Business matters: Paul Guerra addresses the Melbourne Press Club

28 April 2022

Victorian Chamber Chief Executive Paul Guerra talked about what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and the importance of business leading the state's recovery in his address to the Melbourne Press Club.

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Paul Guerra’s full speech to the Melbourne Press Club on 28 April 2022: 

*Check against delivery 

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today – the Bunarong Boon Wurring and Warundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

We are home to the longest continuous culture in the world which is truly something to respect and behold and it’s important that we continue to reflect on that and learn from our heritage as a nation.

Thank you to Melbourne Press Club Chief Executive Cathy Bryson for the invitation to speak today. The relationship between the Victorian Chamber and the Melbourne Press Club continues to go from strength to strength and it’s a partnership that we genuinely value.

I’d like to acknowledge the other members of the Press Club Board joining us here today, Justin Quill and Kate McGrath. And I’d also like to acknowledge the Vice Consul of the US Consulate, Lisa-Felicia Afi Akorli.

It’s always great to be here at Crown, and always great to see Ann Peacock and the team...and I might I also add my congratulations for the launch of your new partnership with the VRC which started beautifully with the first event on Monday.

It’s also great to see members  of the media in the room today. Victoria is incredibly well served by our media, whether it be our newspapers, TV or radio networks. You play a vital role in our democracy and daily discourse and it’s never been more important than over the last two years.

Welcome to  my fantastic Victorian Chamber Team in the room. It’s great to have your support. I’m very proud of you and I’m in admiration of all you do for our staff and for the businesses across the State.

It’s been nearly 10 months since I stood in this exact spot and addressed the Melbourne Press Club. We had just emerged from lockdown four and we were all optimistic about our reopening.

As it has for the most of the past two years, COVID had other ideas. A short time later we went into lockdown five and then not long after that, the lockdown to end all lockdowns, lockdown six.

Nine months on, we can finally say we are in a much better place. We are wiser, stronger, more determined and we are more resilient. It’s a great word resilient. The perfect antidote to that word COVID.

Today I want to talk about that resilience and how business, in particular, has not only come through the pandemic but how it’s emerging on the other side. About recovery. Another great word. 

And I want to talk about how COVID has given us an opportunity to rethink the way we live and work. I want to talk about what we’ve learned and about what really matters.

There will be many stories told in the years to come about the pandemic and particularly how it affected us here in Melbourne. Today I want to share just one of them with you. It’s a story about a small business and personifies resilience.

It was towards the end of the 2020 and we were slowly emerging from long lockdown two when I got a call from my good friend and businessman Peter Sidwell. Could I go and see a barber he knew in the CBD?

Now I admit my hair, like many other people, was getting pretty unruly at the time. But that wasn’t Peter’s motivation. Rather he wanted me to go and see a small business owner who was doing it tough.

I arrived at Vince and Dom’s barber shop behind Her Majesty’s Theatre and met Paul. The business had been in his family for 40 years but they’d never experienced anything like what Melbourne was going through.

Like many other small business owners, Paul just wanted to talk. He wanted to know that he wasn’t alone and that somebody cared. That the city would pull through and so would he.

So we talked. And I’m pleased to say Paul did pull through and he’s still here. Stronger, wiser, and more resilient. And each month or so I go back for a trim. And I get an update on the city from a trader’s lens. It’s not all pretty.

Every day during lockdowns I would take calls from businesses like Vince and Dom’s. I quickly learned that my job was part advocate and part therapist. But it also gave me a great insight into the challenges facing business during what was the biggest social and economic crisis many of us will face in our lifetime.

I’m very lucky that I was supported by many friends who are in business, and they shared with me insights from their vantage point that in turn helped the real advocacy that occurred through COVID.

It was real because it came from people like Greg Kahan at the George on Collins; Peter Sidwell through his many and varied business interests, including a trip he made to Europe; Patrick Prendergast, who has a clothing manufacturing business CGR in Thomastown, Chris Reilly at Crown, the state’s largest single employer and many others across the state.

Yes, these people are my friends but as business owners and leaders they also shared valuable insights that helped shape our advocacy over the past two years.,

I’ve often asked myself what kept businesses like theirs and many others going. And I think they are the same values that drove my grandparents when they immigrated to Australia from Italy back in the 1930s.

Like most immigrants, they knew their best chance of making it in their new country came down to couple of simple things. Hard work and resilience. One grew tomatoes in Shepparton. The other started a strawberry farm in Silvan and became the first person to sell those strawberries roadside on the Princes Highway.

Hard work and resilience. The same values that were passed down to me when I started my working life. I started a newspaper round with my mate Derek when I was 7 years-old and did it right through till I was 16.

My first full-time job after finishing university was with Motorola but I also continued to work Friday nights at a bottle shop and On Saturdays I was a car park attendant at VFL Park. Yes, I was one of those annoying people in a blue coat when you arrived at the footy on Saturday afternoons. And yes, we did let down your tyres if you upset us and yes you deserved it!

These values of Hard work and resilience shaped not just my grandparents but thousands of business owners across this state. Values that have served them and Victoria so well during the good times and the bad.

Just think about how important these businesses are to your everyday life. Where do you go to work out every morning? Where do you go to get your coffee on the way to work? Where do you go to get your lunch every day? And where do you go to meet your friends after work?

The answer in each case, of course, is a privately owned business operated by ordinary Victorians who take risks on their money every day to build a better life for themselves and their families. To pursue a dream.

Just as some kids dream of becoming the next Dustin Martin or Ash Barty, others dream of becoming the next Jeff Browne, Eddie McGuire, Mike Cannon-Brookes or Andrew Bassett. The next Melanie Perkins or Janine Allis.

But if COVID has taught us anything it’s that we must continuously adapt as the world around us changes. It’s equally true, as Winston Churchill said, that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. And so, during the pandemic, the idea of the Victoria Summit was born.

The Victoria Summit was important because it brought together thought leaders from industry, unions, government, education and community groups when we needed it most.  

At a time of crisis, we came together in partnership to create a shared vision. A shared vision about what really matters.

It was also an opportunity for many of us to connect and to feel that we could actually make a difference despite being stuck in our homes like everyone else.

A good example was Professor Pascale Quester who arrived in Melbourne in the middle of lockdowns to become Vice Chancellor of Swinburne University. My University. She later remarked that the Victoria Summit was a “lifeline” for her during that challenging period.

Pascale and many others like Duncan Maskell from Melbourne University, Emma King from the Victorian Council of Social Services, Travis Auld from the AFL, Luke Hilakari from Trades Hall, Penny Fowler from the Herald and Weekly Times, James Copsey KPMG and Jim Walsh both who are here– to name just a few - were willing and passionate contributors.

Of everything the Chamber has done over the past two years, it remains the thing I’m probably most proud of. It was a momentous journey that took 10,000 hours of work as the Victoria Summit became the Victoria Summit Playbook complete with 189 recommendations.

A Playbook that now sits in ministerial offices not just here in Victoria but also in Canberra. But rather than just gathering dust like a lot of reports do, the Victoria Summit Playbook is a living and breathing document. A document that is actually being acted upon.

Let me give you just a few of many examples:

  1. Action 116 under the experience pillar was: “Empower Visit Victoria to aggressively build Victoria's major events calendar”. The State has certainly focused on this, with this month’s announcement that we will host the 2026 Commonwealth Games, the 2028 and 2040 President’s Cup and the Argentina v Brazil soccer match.. Minister Pakula has certainly had his skates on in 2022.
  2. Action 178 under the connected pillar was: “Improve digital connectivity in Regional Victoria to make Victoria the most connected state.” In the Federal Budget, the Government committed $811.8 million over five years from 2022‑23 to expand mobile coverage, connectivity, resilience and affordability in Regional Australia.
  3. Just this morning: The Premier announced $277.5 million for the new VCE Vocational Major and Victorian Pathways Certificate to replace VCAL. This aligns directly with action 39 - “Reduce the cost associated with gaining a tertiary education to increase accessibility to education and training.” We also asked for better VET Pathways in our State Budget submission. So, it gets a big tick for us at the Victorian Chamber.

And I could go on.

What the Victoria Summit showed is that good ideas abound. We just have to find the will and the way to implement them. Rather than focus on short term fixes to political problems, we have to find long term solutions to structural problems.

Historically, both sides of politics at a state and federal level have shown they’ve got what it takes to implement important reforms when we need them to advance our state and country. Think Hawke and Howard. Cain and Kennett.

There’s no doubt that Governments at a State and Federal level have played vital roles to support business over the past two years. Can they now enable business to help lead our recovery?

It’s a double election year here in Victoria. What an opportunity we have. We know from our own focus groups that voters want a commitment to an optimistic future; they don’t want politics that focuses on the other party.

They’re looking for a path that takes calculated risks to help Victoria grow. There are many areas where we have the natural endowments and companies already established. We need to take advantage of this, and government can start to back winners.

I was speaking to a local fashion designer at an Iftar dinner on Tuesday night who has some great ideas for training new workers to manufacture her wares right here in Victoria. Why do we need to look to China or Vietnam to make clothes? Why not train locals to do it right here and reclaim the soon-to-be-lost art of dressmaking? We have the leaders, we have the industry, we have the materials, we just need the collective will to make it work.

Victoria is still the largest manufacturing state in the country, but we could be so much more and far more advanced. We need to be willing to empower and encourage government to work with business and industry to make the right choices about what areas we should pursue.

Similarly, how do we bring together the firepower of our amazing industries so they can leverage opportunities with our world-class universities and TAFEs. How do we increase collaboration on innovation and commercialisation, while also providing a means through which we can identify the skills for the future and start training our kids and those seeking career changes into emerging industries now.

We need to be ahead of the curve. Leaders not just in Australia but worldwide. We have done it with the Parkville precinct, now let us use that as the blueprint for other industries, like med tech, space, advance automation, AI and many others.

We can’t take for granted where we have found ourselves coming out of COVID. Yes, it’s in the rear-view mirror but we must make the most of the opportunities ahead of us.  We have done some of the work through the Victoria Summit and we now need policy makers, industry, business, the community and the media to encourage the government to create and implement these policies. To set the parameters for the private sector to then engage and drive outcomes.

What we do know from the Victoria Summit is that governments and political parties of all persuasions are listening. They are well attuned to the fact that business is a major contributor not just to our economy, but also to our overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Next week the Victorian Government will bring down its Budget. It must be a budget that focuses on business to be the primary driver of economic growth.

It’s why we’ve made no fewer than 73 recommendations designed to enable, grow and ease the cost of doing business. These include:

  • A new business concierge service to reduce the time, cost and administrative burden for business owners. This will be a game-changer for every business in Victoria. 
  • Doubling wage subsidies for apprentices or trainees and committing to zero youth unemployment by 2026
  • Increasing the payroll tax threshold $1.2 million in Melbourne and decrease the rate to zero in Regional Victoria

Again, I could go on. Some will no doubt be picked up in election campaigns as well. As Victoria’s peak business body, the Chamber represents the collective voice of 50,000 members and clients. Every size, every sector and right across the State. Our strength is certainly in our numbers.

At times it would be easy to play politics. To simply be a loud voice for the sake of it, the negative footnote at the end of the story. But it’s critical to remember who we represent and what we stand for.

Rather than focus on problems, we’ve chosen to focus on solutions. We want to provide a voice that can be trusted and respected regardless of your political persuasion. A voice that will always support a good idea regardless of where it comes from.

But we are more than just a voice. More than just an advocate. What you may not realise is that the Victorian Chamber is also a business in our own right. It may surprise you that I am responsible for more than 200 staff; a passionate team who work hard every day to help business. I’m proud to say it’s a brilliant team.

We are the largest providers of apprentices and trainees in the State, We are a Registered Training Organisation. We have a first-class workplace relations support service and we are the largest provider of certificates of origin – which businesses need to export - in the country. We understand the challenges involved in running a business and managing people.  We are a not-for-profit but our mindset is one of operating like a business. We get business.

We also know there are still many challenges facing business. Despite the incredible resilience shown by businesses over the past two years, some didn’t survive. Some have gone, never to return.

And we know there will be others that will fall by the wayside, especially this quarter as the bills are due. and many business owners have to make the agonising choice between going further into debt or closing their doors. We know of the 800,000 small business accounts nationally that are in debt to the Australian Taxation Office, at least 160,000 of these are in Victoria.

That’s why we’ve advocated so strongly in recent weeks for the easing of remaining restrictions such as masks for retail and hospitality workers and the isolation requirements for close contacts.  To remove any barriers that would continue to impact on business and give them the very best chance to rebuild.

And there was nobody more delighted than us when the Victorian Government announced it last week. It was another example of strongly representing business about what really matters.

In my view, if there is a silver lining to COVID it’s that it has accelerated our ways of working, problem solving and opened our minds to new possibilities. We’ve been given the chance to reshape many aspects of our lives, our state and our country.

No matter what happens, I am convinced that it will be different to where we left off in March 2020, but we will revisit some themes that have made our State what it is today.

From my unique vantage point, I’m of the firm belief that business and government need to better understand each other and decide how we work closer together.  It’s important that the strengths that exist on both sides are leveraged for the Victorian economy. We share the same motivation and the same goals so why wouldn’t we work together with intent?

That doesn’t mean we end up in each other’s pockets, but it does mean that we better understand the role both areas play in the economy. Business has expertise in risk mitigation, wealth creation, contract management and delivery and anticipating future trends. Business also encourages the ability to fail and recover. Governments have access to funds and regulatory capability along with planning for the greater good. These are key strengths that can be leveraged if we get it right.

Why do I believe this? Here’s why. Since October last year a Group has been meeting on a regular basis. It started as weekly and is now monthly. It’s called the Economic Restart and Recovery Committee and is jointly chaired by Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions Secretary Simon Phemister and myself. It brings together Government and Industry leaders, and was backed by Minister Pakula, who has attended every meeting, as has Minister Pulford.

Each week issues were discussed, insights shared and resolutions aired. We got things done so that business could endure. And we will keep getting things done because it’s important that Government and Industry continues to work together as part of our recovery. We pushed to set up the committee to ensure the voice of business is heard. And we did not miss an opportunity to put the business case and offer our intelligence and advice how they could help. It got solutions and resulted in action.

It’s this sense of purpose that will be the defining theme coming out of COVID. We’ve had two years to think in a way we haven’t had since we were kids. That treadmill of life slowed and the rat race stopped. We didn’t rush here or rush there because we couldn’t.

Purpose is what will drive us next. It will help us crystalise what really matters. Resilience and Recovery are great links to purpose, and ‘what matters’ will give us the focus to deliver.

We will each have a personal context of what matters, but there will also be a business and a state context of what matters. And it’s in the things that matter that lies the greatest opportunity to take our recovery to the next level. Leveraged properly, March 2020 will become ‘So yesterday’ as we like to say

So, what have we learned, and what really matters?

  • Business matters because it creates jobs, innovation and helps shape our culture and society. And it will lead our recovery. When the economy slows and spending stops, businesses and people suffer. Let’s never take business for granted again. It is the heartbeat of our community.
  • Education, Skills and training matter as it will help us properly address staff shortages and open career pathways for young people. Our universities and TAFEs will play a vital role.
  • Supply chain matters. If you can’t get the goods or parts you need or at the price you can afford you can’t sell them. If you can’t make money, you go broke. We have an opportunity to address it and onshore a whole lot more.
  • Start-ups and entrepreneurial thinking matters. My grandfather dabbled in this with roadside selling…he sold the truck out and went back again and then decided to carve a driveway at the farmyard for customers. Innovation runs through our veins in this state. Ask Nick Simms who is here about that.
  • Migration matters as it fuels economic growth and prosperity and enriches our society in so many ways. Our skilled workers, international students and backpackers should never be taken for granted again.
  • Mental health matters, particularly that of young people, many of whom have been suffering acute isolation over the past two years.
  • Addressing climate change matters as it’s the future of our planet. 2050 is fast approaching so let’s lead the change. It makes economic sense too by the way. Just ask Arron wood who is here about that.
  • Inclusion and diversity matters as it acknowledges and values difference. We need to ensure our businesses are open to everyone.
  • Your team, your staff your people matter, so establish the environment that you know they can thrive in
  • The CBD matters as it is still our most important business and cultural hub. It’s a shared responsibility to not just revive it but reimagine it. The CBD is our gateway to the State but there is enough noise from people I respect about cleanliness, graffiti, homelessness...ask Brendan Nottle who is here.... and bike lanes on our major thoroughfares to know there is an issue that needs attention. We need to strive to regain the mantle as the world’s most livable city.
  • Our regions matter. We’ve always known it but now we believe it. Let’s put the infrastructure in place to capitalise on their unique offerings.
  • Being deliberate about our future industries matters. Where is our next Parkville precinct going to emerge from? The Biomed/MedTech sector that now exists, that was years in the making to become an overnight success will serve us well into the future.
  • Events matter. It’s why the MCG needs to be upgraded to match the very best stadiums in the world, it’s why our desire to pursue the best events needs to continue, and its why we have to constantly refresh the live experience to get people off the couch and back to events. Think about the benefit to venues like Crown, and Gregs George on Collins.
  • And, finally, the media matters (you didn’t think I’d forget you did you?) Good journalism will never go out of fashion, keeps our institutions accountable and makes for a more robust democracy.

We never want to go through another two years like it ever again. But we survived and, like Vince and Dom’s, we are still here. Stronger, wiser, and more resilient. And with a greater sense of what really matters.

And I remain as convinced as I’ve ever been that if we are prepared to grasp the possibilities before us and embrace what matters, there is still no better place to be than right here in Victoria.

We’ve had the opportunity to stop, think and reset. Our challenge is to now find our purpose and act with purpose on the things that matter. 

Let’s seize the moment. For ourselves, our community and for the thousands of businesses who are so intrinsic to our lives.

Let’s do it differently, let’s do it together, and let’s do it better than ever. Let’s do it with purpose, leveraging the values of hard work and resilience and let’s focus on what really matters.

Thank you.

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