Bill's Speeches

SPEECH TO THE AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY LUNCH - SYDNEY - TUESDAY, 14 NOVEMBER 2017

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First of all, thank you very much for inviting me here.

I acknowledge all the people that Paul mentioned. I would particularly like to acknowledge though, starting with the traditional owners of this land. I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I suppose in acknowledging our elders it's great to see Laurie Brereton here in amongst a galaxy of people. Laurie has always been a servant of this country.

I listened with great interest to Terry's introduction, so I would like to tell you about some of our plans, and Jason Clare and Matt Thistlethwaite and Meryl Swanson are here to talk about some of our plans for the future of Australia.

I am ambitious for Australia – and I think that people in Parliament should be ambitious for our country.

And therefore, I am determined to present to the Australian people at the next election an ambitious agenda.

Not just a plan for election day, not just a list of government stuff-ups.

But I want to fight the next election on who has the best economic and social program for this nation in the decade ahead.

Frankly, I think politics could do with a bit more of the discussion of the long-term, the vision.

More long-term thinking is required. And I think we also need to have in Parliament, more focus on the things that matter to the lives of everyday Australians.

It is no secret that the Government and the Parliament have been distracted by the ongoing Constitutional citizenship circus.

The people I talk to around this great nation are well and truly over the whole of this.

They’re over the farce, and they want us to collectively resolve it.

This is why we have tried to be bipartisan in putting forward a process.

I believe that if I'd been where Mr Turnbull sits, I would have moved more aggressively and quickly to resolve the matter.

When those first Greens Senators put their hand up and said they had a question over their eligibility, the lesson I've learned from the Prime Minister's handling of this matter is not to sneer at the people who get into strife.

But to work out how far the problem extends, and what do we need to do to ensure that members of the public, the voters, your customers, our constituents have confidence.

That the people entrusted with the law making of this nation, have actually ensured that they're eligible to be there.

Now, in the last two weeks I've put forward a proposition on citizenship.

I've said that all of us, it doesn't matter your party, it doesn't matter your office.

All of us who are privileged to sit in Parliament should explain to Parliament that they satisfy the Constitution.

I've specifically proposed two weeks ago:

Full disclosure for all Members and Senators regarding where their parents are born and their grandparents;

What efforts have they made in the event that they're a citizen of another country or indeed if they have possibly, received dual citizenship of another nation by virtue of descent;

I've also proposed to the Prime Minister that we have a faster timetable, that we’re not kicking the can down the road past Christmas, or that we don't create dates for disclosure which means Parliament has to be recalled in middle and late December, at the cost of millions of dollars.

I think that there's a lot of talk at the moment that somehow in Parliament – and I should just say on this disclosure, eventually the Government has accepted Labor's propositions for the Senate, so that everyone in the Senate puts forward their case by 1 December.

But I have yet to secure the agreement of the Government, that all of the Members of the House of Representatives do it by 1 December.

Instead the Government is saying we can delay it another week.

The farce must end.

It isn't Labor saying one rule for us and another rule for them.

Universal disclosure, all the MPs say okay, this is where I was born, this is where my parents were born, this is where the grandparents were born.

And in the event that someone is born overseas, which is perfectly reasonable and natural, what efforts have you made?

I think that the people of Australia are fed up to their back teeth and unless we have this sort of universal disclosure, how on earth can we get on to talking about the big picture, the long-term.

And indeed, the sort of issues ACCI were talking about in their introduction of me.

There is also some debate right now, that somehow Labor is planning some sort of Parliamentary hijinks – I don't pay too much attention to some of that media reporting.

I think that if you want to look at chaos, the Government can do it all on their own without our assistance.

I want to return the focus of Parliament to the issues which affect people – the people who put their trust in us, and also the Parliament.

Put it another way: Australia more than ever is crying out for some leadership.

That’s why – as an Opposition – we’ve always focused on doing more than just criticising, and blocking and saying no.

We will in Labor, lead the policy debate away from the sound and the fury of the citizenship debate.

At the end of the day I'm not particularly worried about which country someone's parents were born, acknowledging of course the importance of The Constitution to that question.

What interests me, and I suspect whatever your politics in this audience, what interests you, is not the country which your parents might have been born, but what sort of country we will pass on to our children.

I think when it's all stripped away there is one test that matters in public life.

There is one question that counts.

Will we leave this place better than we found it?

Will we pass on a better set of circumstances to those that come after us than the set of circumstances we inherited from those who came before us?

When you strip away left and right, Labor and Liberal and the rest, what matters in this nation and what the test for Parliament and all of us who are privileged to serve is the generational contract.

Do you leave the place better than you found it?

I believe that that generational contract is fulfilled when you have a growing, resilient and fair economy.

An economy where all of you have the confidence to expand your enterprises, to invest.

To access new markets to employ more people.

And it’s an economy where the government plays a constructive and cooperative role.

Not command and control.

Not trying to row every oar.

Setting the direction: creating the right conditions for ideas, industry, and for investment.

And of course, a government should always be constantly working to remove blockages which hold business back.

Now today I want to talk to you about the lessons I hear from business wherever I travel in Australia from the suburbs to the regions.

Businesses I speak to are talking to me in this current political climate of three major obstacles to their growth and greater success.

One, skill shortages in the workforce.

Two, a lack of access to finance.

Three, the cost of energy.

I want to begin with our policies on skills and training.

And I’m suggesting to you that the summary of what I see across the nation is it’s about the skills, it’s about the access to finance and of course it’s about energy.

Now, turning to skills.

Australia’s economic future, our success in Asia, our ability to create and sustain new jobs, to develop new industries has to depend and does depend upon investing in the skills and the smarts of the Australian people.

I believe the best thing that a conscientious Government can do for business is to provide you with a pipeline of smart, productive, world-class educated workforce.

And to have this smart and productive and world-class workforce we need a world-class education system.

Properly funded and affordable for all. From the early years of school to TAFE to university and apprenticeships.

And as we live in an age where there is no such thing as a job for life this education system must also prioritise lifelong learning.

Make it easier for businesses to train up the skills of their in-house workforce and for mature workers to train and retrain.

I said it before but Australia’s choice is simple.

Get smarter or get poorer.

The mining boom was very good to our nation.

And our terms of trade still reflect the after flow of the mining boom and the remarkable contribution that agriculture makes to our economy. But our terms of trade are very good at the moment.

But our terms of trade also is the luck that the rest of the world gives us.

When you dissect our growth numbers and take away the contribution of our terms of trade in particular for agriculture and mining, our growth numbers are not as perhaps healthy as they would otherwise look.

So the luck we make ourselves as opposed to relying upon global demand for our minerals and our agriculture, the luck that we make ourselves is called being a clever society.

It’s about preparing our people with the skills to move up the value chain to boost productivity, to boost the output of business right across the diverse nature of our economy.

As Asia modernises and transforms into an unprecedented middle-class market, Australia has to stay ahead of the pack.

It will not stay ahead of the pack or even keep up if our first response to skill shortages is to simply rely upon importing temporary guest labour in to Australia alone.

Now I understand there will always be cases where businesses need a worker of a particular skill set and our economy will always rely on some use of temporary visa labour.

But as a country we can afford to get better at anticipation of our labour market needs.

Training our people for the next wave of jobs so in an age of automation and robotics, Australian businesses can call upon these workers with these skills and knowledge to design and refine and operate the machines of the future.

Labor has already announced a set policies supporting this priority.

We will help rebuild public TAFE and put it back to the centre of our vocational training system.

To revitalise apprenticeships and to help smaller businesses put apprentices on, we will mandate the one in ten people employed on Commonwealth projects has to be an Australian apprentice.

We want to put Australian skill development at the front of the queue by reforming our VISA system.

It is all about equipping people with the capability and flexibility to change jobs, even industries, without having to take years out of work to gain all new qualifications.

I’m particularly motivated in the development of our policies with the challenge of mature aged workers.

I cannot speak for your experience but I know when I visit shopping centres around this country on the weekend, I invariably see a very well-presented worker in their 50s or 60s, more often than not holding a nice CV in a plastic sheet.

They will come up to me and say Bill, I've been doing job interview after job interview but it insults my intelligence.

I have labour market providers sending me for jobs which are not right for me or to employers that take one look at my grey hair or my age and stop the interview.

This nation cannot afford to waste the skills and experience of older Australians.

Especially as many of them, in particular women, do not have enough money saved to retire with any level of dignity.

I want to make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to employ skilled Australians with less red tape.

I think these are all areas where good policy can act as a bridge – a bridge between a job-seeker with the skills, the experience and the enthusiasm looking for a start in a smart business looking for the right person to help their business.

Skills and putting people into jobs I believe is a fundamental capacity for Government policy.

I said there was a second issue I hear from business around the country, it's access to finance.

There are thousands of small and medium enterprises being held back by a lack of available capital and the big banks' reluctance to back good ideas.

I particularly hear this in manufacturing but not only manufacturing.

A lot of businesses borrow to innovate so they can update the capital they use to operate, the investment, the stock, so they can cut the cost of production and deliver high-quality product to join in global supply chains.

But if you can't get your hands on that capital, then you're at risk of stagnation, being left behind in a rapidly changing global competitive market.

Last month, I announced that a new Labor Government would create a $1 billion Australian Manufacturing Future Fund.

This would work in partnership with private financing, to help businesses grow and diversify.

For example, it means:

  • Auto component manufacturers re-tooling and moving into other industries
  • Or food manufacturers investing in new equipment to package new products for export to Asia
  • Or metals fabricators expanding into pre-fabricated housing.

Labor's priority is to make finance more readily available for Australian ideas and Australian jobs.

Speaking of finance, I want to briefly talk about cash-flow.

Last year, more than one in four businesses with less than 20 employees had to borrow money to maintain the ongoing existence of their business.

Now you can understand when payment for supplies or services is delayed by a bigger business, this can really hurt small and medium-sized enterprises.

If you can pay your wages every week or every fortnight – but the payments from the bigger climb are coming in at 30 or 45 or 60 days later – you can end up in serious trouble pretty quickly.

At the last election, we proposed a ‘Tradie Payment Guarantee’.

Trialling Project Bank Accounts on major Commonwealth Government projects.

If the taxpayers are paying for work to be done we don't want the large head contractors sitting on the money and creating financial difficulties for the subcontractors supplying the services along the way.

I think it is legitimate for the taxpayer through the Government to expect principle contractors to pay subcontractors and everyone else in the production chain on a timely basis.

I understand that this problem is bigger than the construction sector – but it’s a good place to start – and one where the Commonwealth can exert some best practice influence.

We're certainly looking very closely at the Business Council’s Australian Supplier Code and comparable work being done in Victoria.

But of course, if you talk about cash flow, invariably you must go to those third of the priorities, energy prices.

I understand the frustration of businesses who engage with their work forces, who are trying to gain every nickel and dime in productivity improvement.

Every possible benefit to keep the business going.

But all of those efforts from workforce, from management, from innovation, just get eaten up in a vicious game of snakes and ladders.

Because every time you climb the ladder of productivity innovation - bang, you get the gas prices coming at you, or you get the energy prices – and all of the gain washed away.

Let's call it as it is.

I'm not sure it's fair to say the tsunami is on the horizon.

I say it's here.

I'd say that gas prices are simply out of control.

I know my opposite number has declared a number of times that gas prices are all coming down.

It fails to recognise that for a lot of industry they're coming off contracts, which were at much lower prices, and now they're facing much higher prices.

Wholesale electricity prices have doubled under this Government.

I don't think there is a single business who's not feeling the pain of increased energy costs.

Instead of taking action and pulling the trigger on export controls, the Government opted for a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the big gas companies.

But their own Regulatory Impact Statement, released last week, states that this 'gentleman's agreement':

“would result in some (industrial) users exiting the market, resulting in a loss of jobs and economic output.”

The same statement makes it clear that the export controls that we supported would have:

“the strongest likelihood of securing an adequate supply of gas for domestic users, with the least market distortions.”

The Government needs to stop worrying about the 'gentleman's agreement' with the gas industry, and start standing up for industrial and commercial users of gas.

The Commonwealth and the States should also sign up to stronger transparency and accountability for the gas market, so when it comes to contract negotiations, businesses get a head start instead of a handicap.

Gas prices, volumes, costs, reserves; they are not state secrets – but the big gas companies treat this information as such.

Denying commercial negotiations the ability of the other party to have any equity in the negotiations.

There are plenty of industrial users and business-owners I meet who tell me that the market is not operating properly.

Instead, they receive a single contract offer from one supplier at prices they can't sustain.

A take-it or leave-it attitude which leaves profitability and sustainability of jobs at risk.

I have always found that where there is more transparency in the negotiation, it improves the bargaining position of people with less power in the negotiations – in this case, Australian gas users. We need to get prices down and we need to protect jobs.

I think Australians struggle with the notion that on one hand, we are an energy super power and on the other hand, we seem to pay rates which reflect a country with none of its own energy resources.

Our focus in the long-term is to help more and more small and medium businesses get their power prices down by making the move to renewable energy.

Tens of thousands of small businesses have already utilised rooftop solar.

If you talk to anyone who has moved to rooftop solar, their regret isn't that they moved to it, it's that it took them so long to do so.

But we need electricity market rules which were not written back in the early 90s when solar panels powered pocket calculators and not much else.

The current rules don’t deliver fair compensation for businesses and households who are putting power back into the grid – this needs to change.

Because when it comes to energy – cost, climate action and continuity of supply are all integrated, they are all related. They are not antagonistic concepts.

Continuity of supply, cost and climate change action are aligned – they are not antithetic to each other

So today, I want to put forward Labor's view about some of the key issues which we are incorporating in our policy, in terms of assisting business:

  • Skill shortages
  • Access to finance
  • And downward pressure on energy prices

These are areas of common ground.

I actually think there are more though.

In infrastructure:

  • better public transport in our cities will increase productivity and sustainability
  • better connections between roads and rail and ports for the movement of your products
  • and better NBN – so businesses in the regions can engage direct with business our region

On trade for example:

Jason Clare announced here a few weeks ago, we want to apply independent, rigorous analysis to ensure free trade deals stack-up for Australian jobs and Australian businesses.

I know it's a priority for you and something which ACCI has been championing for a long time.

And I also want to say that not only are infrastructure and trade areas where we can work together, there’s a population question we can work on together – specifically, half the population.

The more we can do to ensure equality for the women: in the workplace, and the board rooms of Australia the more we unlock the potential of half of the population.

If a Government did nothing else in the next decade but ensure the equal treatment of women in our society, we would be a much richer society than we are today.

And when you adopt that approach, and we can do this together, on everything from domestic violence to the representation of women on boards, to equal pay, to childcare support, to encouraging women to enter the STEM disciplines at university.

There's nothing holding this country back if we recognise that this country needs to engage all of the population.

Underneath all of these issues, be it the immediate issues of access to finance, or skill or energy - some of those longer term questions - pursuing our trade advantages, ensuring our infrastructure is built for a generation and not an election, and of course ensuring that women get equal treatment.

Underpinning all of these issues is the vital question of confidence.

If we can get consumption up, if we can get wages up, if we can get Australians to open their wallets and drive demand in our shopping centres, in our high streets, in our businesses in the lead up to Christmas, that is the challenge.

I know that Australia works best when we work together.

So whilst I listened very carefully to what Terry said about penalty rates and the like, the problem with a strategy that cuts the costs of low-paid workers is the wallets snap shut, the purse is snap shut.

The people who most rely on penalty rates are the people who spend every dollar they get.

So when you cut the pay of people who spend every dollar they get you create downward spirals in terms of confidence.

That is not to say that there are not improvements we can make in our workplace relations system.

But our challenge I would suggest is this.

If we get the confidence right, if we get the long-term vision debate going, if we focus on those of issues of energy, skills, access to finance and the unfair treatment that large corporations make give smaller corporations.

If we can get these issues right backed up by good infrastructure, backed up by good trade, backed up by ensuring we really engage and get women a better go, then we will get the confidence humming, and then this nation can be as good as I believe we can be by working together.

Thank you very much.


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