Andrew McKellar interview with Brooke Corte, Money News 2GB, 4BC and 3AW

17 Jan 2022 |

Event: Andrew McKellar interview with Brooke Corte, Money News 2GB, 4BC and 3AW.
Speakers: Andrew McKellar, chief executive Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Brooke Corte, host Money News.
Date: 17 January 2022
Topics: Omicron variant, small business, staff shortages, supply chain pressures, declining consumer activity, close contact isolation rules, rapid antigen testing, vaccinations, PPE and masks.


Brooke Corte, host Money News: With 2022 looking like the biggest test yet for businesses, what can we do to ensure they get through, to ensure their survival? I’m pleased to say my guest tonight for the first Money News of 2022 is Andrew McKellar, the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He’s with us on the line now. Andrew, welcome to the show.

Andrew McKellar, chief executive Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: Hello Brooke. Happy New Year to you.

Brooke: Yeah. Well, Happy New Year to you. And I think that’s where the happy news ends though. I mean, we had chronic worker shortages that existed and that we spoke about last year, even before Omicron was even mentioned. We have had millions of workers in isolation over summer. You’ve got customers just staying away. The supply chain is in chaos. I’ve got to say, Andrew, I’m at a loss as to where do we even start with you to try and paint the picture of the deep pain that business is in as we kick off this new year.

Andrew: Unfortunately, I think you’re exactly right. I mean, there was a degree of optimism that we felt out there towards the end of last year as people were looking forward. But unfortunately, I have to say, a lot of it has been swept away by the Omicron variant and we’re now facing probably one of the most significant periods of challenge that we’ve had for the economy as a whole, really, since the very early stages of the pandemic. I mean, we’ve got a bit of a triple whammy out there at the moment. We’ve got the supply chain pressures, which are being exacerbated by Omicron. We’ve got the pressures in terms of accessing labour. They were already bad. They’ve been made worse by the number of cases, by the numbers of close contacts and the isolation requirements. And all of it has impacted consumer confidence. So we’re now seeing consumers taking a backseat, not wanting to spend again, not wanting to get out and help boost the economy. So it’s a really tough environment for business at the moment. And really, there’s a lot of head scratching going on at the moment as exactly how we can fight our way out of this, what the next step will be, and how we prepare for what might be next, coming down the road.

Brooke: Yeah. I mean, business owners, particularly small businesses, they’re just exhausted. If people are listening, and they are a business owner, or they’re close to a business owner, they know just how exhausting these last few weeks have been since the big O of Omicron replaced the big O of optimism of last year. I guess instinctively you’d think that lockdowns would’ve been far more damaging to businesses. But I do wonder whether the current Omicron induced situation is a close second.

Andrew: Look, I think we’re very much in a sort of a shadow lockdown at the moment. We’ve got all of the sort of symptoms of a lockdown. And people, many people are isolating now. We know we’re getting up towards, nearly a million cases that are active, and then it must be two or three times the number of close contacts. So that’s taking a lot of people out of circulation in the community, a lot of people who can’t come into work. And even with the sort of, the relaxed arrangements or definitions that have been applied, it’s still very hard to get people back to work. And there are many sectors which haven’t been given any of that relief. So, there’s a large part of the economy, which is struggling with lockdown-like conditions at the moment. And frankly, all of the support has dried up. I think that’s a very big issue.

Brooke: We’ve had the Prime Minister on Nine Radio today in fact, Andrew McKellar. He was denying that he ignored calls to buy more rapid antigen tests around the middle of last year. He says it’s a global issue. But despite that assurance, businesses know that this is an issue that is unique to Australia. It’s a huge problem for businesses as we have these, as you said, close contact rules that leave a lot of people in isolation. Lack of access to rapid antigen testing has made that whole issue even worse. Now, I noticed this afternoon that the national union leaders, they’ve held an emergency meeting this afternoon, and they have now warned of work stoppages if employers don’t commit to new measures to ensure worker safety. And I wanted to share a little bit of the statement from the Australian Council of Trade Unions to our listeners that was released this afternoon. And essentially it’s demanding that employers, who you represent, create new COVID-safe plans and provide free rapid tests. So here’s the statement. It says: Where employers do not fulfill their obligations, the union movement determines to do everything within its power to ensure the safety of workers and the community. Here’s the key line: This may include ceasing work or banning unsafe practices. So you’re now being threatened with work stoppages if you don’t provide free rapid testing and better, safer COVID plans.

Andrew: I think that would be very detrimental. I mean the one thing that we agree with the unions on, and that is that the rapid testing kits as a tool for the community and for business, so that should be provided widely and freely. But we think here, this is a role for government to get out there, get into the marketplace, access these tests, and make them freely available as has been done in many other countries. We don’t need to argue about should this have been done already? Has it occurred too late? We need to get on and do it as soon as possible, and get those kits out into the hands of the community, into the hands of the businesses that want them and need them to use them as a risk management tool. But look, clearly, it’s not going to help the situation if we get into a situation of confrontation where we start pointing the finger at one side or another, or if we start closing down businesses or withdrawing labour. We’ve got some of the significant economic risks that we’ve faced in the past two years. And now is the time for governments, for industry, for unions to try and work in a collaborative way to protect the Australian economy, to protect jobs. So I think one of the big lessons is, where we have failed is where states and national government haven’t worked together, where business and employees have to work together. We’ve got to learn from that. We’ve got to make that our approach going forward. Otherwise, we are going to be beaten by this challenge. And I think that’s completely unnecessary.

Brooke: Yeah. I applaud the sentiment, but on very practical issues, like things regarding close contact rules, I mean, people are going to be digging their heels in very firmly on either side. You’ve got the unions wanting a return to the previous close contact rules, which leaves more people in isolation. And any business owners or employers who I speak to are saying, “Absolutely not. We’ve got to get rid of those close contact rules. They’ve got to go. We’ve got to go step further with those. They’re complete unworkable.”

Andrew: Well, to make them work, you have to give business the tools, you have to give the employees the tools. Rapid tests are one of those tools. Of course, there are other things as well. I mean, we have to press on with the vaccination challenge. We have to get boosters in place. We have to have the improved PPE, including looking at whether or not some of the masks that have been around in the past, the medical masks and cloth masks, are they still the sorts of things that are going to be adequate in the current environment, or we need to move to something more effective there? But again, that’s another challenge for the future because there’s going to be supply issues, there’s going to be affordability issues. So we need to plan ahead. We need to get ahead of the curve on this. It’s not going to help the situation if we pull more people out of the workforce, out of the economy, out of the community. We have to manage risk and we have to balance the health risks and the economic risks. Otherwise, we are going to have a train wreck.

Brooke: Yeah. Well, hear, hear, but it does feel like we’re just continually chasing our tails, doesn’t it? Thank you so much. Andrew McKellar, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Appreciate your time.

Andrew: Great. Thanks very much, Brooke

Want to hear more from us?

    NewsletterMedia Releases