Victorian Chamber Chief Executive Paul Guerra addresses the Melbourne Press Club

VCCI Chief Executive Paul Guerra, looks to the future and explains why Victoria “can’t go back to the old ways of doing things” in his address to the Melbourne Press Club.

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Paul Guerra’s full speech to the Melbourne Press Club on 7 July, 2021: 

*Check against delivery 

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

Welcome to Victoria’s Leader of the Nationals, Peter Walsh and the Victorian Chamber’s President Karyn Sobels. 

A special thank you to Melbourne Press Club Chief Executive Cathy Bryson for extending the invitation for me to speak today. And hello to members of the Press Club Board joining us today: Vice President Heidi Murphy, Richard Willingham who you’ve already heard from, and Justin Quill, or should I say the great Quilly. 

It’s great to see so many of the journalists in this environment at the Press Club here, away from the daily COVID-19 stand-ups where we’ve done many interviews over the last 15 months.  

And thank you to one of our valued VCCI members Crown Melbourne for hosting in this fantastic setting. It’s great to see my dear friend Ann Peacock here as well. 

I think most of you know the VCCI and what we do. At last count, our network is over 47,000 businesses so you know when we speak on business matters it is with some authority. 

I started as Chief Executive of the Victorian Chamber in February 2020....timing hey!  

I’ve had a great corporate career before joining VCCI, with a unique background spanning corporate, global, health, technology and community, but not even my career experience could prepare me for what the last 16 months have brought, but each role had an uncanny relevance to what has played out. 

As we all know, the Grand Prix and Moto GP were cancelled yesterday for 2021.  This brought back memories for me of what I remember as the start of the COVID-19 pandemic feeling ‘real’ in Victoria. Yesterday’s news was an uncomfortable DeJa'Vu. 

On March 13, 2020, the Grand Prix was cancelled while the Victorian Chamber was hosting one of the last corporate events that Victoria would see for months to come, our annual Grand Prix breakfast. We were all literally escorted from the track as a throng of confused and angry would-be spectators waited at the gates, only to be turned away.  

It was a time of extreme uncertainty which stirred a sense of panic and anxiety. It was surreal to say the least.  

You all know what came next, as many of you here were front row and centre for the Premier’s daily press conferences as COVID-19 continued to engulf our way of life and work.  

The real pain point started on 30 June 2020, after the virus escaped from hotel quarantine and spread through the community, when the Premier announced a return to tougher restrictions from 7 July – exactly one year ago today – it would last for 112 days.  

Victorians did not emerge until 26 October 2020. For many of us, our world shrunk to the very immediate as those two lockdowns descended on us. What if I have to close? What if I can’t pay the bills? Does this mean I will lose my job? How will I pay the mortgage? These were the questions everyone needed to answer as COVID-19, and the necessary restrictions, crept into every facet of our lives.  

It was particularly scary for business owners.  

Government was looking to the VCCI, and other select industry associations like the Australian Hotels Association (hello to my friend Paddy O’Sullivan in the audience) to provide the answers to the questions around what businesses needed right in that moment and what they would need going forward. And, of course, businesses, our members, needed us to be a loud voice and a strong advocate for their interests.  

Governments, with the input from business, were implementing plans to save Victoria’s economy and Australia’s economy. And the Government was understandably worried about the projections of how many citizens could die.   

And so, we spent a lot of time and put a lot of focus on what our members told us they required – and we relayed that to government, both state and federal. Those conversations were happening several times a day – they still are.  

The Government wanted solutions, not problems. Which was fortunate because business wanted solutions too – and fast!  

Our advocacy was central to support and assistance for businesses including the Federal JobKeeper scheme, which was crucial to so many, the Loss Carry Back provisions included in the Federal Budget, the State Government’s many Business Support Grants. As I look back now, we were in a privileged position to help guide most aspects of those grants and supports.  

It’s fair to say I engaged a lot with members every day, along with close friends who were running their own businesses, as well as my global network identifying best practice to show what has worked and how we can transfer such programs here. The insights this collective provided were crucial in being able to provide real examples and get real solutions.  

For our members, we tried to alleviate some of the financial burden by waiving membership fees for one year for any Victorian business. This was open to new businesses joining us as well.  

It’s true that we have not always been the loudest voice in the room. Not that we haven’t been prepared to criticise the positions of State and Federal Governments if we disagreed with them, but we always did so in a considered and respectful manner. I received a lot of feedback, mostly robust. In the quieter moments they did tell me they appreciated that we were clear with them when we didn’t agree and that we always offered solutions to provide some real alternatives for them to consider. 

Can I also say to the media in the room...radio, print, TV, online... you were all brilliant last year. You told the stories for Victorians and underscored the importance of dedicated and skilled journalism.  

I’m very grateful for how you engaged and helped us communicate to our members and the broader public. The last 16 months have shown us that, as Mark Twain once quipped, exaggerations of the death of the media are premature and misguided.  

As the recent Lockdown Four, and current COVID-19 situation around the country has taught us - COVID-19 is far from over.   

Once again, the Victorian Chamber was a strong advocate to government for the latest round of business support grants throughout Lockdown Four and we were also vocal on the need for income support for those workers who were stood down or lost shifts.   

The Federal Government went on to announce support for workers who live or work in a Commonwealth declared COVID-19 hotspot.  

I think NSW should be thanking us for our advocacy efforts right now! I’m sure it is not lost on any Victorian that the recent urgency around vaccine and a plan have occurred at a time when our neighbours up north are struggling with the virus spread. 

What we are seeing in NSW, indeed across most of Australia, serves as another reminder that a successful vaccination rollout and immediate action to build dedicated quarantine facilities is key.   

The vaccination rollout has been unacceptably slow here, with inadequate vaccine supplies leaving Australia languishing. Our hope now rests in an increase in supplies from September combined with a campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy. 

I can tell you, there is nothing more important to the business community than getting Australians vaccinated. We stand ready to help.  

We look overseas to countries like the UK and US that were absolutely whacked by COVID-19 now living life as ‘normal’. We need to quickly up our game, or risk being left further behind as the shackles come off the rest of the world.  

Government should also be doing everything in its power to incentivise vaccinations. The introduction of a digital wallet version of national vaccination certificates with a communication campaign around it would be a great start. COVID-19 digital certificates could enable automatic travel exemptions for interstate travel during state-determined lockdowns and travel restrictions.  

Businesses are jumping on board. Qantas and Virgin have announced incentives to get vaccinated, and even companies like HAG in Melbourne are rewarding their staff with a $100 shopping voucher once they get the jab.   

Speaking from personal experience, I’d say take the vaccine. COVID-19 is not pleasant.  

I have a unique insight in to the virus, having first-hand experience with COVID-19. 12 months ago next week I caught COVID-19... well no one can say I didn’t go through the full experience last year! I can tell you; you don’t want to get it! It was horrible and very serious. I know that it is ‘more than just a cold’ and it does not discriminate in who it strikes down. Crazy though, I got it, my middle son got it, but thankfully my wife, daughter and youngest son didn’t, and we are a close-knit family as some of you know. 

Let’s make it as easy as possible for Victorians to get the jab. There’s a lot more we can do if we have the adequate supplies.  

Again, I look to other countries for inspiration. 

In the US, Amazon wrote to President Biden to offer assistance with communication and technology, Microsoft converted its vacant office campus into a vaccination centre in a partnership with the State of Washington and offered artificial intelligence to help track hospitalisation and testing.  

Meanwhile Starbucks seconded its workers out – while continuing to pay them - to help design vaccination centres.  

Singapore has recently implemented a system to live and work alongside the virus. Even though they are still recording around 20-30 cases a day, they have upscaled the vaccination roll out and started to manage COVID-19 as they would any other endemic disease like the flu including a roadmap to the new normal.  They’re looking at quick results tests like breathalysers to permit entry and daily updates will change to a focus on outcomes rather than case numbers - such as workdays lost.   

We should be moving in the same direction as Singapore, now where just under 6 million people have received their first dose and 38 per cent are fully vaccinated. We can’t have more lockdowns. As we learned in Lockdown Four, it is much harder to keep going without JobKeeper, payroll tax deferrals, loan holidays and a swathe of other supports.  

We know that some businesses will never re-open and many jobs have been lost, particularly in Victoria.   

It’s been a rugged 15 months and we must now be optimistic and get our economy back up and functioning again. Some say we have fractured as a state, and the divide between Metro and Regional has been felt.  

In many ways we have all been in crisis for 16 months, and it has drained and frayed us. The New York Times published an article a month or so back which stated ‘There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing’.  

The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021. Put in perspective the extremes on the spectrum being depression and flourishing. We had psyched ourselves up for the finish line of December 2020 and it’s as if we have no more petrol in the COVID-tolerance tank. 

In my view, that is one of the reasons Lockdown Four was so hard. I'm certain we all know at least one person who is battling poor mental health right now or exhibiting abnormal moods. We have some healing to do and that needs to happen. Let’s not forget we are still the lucky country.   
For us here in Victoria I want to see some short-term opportunities realised. 

For starters, let’s see our events return.  

I want to see Crown Palladium full; I want to see the AFL Grand Final rocking with 100,000 people at the G; Cox Plate, Derby Day and Melbourne Cup run in front of capacity crowds and the Australian Open locked in for early next year. 

I want to see our festivals stir the fire in us once again. Be it the Royal Melbourne Show or one of the many live music shows that rocked Flemington, the Showgrounds, Myer Music Bowl and Rod Laver. White Night in Melbourne, Bendigo and Geelong.  

All the country shows, festivals and exhibitions that are at the heart of these communities. 

There are ways to do this safely. And I know people like Jenny Benson who has a wealth of experience in the events sector and is here today understands that too. 

I want to see vaccinated international students and researchers return, with a positive commitment that they are welcome from next year. In many cases, it’s too late to get them back for semester two this year, but we know how important these students are to our economy and workforce and we need to act immediately if we want to preserve it.   

I want to see Regional Victoria continue to thrive...we can live and work remotely, and it might inspire future industries there. 

I want to see the vibrancy of hospitality return. We do pubs, cafés and restaurants better than most and we need that unique foody and social experience again.  

To me, these are some of the elements of Victoria that are the subject of great memories and I’m sure you, like me, can’t help but smile at.  

They are, in many ways, the essence of Victoria. Our beating heart. And it’s up to all of us to ensure we bring them to life again. It’s important for Victoria's reputation, but it’s also important for our own psyche.  

In the context of a global pandemic, that we haven’t seen for 100 years, we’ve done pretty well in an environment that was so fluid. But this is a race, and we have lost our position as envy of the world. Other countries are opening up, and they are getting on with their lives as their economies bounce back.  

We can do the same.  

We were the economic engine room of the nation 16 months ago and we can be again. This is why the VCCI is focussed on enabling business, growing business and easing the cost of doing business, and why I have been adopting a positive tone with our approach to advocating for these themes so that we are able to ensure that: 

  • Victoria has the workforce capability required to be leading the nation in most industries.  
  • The infrastructure needed to make sure that goods and services are easily transported.  
  • We have the right ecosystem to make sure that we can continue to innovate and commercialise.  

That’s where the Victoria Summit 2021 comes into it.  

When we came up with the concept of the Victoria Summit, it was an inspiration to ensure that we were building opportunities for the next generation. Quite simply the Victoria Summit is designed to stimulate thinking to make Victoria the best place to live, work, learn and operate a business.  

Where can Victoria be in a decade, 20 years and 30 years. A Plan matters! Stop for a minute and consider that Singapore is only 56 years old yet look at what they have built. 

Having spent the majority of my career in the private sector with significant multinationals, I worked with some amazing leaders. I learnt a few things: 

  1. A focus on the future is as important as the focus on the now 
  1. Collaboration helps propel organisations to greatness 
  1. Nothing beats good people and a good strategy to execute a plan. 

I spoke to a few people I admire about the idea for the Summit, and I found it resonated with them too. We have a bloody great state here with bloody great people cheering and fighting to get us back on top.  James Copsey who is here today was one of the first to jump in with full support. 

Victoria Summit can be instrumental to help arrest any economic fallout that Victoria will experience because of the pandemic.  

It is creating a vehicle for us to lift our eyes beyond the horizon and collaborate with some of Victoria’s best and brightest minds across a range of sectors and industries to articulate how we can build that new economy and what we need to get there.   

We started by assembling a reference group of Victoria’s leaders across a range of sectors – business and industry, unions, educational institutions, sports and the community, to oversee and guide this focused and deliberate strategy to help shape a new Victoria.  

The Reference Group met for the first time in March to lay the foundations of the Summit and to map the opportunities for Victoria’s future.  

The reference group determined the three themes of the Summit:  

  • Business and economy  
  • Community, health and wellbeing and  
  • The future of work 

The aim of the Summit will be to deliver a playbook, which will incorporate Vision, Pathways, Actions. For example: a vision in the business and economy stream could be for Victoria to be the Asia Pacific Headquarters for multinationals in a number of priority sectors. Pathways could be a world-leading innovation ecosystem and actions could be to strengthen industry-university commercialisation, along with accelerating the growth of start-ups.  

You can imagine the size of the playbook when the number of visions will be expanded out. And that’s good, because the leaders are taking valuable time out to really engage and consider ideas for the future. 

We don’t expect to solve all the issues, in fact it’s highly likely competing ideas will sit alongside each other in the playbook. We hope that once the playbook has been finalised, Governments and Oppositions might lift the ideas and develop them into policy to drive the future of our State.  

This is truly business and the broader community coming together for the benefit of the State. 

Every member of this group is committed and giving generous amounts of their valuable time to this important process. People like Tim Piper from the AiGroup, Paddy O’Sullivan, AFL’s Travis Auld and Brian Walsh, academia’s Professor Alan Fells AO (who is in the audience today), Pascale Quester, Iain Martin and Duncan Maskell, Trades Hall’s Luke Hilakari, Global Victorias Gonul Serbest, CEOs including Louise Adams and Katherine Ellis and Chairs like Penny Fowler and Carmel Mortel. I must say KPMG’s involvement right from the start has been fabulous, thanks to James , Sophie and Carmel. 

The Summit’s first public forum – the Vision Day – is scheduled to take place on 6 August after we had to postpone it from last month.  

We have both the Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and State Treasurer Tim Pallas giving keynote addresses as well as a global futurist. If you haven’t registered your attendance yet, I encourage you to do so. The journos in the room are guaranteed to get a story or two out of it.  

We will have another public Day in October – and the reference group and working groups will continue to meet – with the Victoria Summit culminating in the playbook’s launch in February 2022.   

I am delighted to announce today that the Victorian Government, through additional funding, is supporting us to extend the Summit to discuss how we respond to the challenges of COVID-19. This half-day focus-group event will look at what business needs to help us remain open and out of lockdowns, as vaccination rates increase and the risk of an outbreak reduces.  

And that’s something I’m sure everyone in this room will get behind. The Victorian Chamber has been asking the Government to take more input from the broader business community, so we are pleased that the government is supporting us to have this conversation.  

It will also help to shape a blueprint for how we respond to outbreaks once we have reached that holy grail of herd immunity. Much like Singapore is already doing. It will explore how we work alongside the virus.  

As compelling as the Summit will be, it is important not to wait for the conclusion to get rolling. We can focus on some of the areas that we are doing well and make sure that we are taking advantage of the current global conditions.  

The first is Victoria’s Innovation Ecosystem.  

The Victorian health sector contributes more than $30 billion a year to our state’s economy and is our largest and fastest-growing source of employment.  

We are home to world-leading firms and have a robust university cluster. Our Parkville precinct is the envy of the world. 

So, how do we harness what we already have and make Victoria the international innovation and commercialisation capital for HealthTech including Medtech and Biotech, advanced manufacturing, support for an ageing population and leader in mental health support?  

While we currently perform well in knowledge creation, we can improve the way we capture the commercial and social benefits with a more focused innovation ecosystem.   

Global areas with strong innovation ecosystems all have a clear focus – think the Silicon Valley’s focus on software and technology, Dublin focus on the Internet of Things, Netherlands on artificial intelligence and Cambridge on science and technology.  

What we can learn from these hubs is that research and development must be supported by a strong ecosystem of customers, suppliers, finance, interpersonal networks and a conducive regulatory environment.  

I’ve been speaking with our universities here about how we can encourage and incentivise industry and the private sector to engage with the university sector. The University of Chicago does this really well through their UChicago program.  

The program works with corporate partners to take ideas and deliver tangible outcomes. UChicago describe themselves as being at the very heart of a ‘must have’ research, innovation, venture, investment, talent, operations and education ecosystem.  

I've seen this work in my time with Motorola. We actually partnered with the South Australian Government and set up a software campus in Adelaide that agreed to take a number of software graduates each year. These engineers helped develop software for global Motorola products.  

These models can be easily replicated in Victoria, especially given the calibre and diversity of our university sector. 

One of my observations is that Australian businesses aren't natural collaborators with the university sector. There are pockets of excellence, but it’s not widespread. Imagine an environment where a company of any size can easily engage with a university to help solve a problem that is restricting their progress, or help breakthrough a new product development. Imagine the power of this and the potential it could have for both the university and the company.  

While Australia has some of the best researchers and innovators, it ranks in the mid-field when compared globally on innovation and commercialisation. But we are pleasingly seeing the Victorian Government take a much stronger interest.  

The recent State Budget included $2 billion for the Breakthrough Victoria Fund and is a great start.  

Innovation has always been an interest for me, I guess a degree in electronic engineering will do that to you, and I've seen it work well when companies choose to invest in it.  

Another area is our Agri sector. From my time at the Royal Agricultural Society and Queen Victoria Market, I know our produce is rated highly.  

We also have one of the oldest Wine Research centres in the world, with our wine production continuing to grow in significance and reputation. It is an opportunity for us to exploit and one that can have even more lasting benefits for Regional Victoria. We know that supplying global food demand will continue to be difficult, and with the right innovation, Victoria can position accordingly. We have the climate, water and conditions to be a significant food bowl to the world.  

Advanced manufacturing must be another area that we accelerate in. Manufacturing accounted for nearly 25 per cent of Victoria’s employment and it has now fallen to closer to 10 per cent. It’s in Victoria’s DNA and we have a unique ability here as the globe struggles with certainty of supply. I’m pleased to see more and more businesses looking at manufacturing key components and products in Victoria again, rather than looking to offshore.  

Yes, there is a bit to work through in terms of price competitiveness, but the trade-off is significantly higher quality and guaranteed supply. 

We know we can’t go back to the old ways of doing things and why should we? But growing manufacturing in advanced industries will serve to place Victoria very well as the world recovers from COVID-19.  

And I could keep talking about opportunities in Data, AI, Digital, climate, renewables, Tourism but we would be here all day. I’m full of optimism for our way forward. 

If there is one silver lining to COVID-19, it is that it has accelerated our ways of working, problem solving and opening our minds.  

We should look to countries like Israel, and the US for further inspiration. 

Quite simply fellow Victorians, it’s time to move with purpose. 

We have been afforded, albeit off the back of global pandemic, an opportunity to reshape many aspects of our lives, our state and our country and the brave will take the opportunity. I intend to, and I hope you choose to as well.  

“Failure is not an option” should be the mantra we adopt from here. The road ahead will be different, opportunities and challenges will present at different times, but honestly, there is no better place to be than Victoria right now and the future will be as bright as we choose to make it.  

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