Allegra Spender MP shares keynote address at ARA Leaders Forum 2024

Allegra Spender MP, Independent Member for Wentworth, shared an important keynote address to our audience at Day One of ARA Leaders Forum 2024, which outlined her political vision and support for our sector.

You can find a copy of her address below:

Thank you to Paul and the ARA for the invitation to be with you today.

I am very proud to be speaking to a room of retailers. While I have had a varied career, it is in fashion retail that I literally grew up – every school and uni holiday – and running our family’s fashion retail business taught me some of my most important business lessons.

Four of these are:

  • A great person can be literally five times as good as someone else – so find, grow and hold onto the best, and avoid the rest
  • That the customer is always right – whether you agree with them or not – in that you always have to listen to them
  • That when things aren’t working, you can’t just hope they are going to change, you need to act
  • And that retail is both a science and an art – it is the discipline of process and execution, with the flair and creative inspiration to keep delighting your customers

They are lessons in retail – but also lessons in life and certainly with strong parallels in politics too.  

But retail has been very tough over the last four or so years – and I would like to acknowledge everything that you have all been through. It all started with COVID – I remember very vividly in early March 2020 talking with my family about closing all of our stores, trying to work out how to support our staff, and not knowing if we would ever open our stores again. You’ve had the years of rolling lockdowns and constantly changing protocols, different approaches by different states, crippling supply chain disruptions, labour shortages, the continuing shift to online and need to reinvent physical stores, high inflation, technology changes, and the shift to cleaner and more sustainable business practices.

No wonder you are exhausted.

I am sure that all of you and your businesses are needing to draw more and more on your discipline, resilience, and creativity to continue to meet those challenges.

And what about the role of government? Most retailers I know don’t think a lot about government – they worry about their customers, suppliers, teams – but generally hope government will just leave them alone. But government has too big a role to ignore particularly in the economy, so I would like to talk about the broader economic challenges this country faces, and what I believe politicians and government need to do.

In economic terms, we are obviously facing high inflation, and bringing that down is causing pain across the community. It is an acute problem and I know you are facing the effects of that every day both personally and in your businesses.

But we have a bigger, and more chronic economic problem and that is low productivity. Productivity is basically how much value is created per hour worked. Workforce participation and population growth are critical as well, but productivity is absolutely essential to economic growth, rising living standards and rising real wages. And the bad news is that the last decade has been the worst in Australia for 60 years for productivity growth, and the last 2 years’ productivity has gone backwards.

Supporting productivity growth would be a large enough policy challenge for any government, but this is complicated in these times by three further changes that are both challenges and opportunities for Australia:

  • The net zero and sustainability transformation
  • Changing structure of global supply chains
  • Rapid technology changes, particularly AI

On productivity, I believe we need an agenda about how to make Australia the best place to start and grow businesses.

There are three key areas where I believe government economic policy is not where it needs to be and where I am therefore focusing my advocacy – IR, tax and innovation.

In parliament, we pass hundreds of pages of legislation each week but there is just not enough focus on deeply understanding the impact of the legislation on the lives of the people we represent, and not enough people in parliament who have been on the receiving end of bad government legislation and fight back against it.

Since I have been in parliament, the worst example I found of this is in the Industrial Relations legislation. The cross bench in the house and senate have been extremely active in trying to address the worst impacts of the government’s legislation.

If we want successful retail businesses, we need flexibility to match our workforces with business needs and customer demand. Of course, we need to do right by our workers and provide them with the remuneration and certainty they rightly deserve – but we need dynamic, successful businesses if we want to have well-paid, secure, and happy staff – and I am very concerned that we have taken a step backwards in this regard.

While the laws have been passed, we need to continue to demonstrate publicly the challenges of the governments approach, and continually advocate and pressure for reforms that are truly win-win – such as award simplification and pragmatic changes to part-time contracts to deliver certainty but also more flexibility. I am proud to work with the retail sector on this and will continually challenge the government on the productivity impacts of their choices.

The second area that is important for productivity is tax.

On tax, we need to seriously reconsider whether we’re raising revenue in the smartest and fairest ways.  

We need fairness so that every retail business can access capital on an equal footing – and we need to be smarter with our taxes, so that we can attract capital into Australia and invest in innovation. At the same time, we need to make sure our tax system doesn’t disincentivise positive things like employing people, and doesn’t make it harder to run businesses – for example, Fringe Benefits Tax, which raises less than $4 billion a year but imposes $8 to 10 billion in compliance costs on businesses.

Tax is a particular focus area of mine because party politics has made it such a hard conversation to have and one again I believe is critical to our long-term economic future.

And on finally on innovation, there is so much to do and addressing those three challenges and opportunities that will drive so much innovation in the coming years – net zero and sustainability, supply chain resilience and technology innovation especially AI – is critical for business, and is critical for government to be an active, practical partner in.

Each of those three challenges presents an enormous opportunity for Australia –

  • How can we be the sustainable supplier of choice in a net zero world?
  • How can we be a resilient supply chain partner of choice in an uncertain world?
  • How can we use our high levels of education, our flexibility, our strong institutions, to deftly navigate the opportunities that AI presents, as well as protect our citizens in areas such as privacy?

These are real opportunities for Australia – few countries are better placed to meet them – but realising these opportunities is not certain.

To realise these opportunities, we need government and business to work pragmatically and practically together to turn these drivers into long-term competitive advantages. These are all complex, constantly evolving issues which all countries are grappling with. To do this, all members of parliament need to be more closely connected to business and better understand the practical challenges. We need to have a pro-business agenda particularly focused on knowledge diffusion across a broad range of businesses and a willingness to back Australian innovation including in public procurement.

And we also need a willingness to do public policy differently. Too often party politics means policy swings like a pendulum from one ideology to another. We have seen this most clearly in climate policy.

It might be good for headlines, but it is bad for business – business can’t turn on a dime, it needs consistency and to build on the past, to make long-term investment decisions.

We need to do politics differently, to continually look for the common ground, be pragmatic and evidence-based, make the case for change, and drive towards reform that face our greatest challenges and opportunities, rather than bandaid over the latest problem. That is what I am in politics to do.

When I see the retail sector, I see a group of people who are practical, pragmatic, and solution-focused. Who have constantly navigated changing tides while trying to do the best for their teams, their suppliers, and their customers. And who are ambitious – and competitive – and want to be the best. These are exactly the sort of businesses that will secure Australia’s economic future.

– Allegra Spender MP, Independent Member for Wentworth

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