SPECIAL REPORT: CCI has a new president and chief executive, both with a long involvement in the lobby group’s policies.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry has a new president and chief executive, both with a long involvement in the lobby group’s policies.
An article in The New York Times highlighting Perth as trendy place to visit might seem like an odd citation for the new head of the state’s peak business lobby group, but Deidre Willmott knows more than most how much had to change locally to win such distant recognition.
Taking over the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia this month, Ms Willmott brings a deep knowledge of the political process that led to Perth rating not just a mention, but a high ranking among those places New Yorkers might want to visit.
She was CCI’s policy director in 2006 when the then Labor state government introduced the small bar licence regime that has revolutionised the entertainment sector and helped erase the angst driven by another global ranking at the turn of the century – when travel guide Lonely Planet in 2000 dubbed Perth ‘Dullsville’.
“One of the things that CCI was very involved in historically was lobbying for liquor licensing changes in 2006,” Ms Willmott said.
“It was Mark McGowan’s legislation but we lobbied to secure upper house support for that legislation.
“In eight years, we have gone from Dullsville to The New York Times saying we are a city of international panache.
“That was a result of the work done in the years leading up to those laws.
“That was a long period of work.”
In that time, Ms Willmott’s career has taken numerous different tacks both win CCI and outside, including a period as Premier Colin Barnett’s chief of staff and advising leaders in the private sector (see accompanying article).
But that long-term connection with CCI policy and the understanding of how much time it can take for an issue to be acted upon by government underscores the new CEO’s statement that she will not be making any drastic changes to the organisation’s agenda.
Ms Willmott highlights retail trading hours, energy sector reform, training, and duplication in environmental laws as key areas of focus. All of these have been long-term areas of CCI concern.
Similarly, CCIWA president Tracey Horton, who spent time overseeing the committee responsible for policy when Ms Willmott was policy director, lists a familiar set of themes which indicate there is no significant shift in the organisation’s bearing despite being under new management.
“The best way to create wealth for the economy and create growth is to encourage businesses to be the engine for that growth and the government to create the proper framework to allow that happen,” Ms Horton said.
“The agenda is consistent.”
Ms Horton raises the subject of red tape, tax and industrial relations as enduring issues CCI will continue to raise with government, based on the feedback system the lobby group has via internal committees, where members share their knowledge of what is taking place in the world of business.
“I think both of us think the ongoing strategic objectives and vision of CCI is right on the money,” Ms Horton told Business News.
“It is about making WA a great place to live, work and do business in.
“Everything we do is in alignment with that very broad vision at the highest level.”
The simple message is that the change at the helm has not altered the destination.
That doesn’t mean that CCI’s knew leadership lacks new ideas, though.
Ms Willmott sees the opportunity, for instance, to use technology to improve the speed with which issues confronting members are raised with the organisation’s executive.
Too often, experience tells her, the frustrations with a project’s journey through the bureaucratic labyrinth fade once approvals have been gained.
“I want to explore digital communications, for members to be able to send a message to us when they are frustrated,” Ms Willmott said.
“We want to know what is causing those problems right away.”
Gender at work
Interestingly, one policy both of these new CCI leaders appear wary of is the federal government’s paid-parental leave scheme, which is sure to come under increasing scrutiny as the May budget approaches.
Both say they would like to see this issue tackled the same as any other.
“Certainly parental leave is important element for women as they confront career choices,” Ms Horton said.
“For any form of policy, you really need to think overall about what the objective is and what options do you have and how do they stack up versus each other?
“I have not seen that process or analysis for this particular element of policy.
“I think the overall objective is unarguable. Of course, I want to see more women in the workforce and more women in leadership positions.
“What I want to see we do as a society is implement the biggest bang-for-buck policy first.”
Ms Willmott offers a similar approach to the same subject.
“It is really, really important that there is recognition of the contribution that women can make in the workforce and that their contribution should be valued even when they are taking a break to have children,” she said.
“But from a business point of view we want to know whether this is the best policy to keep women engaged in the workforce and that the cost is the right cost?
“How many women are there in that higher end tax bracket (where the policy attracted most controversy) and what is the cost of that going to be.
“From a business perspective, I want to know that people are going to be able to come back (to work).
“Does this policy enable that to happen more easily?
“It might be that, longer term, there are issues around child care that are actually more of a barrier to people returning to work.”
For the latter, there has also been a clear interest in politics that goes beyond her roles as key advisers to two premiers, past and present, as well as key business leaders in WA.
In 2008 she was pre-selected for the seat of Cottesloe when Colin Barnett decided to retire from politics. Ms Willmott relinquished that opportunity when the Liberal Party asked Mr Barnett to stay on and lead the party at the next election, which he won a few weeks later.
Asked if her political ambitions remained, Ms Willmott suggested the CCI could well offer her the same ability to achieve what she wanted to by entering parliament.
“Politics is a matter of timing and the time may well have passed,” Ms Willmott said.
“When I look back the reason I wanted to run for politics was to make a difference.
“I have always been passionate about business.
“CCI is an organisation that is has made and will continue to make a huge difference in our community. To lead CCI is to be in a position to influence those outcomes for the better, hopefully for business, for the best in the foreseeable future.”