The Hon Sussan Ley MP – ACCI General Council Dinner, Parliament House Canberra – Tue 23 Aug 

First off can I thank ACCI for the opportunity to address you all this evening.

It is always great to catch up with CEO Andrew McKellar.

It’s great to see ACCI President Nola Watson here tonight and all of the ACCI Board.

It’s a great opportunity to be with every one of you that make up the Chamber.

It is a privilege to stand here tonight as the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

Our time in Government may have ended, but the service to our country continues.

Australians are relying on us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and to stand up for them.

I have been in the Parliament for more than 20 years and having been in government, then opposition, then government and now opposition again, I can assure you that it is always a privilege to serve the Australian people, regardless of which side of the Chamber you sit on.

I am very grateful to be in a position of leadership at a critical moment for the women of Australia, as the Shadow Minister for Women.

We are seeing women continue to stand up, make their voices heard and make a real difference in business, in our communities, and in the workplace.

Women are demanding better conditions in the workplace.

They are demanding better conditions in society more generally.

They are demanding fairness. Everywhere. All the time.

And as women, so we should.

A big part of my role this term will be listening to those voices, understanding those concerns and building solutions to help women achieve their aspirations.

We’ve certainly come a long way as a country in the past 20 years.

I’ve seen it first-hand in the Parliament.

But there is a lot more work to do and I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel to help drive that work.

Already since the election, I have been working my way around the country to hear about the challenges our people are facing.

Not just women. But businesses. Workers. Volunteers. Apprentices.

And so tonight I am going to tell you a little about my journey, reflect on the challenges we face together and talk about the Federal Opposition’s priorities.

I think all of us here in this room have had those moments in life when things have taken a new direction, or a new opportunity has arisen.

Every business owner, small medium and large, in Australia knows when that moment was for them – it usually comes with a fair amount of risk and uncertainty.

I remember my moment like it was yesterday.

The phone rang. It was the call that I had been waiting for.

A gruff voice crackled through the phone and said “I don’t care who you are …. my pilot has just walked out … get up here straight away.”

I felt elated, but equally unsure about what this next step would mean for me.

But there was no time to lose. I had a choice to make.

Google Maps will tell you that Coogee in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is 1,209.7km from Thargomindah, in Western Queensland. A 14 hour one-way trip. And that’s on the roads of today.

It’s a trip I made that day.

I was given a day to pack up and cram my life into a big old khaki green car, a HT Holden with a 2-speed gear box and make that trip.

I left my hard-won job as an Air Traffic controller in Sydney to take up an air-muster job in Thargomindah.

It was a big risk. But I relished the opportunity.

On my arrival I was pointed to a small Cessna with grass growing in the floor.

It’s the best office I’ve ever had!

Flying had been my dream for as long as I could remember.

But this moment didn’t come easily.

As a qualified pilot, with the skills, qualifications and a desire to fly, this humble opportunity was all I was able to land in an industry which did not understand, let alone embrace, what women could offer to their workforce.

I had to seek it out through personally advertising in almost every regional paper in the country.

I often reflect and wonder whether my male colleagues at the time had to traverse the journey that I did.

But it made me tougher, and I think, better.

The opportunity to fly set me on a course to where I stand today.

That journey took me through regional Australia, its shearing sheds, its school halls and across its boundless plains.

Along the way I learned new skills, took up new opportunities and got a helping hand over a few barriers.

Across my travels I met with great Australians – the people who built this country.

Those experiences have shaped the way I think about government and how it can help Australians, and also how sometimes, getting out of the way is the best support.

We know that a job is more than a job, it is an opportunity.

Each of us here in this room understands how powerful that opportunity can be.

Many of you – our nation’s leading employers – have had the experience of making that call yourself.

I dare say many of you have made dreams come true for hundreds if not thousands of hard working Australians, their families and our communities.

Employment is a gift – and I thank each one of you for growing jobs in our economy and offering that gift to families in Australia.

All of us here tonight understand why a strong economy is important.

A strong economy built by strong businesses is our surest path to strong communities, and a stronger country.

We know enterprise is how we get ahead, how we can best ensure those around us live full and secure lives.

And from my own story you may pick up that we share a commitment to finding a way even when roadblocks are put in front of our aspirations.

So where do we sit today?

As many of you will know, I’ve been traveling up and down the breadth of our country since the election, listening.

I certainly haven’t done it in that khaki car that took me from Coogee to Thargomindah! But we’ve clocked up some kilometres.

And the message has been clear. Whether it’s the women in business who I met with in Joondalup, WA or the roundtables I’ve attended in the suburbs of Sydney, whether it’s the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce over in regional Tasmania, or it’s the businesses down in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula – the message is clear.

And it’s not just clear. It’s consistent.

Storm clouds are gathering, and they don’t just loom on the horizon, they’re sitting right on top of us.

And, despite the political rhetoric of the new government, these developments, while dynamic and evolving, are not new.

And despite some historical revisionism from the new government, the Morrison Government left behind a very strong set of books.

Together, we partnered with many of you in this room, to bolster Australia’s resilience in the face of a one-in-one-hundred-year pandemic.

And we worked together to insulate Australia from the sort of substantial impacts that the pandemic wreaked on other economies.

We left behind an economy that was growing, an unemployment rate that was dropping and borders that were open.

Were things perfect? Absolutely not.

Did Election Day itself cause the problems the new government now faces? Of course not.

But, whilst reasonable Australians don’t hold the new government to account for the external challenge they now face, they do hold – and will hold – the new government to account for what their response is.

Australia – even now, thanks to our work in government – remains in an enviable position among global peers, with strong foundations for increased prosperity.

But, the new government can’t ignore that the Australian economy faces several long term challenges.

Soaring inflation.

An aging population.

A shortage of skilled labour.

Evolving energy needs.

The most uncertain, and dangerous, geopolitical circumstances we have lived through since the Second World War.

The lingering impacts of COVID continue.

The ongoing Russian occupation of Ukraine, which I once again condemn in the strongest possible terms, continues to impact every country.

Supply chain disruptions and workforce issues loom large.

And, even more acutely, the cost of paying your mortgage is going up. And up. And up.

All of these factors are creating a perfect storm, putting a substantial cost-of-living squeeze on Australian households.

These acute and emerging challenges must be addressed by the new government.

And tonight, I want to offer you – business and industry leaders – a good faith warning.

Proceed with caution.

Anthony Albanese is no Bob Hawke.

This Skills Summit next week is not Hawke’s Accord.

Mr Albanese is the most left-wing Australian prime minister in 50 years.

And when this new government’s back is against the wall, and the pressures and stresses of competing interests emerge, you can be very confident of one thing.

Labor will revert to type.

Their instincts are to always back what the unions want first. We know that, because they constantly remind us of it.

We know that, because we can see it in their actions.

Dismantling the ABCC against the best advice of industry leaders in the room.

Choosing the ACTU over small businesses on DV leave, by going well beyond what the Fair Work Commission recommended – a complete capitulation.

Siding with the CFMEU each and every time.

Putting employers on notice that they’ll side against them every time an IR issue surfaces in the media.

Proceed with caution.

The Opposition fully understands why you must be seen to act cooperatively with the new government.

We understand why you need to be seen saying this Summit next week is a good idea.

But just know, this new Labor Government is not a friend of yours, is not a friend of your members, is not a friend of your businesses.

And tread carefully.

Whenever Labor come knocking on your door for your support on their initiatives, make sure you extract something in return.

Because this new government is not here to solve your challenges. They’re here to solve theirs.

Beware sidling up too closely to a government who will drop you like a sack of potatoes should the political winds turn.

Beware the indulgences you accommodate.

The Liberal Party should always be your party of choice, because we’ve always been the party that understands the significant role you play in our economy.

We accept responsibility for the fact that some small business owners around the country didn’t see it in those terms in May.

We own that. And we commit ourselves over the next three years to proving we get it.

Whereas we look to you, Labor looks to the Unions.

That’s why we have proposed a doubling of the Age and Veteran Service Pension Work Bonus Scheme from $300 to $600 per fortnight.

This would allow pensioners to work two full days at the minimum wage without impacting on pension rates.

This would encourage older people to return to work, or work longer hours, and help ease labour market shortages.

It will also help deal with rising cost of living pressures, a bad situation that Mr Albanese is making worse.

We believe the pension should not financially punish older Australians who want to continue to work.

We have been listening to the many pensioners who have told us that they would work on a part time basis, or an extra day or extra shift if it was worthwhile.

And we’ve heard from businesses, desperate for reliable, well-qualified workers.

This policy would make it worthwhile by doubling the amount pensioners could earn before their pension payments are impacted.

The labour force participation rate is at a record high and the unemployment rate at 50 year low – this is sensible policy.

And the government doesn’t need a summit next week to implement it. It can be done now.

When I confronted Jason Clare on Friday, in our regular Sunrise panel, he said “it’s on the table.”

Well, why can’t Anthony Albanese pick it up off the table and implement it now?

Every day wasted without implementing this policy is a day lost for business, a day lost for pensioners and a day lost for our veterans – who want to use their skills for mutual good.

And that brings me to next week’s Skills Summit.

I know each and every one of you here – those invited, anyway – are attending in good faith.

The problem is that the government is not.

They’re going there for a photo-op, seeking consensus for a predetermined agenda they’re going to implement anyway.

There’s no room for fresh ideas, or genuine engagement.

They want sign-off for things that ERC has already said yes to.

We all remember Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit.

And we remember it so well, precisely because we can’t remember anything tangible it actually delivered.

A talk-fest that was designed to make the new government look proactive, look ready, look like they had an agenda.

And it all sounds very familiar.

On whether this Summit is successful, the proof will be in the pudding.

What will it achieve?

When will it be achieved by?

What new initiatives are on the table?

Will we get firm targets for skilled visa processing?

I get calls from businesses in my electorate everyday about the delays in processing – this is slowing us down.

These resourcing decisions are fully within the Government’s control and could be improved at any time.

I know Andrew that you and ACCI have been calling for the new government to look at the rules of engagement on Enterprise Bargaining.

Only 3,753 agreements were lodged with the Fair Work Commission in 2020-21, compared with 7,081 in 2010-11.

Are they willing to genuinely look at that?

Lip-service won’t cut it.

Waffle won’t cut it.

We all know the problems. We all know the challenges. We all know the solutions.

These are some of the reasons that I, personally, was never interested in going to this talk-fest.

And I know that not everyone here agrees with that approach.

But tonight I can tell you exactly where I’ll be on the 1st and 2nd of September.

On Day 1 of the Summit, I’ll be in Northern NSW – Lismore – with my colleague the Member for Page, Kevin Hogan.

Lismore was battered by 1-in-1000 year floods earlier this year, and as the debris receded and the flood waters halted, sadly, so has any interest from the federal government.

The NSW Premier went there last week, but the Prime Minister hasn’t visited since being elected more than three months ago.

The political advantage of going receded and so did Mr Albanese’s interest.

I’ll be on the ground, talking to businesses who were smashed, locals who lost their homes and councils who to this day, are still coordinating assistance for the community.

And I’ll make an observation, tonight.

I suspect those families who have lost everything and are still waiting for adequate support, those businesses who are still picking themselves up off the floor, aren’t too interested in the Summit.

They deserve to know their leaders are taking them seriously and actually care about their recovery, care about future-proofing them.

I’m going there to listen.

So when the Prime Minister, and the Treasurer, and a smorgasbord of other Cabinet Ministers take to the podium on Thursday here in Canberra, I’ll be taking notes on what they actually need to do for the people of Lismore.

Because even if the Albanese Government has forgotten them, the Dutton Opposition has not.

But – if you think it shouldn’t have to be a choice between delivering what the people of Lismore still desperately need and taking an active role in working with business to deliver the policy our economy needs, you’re right.

And that’s why on Day 2 of the Summit, I’m going to be in south-west and southern Sydney, on the ground, speaking directly to small business owners, sole traders, women in business and more, to hear about their concerns, their ideas and what they want out of their governments.

And I want to be clear – as I said earlier – none of this is a criticism of your attendance, your enthusiasm for the summit.

It’s an opportunity for you to engage and put forward what you need, want, expect.

I understand why you’re going.

Your motives are good.

The problem is the government’s motives are not.

Mr Albanese made a big promise to the Australian people at the last election.

He promised a $275 cut to electricity bills for households and businesses.

It’s not a promise he’s repeated for a while now.

And that’s because he knows it’s going to be Labor’s first broken promise.

I suspect it’s something that people and businesses in Lismore and suburban Sydney are going to raise next week. Because they need that promised cut and they need it yesterday.

We know Labor can’t take a single cent off electricity bills, that they can’t put an inch of downward pressure on inflation, and are powerless to bring down the cost of paying your mortgage.

But – they made a lot of promises before the election on how electing them was going to make everything better … and they’ll be held accountable for it.

They don’t have the policies to create more jobs or provide tax relief for workers and small businesses – and despite your best will and engagement, they won’t have those policies after the Summit either.

When we were in government, we put in place significant support to build Australia’s workforce and to secure our industrial base.

Our work on Instant Expensing and the Instant Asset Write-Off lifted business investment and productive capital in the economy when it was needed most.

Our reforms to insolvency helped businesses get through the pandemic.

We presided over reductions in wholesale energy prices across the two years prior to April 2022 of 8 per cent for households, 10 per cent for small businesses, and a huge 12 per cent for large businesses.

When it came to workforce: we saved a generation of apprentices, many of whom are now fully qualified and onto job sites. We skilled up hundreds of thousands of new workers through JobTrainer.

A $13 billion investment in skills.

A new National Workforce Strategy.

Today it sits ready to implement, on the Government’s own website, and I urge Mr Albanese to pick it up and use it.

Our plan was principles based and called for the following five pronged approach to securing our workforce today and tomorrow:

Use data to create transparency of the current and future workforce
Equip Australians with in-demand skills and focus employment services on outcomes
Remove barriers and disincentives to work
Activate industry to design and drive change; and
Target migration to fill skills and labour gaps

When the dust settles on next week’s Summit, it wouldn’t surprise me if the new government picks up these points, dusts them off, gives them a new lick of paint and claims them as their own.

Because they’re real solutions that work.

I also have very real concerns about the removal of the National Skills Commission and replacement with a new departmentally housed Jobs and Skills Australia.

It is really important that we have an independent statutory body with an industry board to provide independent and expert advice on Australia’s workforce needs.

The National Skills Commission was doing great work, and I think we are all scratching our heads as to why it was abolished.

When it comes to supporting Australian industry we delivered our Modern Manufacturing Strategy as a whole-of-government effort to help Australian manufacturing scale-up, become more competitive and resilient – creating jobs now and for future generations.

We unashamedly sought to focus on opportunities in each of our National Manufacturing Priorities, with the potential to deliver long‑term transformational outcomes for the Australian economy. We focused on:

Resources Technology & Critical Minerals Processing
Food & Beverage
Medical products
Recycling & Clean Energy

Already we see the Albanese Government poised to tear up commitments made to Australian manufacturing businesses.

We are talking about boosting sovereign manufacturing capability on everything from defence, to health, to food security and construction.

The fact that Mr Albanese is looking to balance the budget on the back of Australian jobs, workers and manufacturing businesses confirm all suspicions that Labor can’t manage money.

It’s what we said at the last election, and it rings true.

This indecision is putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk, threatening investment certainty, threatening productivity and jeapardising the Australian Government’s reputation as a stable partner to do business with.

Businesses are relying on the continuity of these commitments to hire apprentices and make investment decisions.

Make no mistake, this uncertainty will cause job losses and each one of them will be on Mr Albanese’s head.

Another part of our Modern Manufacturing Strategy was our $107.2 million Supply Chain Resilience Initiative.

It aimed to provide businesses with support to establish or scale capability that addresses a supply chain vulnerability.

The new government must stay the course on these programs.

Our economy is depending on it.

In conclusion – we know Australian households and businesses are doing it tough and we all want the new government to succeed.

But all of us in the room are going to have to keep them honest.

Governments have a nasty tendency of getting in the way at exactly the wrong time.

Especially Labor governments.

A new government can bring new ideas – no doubt about it – and we should listen to any new ideas with open ears and clear eyes.

But be under no illusions, the foundations of this Labor Government are not friendly foundations to business and industry leaders here in this room.

We know the only way through these challenges is to back businesses and industries across the economy.

I want more young people to have the incredible experience of getting that first phone call like I did all those years ago.

We know that if we get the priorities right, that will be the experience of our next generation.

We know if we get the settings right, businesses will find opportunity in the risk.

Can I once again thank everyone here tonight for the role you play.

Can I thank ACCI for bringing this event together.

The Federal Coalition worked so well with all of you in government, and we hope to continue that positive, constructive relationship in Opposition.

Thank you.