and I understand that others understand this as well. It struck me, as I said on the media this morning, that the tension is based on Australia just being Australia. Now, some suggest that this all could be fixed by a phone call. I think that doesn't really appreciate what's really at stake here. Australia has never, at any stage, not been willing to have a meeting or pick up the phone but I'll tell you what I'm not prepared to do. I'm not prepared to agree to a meeting on the condition that Australia compromise and trade away any of those things that were frankly listed in that, in that unofficial list of grievances. Some of them were misconstrued. The other thing that we struggle with and I've mentioned this in some of my national international speeches this year, is it's important that people understand, those who are dealing with Australia, that we set our own agenda, that we have our own interests and we make our own decisions. We don't make decisions at the behest of other countries. Never have, never will. We make our own decisions. If people or countries are unhappy with decisions Australia has made, that's not because someone else told us to do it. It's because we've decided to do it. So we're the ones who can talk about it and we can sit down and help to build understanding about the decisions we’ve taken. I think that's very important. Australia's relationship with both the US and China can't be seen through the prism of China's relationship with the United States or the US's relationship with China. That's their relationship. Where they've got issues in that relationship, that's up to them. We have relationships with both of them, just as Japan does where I was just yesterday and the day before and so it would be, I think, unfair to look at Australia's decisions and Australia's policies as somehow a function of our relationships with other countries and so I would hope that we can make this point, that we remain always very keen to continue to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship but if Australia just being itself, is the cause for tensions, then that's not something that we can change and so we need to be able to push through that and continue to hold to those perspectives in a polite and respectful way as we can but it's, being Australia is something we should never apologise for. Now, it's important that we work through the technical issues that are raised in relation to trade. Now, the Chinese government rejects any notion that, I assume, that the issues that have been raised as the source of the tension is is is the product is being worked out through these trade, these trade issues. That's a matter for them. But we just have to practically work through those through the channels we've got and we will and if others are introduced into that for whatever reason, then we'll just have to practically and patiently work through that as well. But you know, the Indo-Pacific will benefit from trading relationships like the RCEP we agreed to last weekend, where partners can deal openly and confidently with each other and in a transparent way, and where there are tensions and I said this at the RCEP meeting on the weekend that where there are issues that arise, then leaders and ministers have to be prepared to talk to each other. Now, I'm very prepared to do that but all it takes is for that to be arranged. 

WESTACOTT: And final quick question from Steve Worrall from Microsoft and then I'll hand you over to Alison Kitchen.

QUESTION: Thanks Jennifer, and thank you Prime Minister, for your time this evening, much appreciated. I want to circle back to a theme you touched on in your response there to Andy’s question and it’s in relation to the digital transformation and digitisation of our economy. We know that been incredibly important through this year, probably more so that at any time but I'm interested in your thoughts on the role that big business can play in helping small business on their journey to digitise, and what you'd like to see as we look out through 2021 and beyond?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean in part I answered the question when answering Andy's question and the supply chain part- partner chain that exists in large businesses to help them up-skill in this area is really important. I mean, it's not, when you can still walk down a main street and pop into a shop and people pull out their paper ledger book in terms of how they manage their accounts and that might be the way they’ve felt comfortable about doing it for a long time and I understand that, Tim Reid’s spent a fair bit of time trying to convince people not to do that with some success, but it's it's what feels familiar to them, but it is actually holding them back in so many ways that you know, whether it's cloud accounting or accessing faster payment times. I mean the thing that motivates small business, more than anything else in my experience, is getting paid on time and getting paid quickly. Large businesses paying small businesses quickly. There are few things that can be done to help the economy, particularly now more than that, they're not a bank to loan from they are a supplier to pay promptly and we've seen a lot of movement I know Jennifer’s led quite a charge on that and the BCA has led a charge on that. Seeking to change those practises. I mean under the new payments platform, I mean payments can be instantaneous now there's no technological excuse for this anymore and other than things being just a matter of policy and I think the biggest lever that business has, larger business has to leverage greater digitisation by smaller businesses is through those direct payment arrangements and if they're on a fast payment platform system and you are well, they get paid quicker. That's a, that's enough to get their attention and the other part is, is the answer to Andy’s question and that is they're also they, one of the reasons they won't do it is because of cybersecurity. They think it's not safe. And getting rid of some of those concerns by dealing with people and educating, educating is really not the word, but addressing their concerns and helping them appreciate and understand how they can be overcome through the solutions that are available. It also means up the skills for that as well and that they’re, they are small business owners they don’t always necessarily come from these backgrounds and we have a role to play there but it's also about the delivery of this sort of training and support that can be done in a way that suits them not suits the trainer and that’s another area I think we need to focus a lot on. I mean, I came to this BCA’s annual general meeting last year and talked about the need to develop a digital transformation strategy. We set it up the next week and $800 million was announced in the Budget, which cover all of these things. One in particular that I've always been quite passionate about is the area of RegTech. Now, the thing I like about RegTech, is it’s not just an exciting technology, but it actually makes regulation work rather than being a compliance issue, it becomes a business behaviour director issue. What I mean by that is that rather than saying here's a phone book full of things that a bunch of regulators have said you need to know about and you'll never read, it actually helps you respond to the issues that are raised in those regulations through the RegTech process, which both achieves the compliance element, as well as ensuring the awareness and and behaviour elements that are necessary through the regulation the government puts in place. So I'm quite excited about how that can develop, and that's why we put money into that as well and that's where we'll see our economy going. But the take up, the adoption, it's it's it's a blessing and a curse. Australia, are great adopters. I think I said this in my presentation last year. We don't have to be Silicon Valley and we're not trying to be, but we're really good at applying it and adapting it. We're a great applied economy in so many ways and I think this area is one of those but you just always got to get over this hump. But that's one of the positive things that have come out of COVID, small and medium sized businesses in particular have probably gone forward 5 years in the space of about 8 months and we've got to, we've got to keep that momentum going. That's not something I want to see drop off on the other side of COVID and I you know, I talk to businesses and visit them, and they talk to me more about this now because it's, for some of them it's very new and so you know, once you crack that, crack the ice there I think you can keep moving. So I’d encourage you to keep going. 

WESTACOTT: Prime Minister, thank you very much for that. And can I just say, before I hand over to Alison, the the comments you've made on enterprise bargaining are key to everyone's interests and certainly mine. So we stand absolutely ready to support you on that and to to get behind those reforms. So with that let me hand over to Alison Kitchen from KPMG to move a vote of thanks.