Q&A, WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry

14 Apr 2021
Kings Park, WA
Prime Minister

Aaron Morey, CCIWA Chief Economist: Well, Prime Minister, once again, welcome to Western Australia. It’s been a big 15 months for all of us, but especially for you. There's basically nothing that you haven’t been asked to do over this period, Prime Minister. Protecting the health and safety of the community, ensuring the survival of thousands of businesses, quelling the fears of our most vulnerable, and in amongst it all Jenny and the kids demanded that you build them a chicken coop. So there's really nothing that you haven't been asked to do. But in all seriousness, as you rightly say, the Australian economy has been the best performing economy in the developed world. And you outlined all the initiatives that your Government has undertaken, and so you and your Government deserve special credit. And the women and men in this room, of course, as you rightly recognised, do deserve some credit. The WA business community long punches above its weight when it comes to its contribution to the economy. So we’re really keen to talk today, Prime Minister, about how we can continue to help these women and men to drive the nation forward. Vaccine rollouts - obviously you’re looking at a slower rollout when it comes to the vaccine, and obviously that has economic implications for the travel and tourism sector, accessing those skilled workers. A lot of our members are concerned about skill shortages. In fact, that’s their number one, that's their number one issue. To shift the goal we’ll let in people from other countries at some point. You were out at BHP FutureAcademy today, really important issue, your apprenticeship announcements really important, as well. But every day around the world about 18 million people get vaccinated. To what extent can we begin to treat a vaccinated traveller differently from a non-vaccinated one? When can we start to adjust those quarantine settings in terms of where people quarantine, how long for, so we can take more of a risk-based approach and we can start to mitigate so of those economic hurt points that the WA business community is feeling.

Prime Minister: That is the exact question I’ve tasked the medical expert panel to give National Cabinet an answer on. That was the exact question I framed and was agreed to by the premiers last Friday. You've got to be careful about a couple of things here on vaccinations. As I've said before, vaccinations are not a silver bullet. They are enormously helpful. And we need to roll it out as quickly and as safely as possible. And as I said, we are on track, with the same performance and you’ll find in roughly Germany, in France, and it’s well-advanced of where it is in New Zealand and Canada and places like that. So Australia's relative performance is there with those like countries. Where it's a lot less than is in the United Kingdom and the United States. Now, there are two principal reasons for that. One is they both have massive stocks of vaccines that enable mass vaccination rollout. Australian is not in that position and nor are most of the countries that I just referred to. The second one is it was a matter of vaccine or die. And I don’t want to put that, that's a fairly forceful way to put it, but that is the reality. In the United States, still a thousand people are dying every day. And so they are in an emergency crisis setting with the pandemic that thankfully Australia is not, and as I said before, that is not by accident. So that is the reason for the difference in those rollouts. What am I trying to achieve right now? I'm trying to ensure that we vaccinate our priority populations of the vulnerable and the elderly. Why is that? Because they are the ones who are most at risk if we get a break out. Protecting the most vulnerable populations takes you down the path where you can start to treat COVID like the flu. But let's not forget, there are thousands of cases of the flu every day, every year. Not clearly, that Australians across the country, whether here in Western Australia or elsewhere as we were saying, potentially getting into mine sites and things like that, that we would be comfortable with COVID in this country running at a 1,000 cases a week or even a day. Now that would, in that environment, people would not be, we wouldn't be saying the same fatalities existed, but we would have allowed COVID back into the country on the basis that we didn't think it was going to affect our most vulnerable. So that is a core question that we have to work through. But what we are working on at the moment is to enable Australians who are vaccinated to be able to travel overseas and return - those who need to. And to also for returning Australian residents from low-risk countries to do that as well, and not go through hotel quarantine but a modified form of home isolation, quarantine or something even reduced to that. So we're trying to settle that at the moment, and that's where we're at. Those answers aren't in yet, but that's what we're working on.

Morey: That's great, because a lot of the debate at the moment is sort of, you know, quarantine and, you know, border restrictions versus no border restrictions. And clearly there is the potential there for an interim step once we get, you know those, vaccination of the vulnerable populations and we can prove that there’s, the transmission risk is reduced, that there is a step that we can take on the path to that.

Prime Minister: That is exactly the plan. But as I said before, the mass vaccination rollout for the balance of the population will depend on those supplies. We have the supplies to deal with phase 1A, 1B, and I think particularly to 2A to 50 per cent of the population. As Pfizer stocks increase and we get to fourth quarter without mass stops, we can move to mass vaccination. But that will require the states’ programme working with the Commonwealth to do that in a sprint.

Morey: Fantastic. Let's turn to the workforce, participation of women. Obviously those countries that have tapped into the full potential of their workforce in coming years are going to be at a competitive advantage, because the benefits they go beyond efficiency, they go to fairness, social benefits as well. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA has recently completed a 12-month enquiry into the barriers that women face, particularly when they re-enter the workforce after having children. So we’re really encouraged by the recent statement from the Prime Minister that the national women's summit will include a focus on workforce participation later this year. We're really keen to see everything on the table when it comes to looking at the policy issues, whether it's Child Care Subsidy, fringe benefits tax, paid parental leave, all those sorts of issues. Can we confirm, Prime Minister, that basically everything is going to be on the table once we get to that point and start to tackle these issues?

Prime Minister: All of the areas you're talking about, they're all already significant measures that both Commonwealth and state governments are pursuing. Let's not gloss over the point that women's workforce participation in the Australian economy has been at record levels. Let's also not forget that the gender pay gap has fallen to one of its lowest levels. In fact, the lowest level that we've seen in Australia and these are significant achievements. What we agreed at National Cabinet last week is that we already have a national plan in process that deals with women's safety and we do not want to distract that agenda. That is a very important agenda. We have been having a national plan on women's safety now since Prime Minister Gillard set that up. We've invested a billion dollars, the Government alone, over our course, and most of that has come in the last few years in particular. Now, we are moving to the next iteration of the national plan. There have been four additions of it now and we're moving to the next one. There is a summit that will be held in late July. That will be on women's safety. In July also the National Cabinet will have a meeting focused on women's economic security with a view to having a national plan on women's economic security, which I imagine at some point will involve something of that nature. Now, what I've asked the states to do and territories to do, and they agreed to do, is that by the end of June I want all the states and territories to have completed their response to Respect@Work. The Attorney and I have done that just the other day. They have committed to do that by the end of June. The other thing I've asked them to do is to put it all down. Let's get it all on the table of everything the states and territories are doing to promote women's economic security and everything the Commonwealth Government is doing, so we know what base we're working from and we can begin at that point, I think, a process to identifying any potential gaps and the responsibilities of states and territories and the Commonwealth. So it's a big project. There have been two women's economic security statements by our Government. They've addressed the very issues that you've been discussing. The biggest reforms to child care were undertaken by our Government, and that has resulted in greater access and affordability, and particular access to those on low to middle incomes in accessing child care, because that is where families, it's not a matter of choice of whether one is wealthy. It is a matter of necessity. And we want to ensure, particularly in those cases, that means tested support goes where it is most urgently needed and that's what our program's been doing.

Morey: That's encouraging to hear, thank you, Prime Minister. Let's go to workplace relations reform. Your Government got through some really important changes when it comes to the certainty around casual employees, that was really important. Obviously, there's still some remaining issues that need to be addressed, as you well know. Award complexity, striking and enterprise agreements. In the WA economy, the greenfield agreement in particular and the life of project agreement are really important, particularly in the petroleum sector. What extent, how do we ensure that all that work is in place and will we get a fresh crack at these important reforms in this term of Government?

Prime Minister: The Senate rejects them. We don't reject them. We put them forward. We did it in good faith, in good faith. I said in July of last year, I said, I want to sit down with the unions. I want to see if we can work this out. We did that. We worked a whole bunch of things out. We put them in the Parliament and the Labour Party opposed them and played politics with it in the middle of a pandemic. So to get changes of this nature there needs to be good faith and I have no confidence in the good faith of the Labour Party to support these changes. They will run the lines of their union masters and they are holding back jobs as a result. People know what our position is and we've endeavoured to put that through and we've been very transparent about that. The changes, to be honest, that we took forward, they were modest changes. And I know there was frustration from the business community. They would have liked to see greater change. I understand that. But I think it highlights to you the great difficulty there is in this country right now and we can't kid ourselves, that there has not been support in the Australian Parliament for a very long time - I’m not talking about the Coalition - to make these changes a reality. Even the most modest of changes were rejected by the economy-wrecking approach of playing politics under the Labour Party. And that's very bad for Western Australia, I've got to say. That, particularly on resources, that is, if you're against the changes that we sought to get into the Parliament in the Labour Party, well, you're against Western Australia's economic development and advancement. Have as many boarding passes as you like coming into Western Australia but if you're not going to back up on that one, you might as well stay on the eastern states.

Morey: The CEO said I had one last question to ask but I can’t help it, everyone wants to hear about GST. Really encouraging to hear you say that it is in your marrow, I think you said. It is not in everyone’s marrow, Prime Minister. Of course, there are some people on the east coast, and we are all Australians first, but there are some people over there who think that digging up and processing and shipping iron-ore to another country is as easy as ordering a cafe-latte on Collins Street. But we know, we Western Australians know, that it takes a lot more than that. This problem is not going to go away, Prime Minister, until some of those people understand just how sophisticated those operations are. So could you do us a favour and maybe take a National Cabinet up into the Pilbara at some point just to impress upon these key people just how much is involved in this work?

Prime Minister: The irony was that we were planning such a meeting. Mark and I had spoken about it in 2020 and it was supposed to be July of last year and that obviously didn't become possible. Look, it's simple - the deal is not changing. It's just not changing. It's law. I made law, and we're not going to change it. So that's where it sits. And I think Western Australians can feel very comfortable about that. There are many things that become law that not everybody agrees with. But once they're there, we certainly won't be changing it. And what you've got to look out for is what I was warning about before. People will come here and they'll tell you, 'Oh yes that Western Australia deal and we really support it.' And then I go back to Collins Street or they go back to Pitt Street or they go back to the Mall in Queensland and tell a different story. I’m upfront with them as well. They know where I stand on this and I'm not for changing.

Morey: Excellent. We've gone over time, Prime Minister, but we really do appreciate your time today. I'd like to ask you a final question if I can.

Prime Minister: Is it about the chickens?

Morey: No, well, do you want to give us an update on the chickens, are they still alive?

Prime Minister: They're doing great, a dozen eggs at least a week or a bit more than that.

Morey: All that work assembling that flat pack chicken coop paid off. I don't imagine anyone takes up the role of Prime Minister expecting it will be an easy job. But even by PM standards, for you, it's been pretty turbulent, particularly in this term of government. Since around December-November 2019 when fires started raging across the country, you've had to address crisis after crisis. And I imagine that there would have been a lot of things that you would have liked to achieved if you weren't dealing with so many crises. Let me finish with a hypothetical, and I know political leaders and footy coaches are very, very adept at saying I don't deal in hypotheticals. But give me a chance, bear with me. Just imagine for a moment you win the next election. And imagine that that ensuing term of government is one of relative calm, relative stability in which you get a real chance to have a crack at shaping Australia, the country we all love. If you get that opportunity, what is your priority? What do you strive for as Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: With regard to all of the sort of fantastic notions that you’ve just set out to me over the next couple of years, and there is no term of government that is like that. Every term of government comes with its challenges. And you're right. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, we were confronting the devastating floods in North Queensland. I'm not just talking about Townsville, I’m talking about the wipe out of half a million head in northern Queensland. It almost single handedly destroyed North Queensland's cattle industry. It was devastating. I went from property to poverty and just sat quietly with people who had been building herds over generations. And you’re certainly right, it was followed with the fires, it was followed up with more floods and it was followed up with a pandemic and the fears that people had of businesses never being able to reopen. And now we are again with fires and floods and cyclones here in Western Australia. So it is a privilege of a Prime Minister to serve in whatever circumstances they face and to do that in accordance with their values and to do that in accordance with the priorities they have. So what are mine? Number one, a strong economy enables a government to do the things that strengthen our society and keep all Australians safe. I prize the economy not because I'm an economist, like you. I prize it because of what it can do. An economy can build submarines. An economy can provide JobKeeper when you need it. An economy can buy vaccines. An economy can deliver mental health services, both in times of great crisis as we have and for the future and to do things to prevent suicide in this country. A strong economy is what delivers that. That is why I am so focused on the economy. Because I know that enables everything else and as a Liberal, this is very important to us. It is not to put some set of charts on the shelf and say how wonderful do they look? Every time I see our economy performing, every time I see an Australian or Western Australian get a job, I know that that’s a family with certainty who can start planning for their future with confidence. And so the economy enables everything else. Whether it is our safety, our services, our national security, our care for our country and our environment. You can’t do any of that unless all of you are extremely busy and very successful. And that is why it matters to me and that is why it will always be my priority.

Morey: Thank you, Prime Minister. Look, there’s been talk of a mental secession in WA. Whilst we are all in this room, rightly proud of the contribution Western Australia makes to the national economy, we are all Australians first. We appreciate the work that you have done as Prime Minister. Your sound decision-making, your level-headedness on JobKeeper was world-class. While other countries like the United States made mistakes in their response to the crisis, Australia did not and for that, we are eternally thankful. Ladies and gentlemen, could you please thank the Prime Minister.