Address To The Australian Chamber Of Commerce And Industry

19 October 2021

Virtual Business Leaders Summit 2021








Thanks for that introduction, for the invitation to join you today, and for the opportunity to work closely with you on economic policy.


I’ve met with ACCI many times this parliamentary term and I think this is the fourth of your conferences I’ve spoken at since I’ve been Shadow Treasurer.


But it’s the first time since Andrew McKellar took over as CEO, so I wanted to congratulate him on his appointment and thank him for the conversations we’ve already had, including just last Friday.


Labor’s economic team gets a lot of value from the time we spend with you, with your members, and with state and local chambers. 


In my case, I’ve been able to speak to chambers across the country including the Victorian, Northern Territory, Logan, Launceston, Cairns, Warwick, South Australian and Western Sydney chambers in recent times. 


I say to them each time what I say to you now: thanks for the jobs and opportunities your businesses create right around Australia.


We know these are difficult and uncertain times and there’ve been many sleepless nights.  We know you’ve done your best to hold onto staff.  And that you’ve had to adapt your business practices to meet the various restrictions across the country.




You haven’t caused the problems in our economy, but you’ve copped a disproportionate share of the consequences.


This is especially true when it comes to the costs of the federal government’s mistakes that made the most recent round of Delta lockdowns necessary, namely:


Too slow off the mark with vaccines.


Too slow to build quarantine facilities.


Too quick to cut support – in March and now.


Too quick to claim credit for a JobMaker program that promised 450,000 jobs but delivered barely one per cent of that. 


Too much inefficient spending which crowded-out support for more worthy SMEs.


These mistakes were not imposed on the federal government, they were imposed on you.


They were avoidable, as Saul Eslake has pointed out.


And most of all, they were devastating for the economy.


Since June:


At least $30 billion of economic activity lost, probably more.


280,000 jobs lost and another 330,000 Australians who gave up looking for one.


Over $20 billion expected in costs to the Budget from economic support alone, and yet still too many of you left in the lurch. 


There has not been a more costly or consequential set of public policy failures in this country in our lifetime.




Today, as we meet, many economists expect a relatively strong recovery and we desperately hope that’s the case.


The Reserve Bank has been pretty optimistic but still expects this year’s rebound to be slower than last year’s.


We all want the economy to open up safely and confidently as soon as it’s responsible. 


Part of that is ensuring the hospitals can cope, we’ve got tracking and tracing and quarantine right, there’s a plan to vaccinate our kids, and that vulnerable communities, like mine, and others like it aren’t left behind.


The timing of re-opening matters, the pace of the recovery matters, but the kind of recovery matters too.


It’s the kind of recovery that’s uncertain.


It will be patchy and uneven.


Held back in some areas by supply chain pressures and skills shortages.


We celebrate those of you already galloping.


But we won’t forget those of you still limping.


That’s why ongoing support which is tailored to the economy as it is, rather than the economy we want it to be, is so important.


Not forever, nobody’s arguing for that, but determined by the economic reality and not the electoral cycle.


The experience around the world after economies re-open is a burst of enthusiasm and excitement – like we saw in Sydney and are about to see in Melbourne – but then some caution, and a levelling-out of that new activity.


This month, after the summer rush to spend and holiday in the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve seen dramatic falls in consumer confidence in the US and UK and other softening indicators across Europe in retail sales and manufacturing output.


Re-opening addresses many of your challenges but not all of them, and so the future is still uncertain.


Global credit insurance company Atradius has released research indicating that Australia’s insolvencies are expected to double next year.  This would be the equal second-fastest growth in insolvencies in the world, second only to Italy.




The decisions you take will be key to what kind of recovery this is but also central to what kind of economy we have afterwards.


Too often you are central to the rhetoric and peripheral to the policy.


Too often the policy conversation is dominated by a misguided and simplistic view that only one or two policy areas matter.


If one or two levers could be pulled to guarantee your success, we would have already pulled them.


Industrial relations and tax are very important but so is cyber security, and payments infrastructure, and the burden of paperwork, and fast internet, and more.


That’s why I’m so pleased with the breadth of the issues you tackle in the paper you released today:


Skills and training.


Technology and innovation.


But also inequality.


And sustainability.


Our policy directions aren’t always identical to yours, but we are trying to take a similarly broad approach.


To make our economy more dynamic and diverse by boosting business investment and building human capital.


A National Reconstruction Fund to transform existing industries, diversify our industrial base and develop our sovereign capability. 


A Rewiring the Nation program to bring transmission into the 21st century, to promote growth in renewables and reduce power costs for families and businesses.


Cheaper Childcare for 97 per cent of working families in the system. 


Reforms to government procurement to give Australian businesses a bigger slice of government contracts as part of our push for a future made in Australia.


And much more announced, with even more to come.




We know that businesses can’t afford a return to the path of our pre-pandemic economy, plagued with weak economic and productivity growth and slowing business investment.


This is what unites your paper, the Treasury’s Intergenerational Report, the BCA’s Living on Borrowed Time report and their climate modelling.


This year’s election shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore these warnings, it should be a reason to focus on them.


We don’t know when the election will be, but I hope it will be about these issues and these policy areas.


Whether you can be central to the recovery and the future economy or whether you will be taken for granted.


But most of all whether our economy and our society can be stronger after COVID than before.


Thanks again for the opportunity to speak with you today.