Business leaders and policymakers must choose between complacency and courage

Before the closure of state and territory borders due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, I was pleased to attend CEDA’s three-day State of the Nation forum in Canberra (23-25 June). Business leaders and policymakers joined for a series of conversations about Australia’s future.

Whether talking about cyber risk, trade relations, infrastructure, education, a transition to a green economy or our role in the Asian region, the challenge put to leaders was whether we would act boldly and seize the opportunities in front of us, or ease cautiously, seeking comfort in the success of our COVID response and better-than-anticipated recovery.

Will we choose complacency or courage? Laziness or leadership?

Australia’s borders a matter of urgency

We were reminded of how the ‘tyranny of distance’ that plagued our nation’s early years had become ‘the luxury of isolation’ in the eyes of many at the height of the pandemic. Today, as the world recovers at various speeds, our international borders remain closed, our vaccine roll-out is only now gaining pace and our hotel-quarantine system continues to expose us to an ever-present threat of outbreaks.

There is no questioning the magnificent job done by Team Australia to save lives and livelihoods, but conversations at the forum revealed a gnawing unease that the ‘luxury of isolation’ carries the risk of squandered opportunities.

The Federal Government has indicated a gradual opening of international borders from mid-2022.  While moves are afoot to fast-track the processing of skilled migrants and bring international students safely back to our shores, there is a strong view that we need to do more. One panellist noted that some businesses he had spoken with are operating at 70 per cent capacity simply because they can’t source the labour required. While upward wage pressure and lower unemployment may be attractive to some, it is simply a short-term masking of Australia’s population challenge.

The COVID pandemic accelerated many trends, including: digitisation; the transition to a low-carbon economy; and a re-thinking of the role of the state and private sector to create innovative, sustainable and inclusive outcomes. We can slip into complacency with our economic bounce-back, or we can reflect on how we overcame ideology during COVID and acted decisively and with agility and apply that approach to shape a prosperous future.

Collaboration is key

A common theme across the forum was how the complex problems we face demand collaboration.

On the cyber front, we heard about the active threat environment, how actors are increasingly collaborating and their stage craft increasing. The only way to protect our organisations and communities from bad actors is by coming together. We must draw on trusted relationships and support each other – our inter-connection means a risk to one is a risk to us all.  Big business can support SMEs through their supply chains to increase cyber awareness, mitigate risks and build resilience.

Trade for the long term

In our region, trade relationships require nurturing. Through COVID, big business demonstrated the importance of treating them as long-term strategic partnerships rather than transactional relationships. The diversification of trade relationships in our region demands that we get back on the road as soon as possible to nurture existing relationships and build new ones. While the Government plays a critical role in setting the parameters through bilateral trade deals, business needs to step boldly into the opportunities rather than wait.

The green-energy transition

We need a measured and nuanced approach on climate impacts and transitioning to a green economy. We must aim for a transition that allows companies to pivot while maintaining core strengths and comparative advantages. BHP Chief Commercial Officer, Vandita Pant, spoke about the opportunities of the transition and how BHP is expecting demand to accelerate across its entire portfolio of commodities. She spoke of how BHP is working collaboratively across its value chain to bring customers and suppliers together to tackle the decarbonisation challenge.

Infrastructure experts spoke about the opportunity to embed sustainability across the life cycle of a project. With infrastructure investment at record levels, we need to turn words into action and create transparency and accountability to achieve meaningful change with sustainable infrastructure.

Integrating to innovate

We reflected on the importance of the private and public sectors and academia coming together around technology and innovation. We need the right settings and incentives, as well as ways to share ideas and applications. History has given us numerous examples of defence industry innovations that have gone on to wider application. Likewise, there are opportunities to better connect the SME sector’s innovative capabilities with big business and the public sector. We need to create better linkages to nurture the great innovation we are capable of.

The overarching call to action from the forum was clear: the challenges we face are complex, but the cost of inaction and complacency is simply too great. We must act boldly, with courage and a common purpose to seize the opportunities of today and secure Australia’s future prosperity.

First published by CEDA

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