COVID-19 Response and Recovery

Coronavirus COVID-19 Advice and Resources.

A COVID exit strategy: Pandemic Act II – looking ahead


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16 April 2021

Since I last wrote to you about the federal government’s failure to progress its IR Omnibus Bill - albeit with the important success on the casuals’ provisions - we have seen a swag of new ministerial appointments in key business portfolios from IR to Industry and skills.

While the smart money had been on an election for this year, it now looks more likely that we will be going to the polls early in 2022. We have in the months leading up to the election an opportunity to press home with the government and the opposition the need for policies that will help us emerge more successfully from the COVID crisis. We particularly need federal and state governments to urgently agree on a COVID exit-strategy that will deliver a post-vaccine economic recovery and reopening plan.

I would be very interested in hearing your perspectives as we head towards this election and what is a wide-open policy agenda, so please drop me a note at ceo@aigroup.com.au.

Here are some of the issues we are focusing on:


Vaccine rollout delay

The vaccine itself was never going to be a silver bullet and should not be seen as one. There are too many unresolved questions around their effectiveness at stopping transmission and also around the new mutations of the virus. However, without an effective vaccine program we would have no chance of reopening our national border to skilled migrants, students and tourists and our states would continue needlessly shutting their borders to cover the inadequacies of their tracking and tracing systems. Vaccines at least gives us a chance of reconnecting with what will still be a very different world.

The UK expects to reopen in June and the US in October. We should expect the US and broader Europe to be fully re-engaged by the end of the year. This is where our relatively slow vaccine roll-out may hurt us. Skilled workers, students and tourists will not wait. They will choose to go where borders are open and where they are welcomed. If our trade competitors open their borders fully while ours remain closed, we will miss out on business opportunities globally. While the vaccine may have won us the health battle, we do not want to lose the economic war.

It is welcome that the Prime Minister has returned the National Cabinet meetings to a twice weekly war-footing. Everything possible should be done at those meetings to develop consistent national procedures for vaccinated Australians and visitors travelling within Australia and from overseas. Without consistency, business confidence would drop, vital jobs would remain unfilled and investment would be diverted away. Businesses do not want the states to treat vaccinated travellers with the same sort of inconsistencies and daily rule changes that we saw with state border closures.


Industrial Relations Reform

I know the new Attorney General and IR Minister, Michaelia Cash, very well. She has been IR Minister before and I have had several discussions with her about what can be salvaged from the IR Omnibus Bill. We will be arguing, in particular, for all sides of politics to support measures to:

  • Create a workable Better Off Overall Test and streamlined approval requirements that will reinvigorate our enterprise agreement system;
  • Make our award system less complex and more flexible; and
  • Allow project life greenfields agreements to drive investment and jobs.

Labor opposed the bulk of the Bill but we will engage closely with them as their election policies are developed.


Sexual harassment in the workplace

Ai Group participated in the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces and supports a range of measures in the Inquiry’s Respect@Work Report to eliminate sexual harassment from our community and to better support employers.

However, we do have a number of concerns with some of the Report’s recommendations including:

  • Amending the Sex Discrimination Act to introduce a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.  Ai Group supports the objective of employers proactively preventing sexual harassment. However, existing workplace laws already provide for this at multiple points.
  • Extending the timeframe to be able to terminate a complaint under the Sex Discrimination Act to 24 Months. This is problematic in that it could place employers in a position of defending vicarious liability claims where relevant witnesses or evidence may have left the business.

I continue to be in regular contact with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, over the implementation of the Respect@work report.

We have a webinar on Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace on 6 May and if you or someone from your business is interested here is the link for registration.


Annual Wage Review

Input from organisations such as ours help determine the setting of minimum wage increases through the Fair Work Commission’s Annual Wage Review and this year we have been very cautious in our approach given the ongoing economic uncertainties. We are yet to put a number on any potential increase because time is needed to gauge the economic and business risks following the removal of assistance measures like JobKeeper.

We do however think the ACTU's 3.5% wage claim is reckless and would put jobs at risk and worsen unemployment and underemployment. The Expert Panel of the Fair Work Commission will decide on the level and timing of any minimum wage increases in June following several rounds of submissions and consultations.


Education and training as a post-COVID priority

One of our biggest priorities as we approach the federal budget and federal election is to stress with governments and the opposition the need to focus on improving education and training and including reforming our TAFE system as a key plank of the post-COVID economic recovery plan. One way we are doing this is by creating Ai Group’s Centre for Education and Training which will give you, through Ai Group, a leadership role in influencing education and training policy informed by workplace needs across Australia and internationally.

The Australian Industry Group’s new Centre for Education and Training will drive bold new thinking on education and training in the context of work. It will explore new ways to build skills and capabilities for companies to succeed now and into the future.  Its proactive research, policy and advocacy agenda will help to ensure Australia’s skill development outcomes are in line with current and emerging economic needs, at the same time linking the real needs of industry with the training, education and career aspirations of individuals. The Centre will be formally launched later this month. If you want to get involved in this initiative please contact Megan.lilly@aigroup.com.au


Ai Group leadership of Global Business Coalition

I have recently taken up the position as President of the Global Business Coalition which is a group of 15 business associations representing the voice of enterprises within the G20 process and other major international fora. This group came together during the GFC and provides a link between governments, international institutions and business communities.

This Presidency is an opportunity for you through Ai Group to contribute to dealing with the significant challenges for the global business community presented by COVID-19. These challenges relate to the movement of people and goods, the roll out of vaccines, the development of the skills we need, the propensity for protectionism (including vaccine protectionism) and the rise of geo-political tensions. Some of our global norms and accepted practices are being pressured but business needs to be at the centre of the discussions that will shape the world’s responses in the years ahead. If you want to get involved contact louise.mcgrath@aigroup.com.au


Industry development and transformation

The COVID crisis has boosted policy interest in domestic industrial capabilities, supply chain vulnerabilities and Australia’s economic resilience.  There are a number of policy developments including the Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative and its Gas-fired Recovery strategy, the federal Opposition’s National Reconstruction Fund as well as a variety of state-based initiatives. Ai Group is engaging actively to shape these initiatives and to bring them to the attention of our members. 

Finally, I will be writing to you again in the next few weeks with details of our revamped network groups for individuals in member companies; and information on our new website and new, comprehensive, guide to all Ai Group services.

Meeting the shifting needs of members over the past year or so has been intensely challenging but made easier by the unprecedented support and engagement from businesses such as yours.

Thank you again for your continued membership and engagement.

Stay safe and keep connected,
Innes Willox
Chief Executive – Ai Group

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