President’s Report to Members
ACBC National President David Olsson
Delivered at the virtual AGM on 24 November 2020
I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which each of us are located today. I would also like to pay respect to their Elders both past and present and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians present at this meeting.
It is my pleasure to deliver to you a report of the activities of the Australia China Business Council for the year past, and to make some remarks on the year ahead.
My report is set out in detail in a formal Annual Report, the front page of which now appears on your screen.
The Report contains provides a fulsome review of the activities of the ACBC over the year, including reports from each of our Branches and information about our key activities.
A digital copy has been uploaded to our webpage and a link to the report will also be contained in messages to be sent shortly to all Members. I commend it to you.
I do not propose to read the Report but instead will speak to some of the key points in it.
When I delivered remarks to the Board following my election as National President at last year’s AGM little did we know the scale of the disruption that was to come.
2020 has been no ordinary year and it has been a challenging time for all of us.
Devastating bushfires across Australia, a global pandemic and difficult Australia-China political relations have put us all on the back foot.
I feel for every one of our members who are facing hardship and struggles in these difficult times.
I know first-hand of the financial and emotional investment ACBC members put into their businesses, which in turn forms the people-people foundation of the Australia-China relationship.
To see how lockdowns, border closures, travel bans, and trade restrictions have impacted on the business communities across Australia and China leaves all of us with heavy hearts.
However, at ACBC, the events of 2020 have strengthened our resolve and determination to deliver on our mission for our members.
We have continued to deliver outcomes that support ACBC’s value proposition to its members. We have focussed our efforts around our three pillars of activity: knowledge, networks and advocacy.
Access to quality information and insights has been the #1 request from our members, particularly in these times of uncertainty.
At the outset of the outbreak of the coronavirus, we recognised that it was imperative for us to provide Members with the urgent knowledge, market insights and expert speakers necessary to gain a picture of what they needed to know about the coronavirus and its economic impact.
Speakers such Professor Peter Doherty, Ambassador Graham Fletcher and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham each provided frank and unparalleled insights into the rapidly evolving conditions.
Now as China’s economy recovers, we have prioritised identifying the opportunities in trade and investment that can drive Australia’s economic rebound, as well insights and case studies on how to manage the new risks arising in what is clearly becoming a new era of Australia’s relations with China.
Our second pillar – access to networks – has frankly been more challenging for us.
Bringing people together, fostering friendships and forging networks is the bedrock of the ACBC.
So, when our ability to run face-to-face events stopped almost overnight, we had to adopt new ways of doing this.
The rapid pivot to a digital delivery of services enabled us to continue to deliver over 200 events to thousands of members across Australia, but the opportunity to network was missing.
We are still working on this, but there have been some exciting developments that pave the way to address this need.
Our sector-based Branch working groups now collaborate regularly, and to re-envisage the face-to-face networking experience of trade shows, we are piloting digital bootcamps that will bring together businesses in China and Australia to engage in one-on-one meetings. But more of that in the months to come.
Our third pillar is advocacy. This has assumed a great prominence over the last six months.
With our membership of around 700 corporate members, and a further 20,000 who receive our national communications, we have stepped up our efforts to represent their interests and to advocate on their behalf.
We do this through the preparation of sector-based industry reports, by making policy recommendations to Government, by presenting at Parliamentary Inquiries and through regular media engagement.
We are a business focussed organisation, but we see our role in a much wider context and over the year have also been active in our community outreach.
Our award-winning We Stand With China campaign at the outset of the coronavirus was seen in major Australian daily newspapers, airports, public squares and the Chinese version was viewed more than 150,000 on Weibo in China.
We also supported the Australia Welcomes You campaign, expressing our support for international Chinese students.
Let me turn to our own operations.
It goes without saying that we would not be able to have achieved so much for our members without the efforts of our staff and all those who volunteer their time on behalf of the organisation.
We are especially grateful to the leaders of our Branches and their teams for their resilience and sacrifices during this period.
In addition to mobilising swiftly to work remotely, they have made substantial contributions through adjusted work hours and in some cases voluntary salary reductions.
I also pass on my thanks to my hardworking Board of Directors, all of whom are volunteers. We set out last year with an ambitious work program but the need to adapt rapidly to the pandemic and respond to a rapidly changing business environment added considerably to their workload.
To all our staff, directors, committee members and support teams, I say thank you.
The outcomes you have achieved clearly indicate our shared capacity to meet the new challenges and opportunities that are yet to come.
You will shortly receive the Treasurer’s report and it will be no surprise that our financial performance has been severely impacted by the pandemic.
However, at this point, I would like to pass on our appreciation to Tim Hogan-Doran, who steps down as Treasurer having reached his maximum six-year constitutional term.
Tim’s rigorous and prudent review of our finances, his eye for detail and his wise counsel have helped steer ACBC’s finances through a very difficult period and we are indebted to him.
His steady and guiding hand enabled us to enter these difficult times in good shape and now provides us with the ability to manage these extraordinary times with a degree of certainty not available to many other not-for-profits. Tim, thank you for your service.
At this AGM we also say farewell to Sean Keenihan who, like Tim, has reached his maximum term of office and steps down as Vice President.
Sean’s depth of understanding of the history of this organisation, the idiosyncrasies of our federated structure and his leadership of our strategy review this year have allowed ACBC to remain true to our vision, but with new and refreshed strategies that allow us to respond to the new conditions we are in. He’s also been a great mentor to me during my first term. Thank you, Sean.
I’d also like to express our appreciation to our former National CEO, Helen Sawczak, who was unfailing in her passion and commitment to serving the interests of our members. She leaves ACBC an organisation transformed in the breadth of its activities and the scope of its outreach.
We will miss Helen’s presence, but I am pleased to foreshadow that the Board will be announcing the appointment of a new National CEO in coming weeks.
So what of the future? We see a rapidly changing world and a very different business environment.
As we emerge cautiously from the depths of the pandemic, Australian businesses will have to readjust to new geo-economic realities and regional uncertainties.
The gap between Australia’s and China’s political and economic systems is starker than ever, but we believe that there are many spaces for cooperation that benefits both countries and supports two-way trade and investment.
As a nation we have shown we can implement simultaneous and massive changes to our national health and economic policies in response to the coronavirus.
The opportunity now is to find ways to continue to benefit from our important economic relationship with China while at the same time managing the economic cost of decisions that protect our security and sovereignty.
In that regard, ACBC has an important role to play in supporting Australia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and in adding ballast to the bi-lateral relationship.
When ACBC was established just after the establishment of Australia’s diplomatic relations with China nearly five decades ago, it was envisaged that it would form part of the institutional structure needed to support a nascent bi-lateral relationship.
The history of the ACBC over the ensuring decades records the role that it has played in supporting two-way trade and investment, and in underpinning a strong business relationship.
Today, that role is more important than at any time since its establishment. Our Board recognises this.
We also recognise that to bring about the change and outcomes necessary for us to fulfil our mission, “business as usual” will not be nearly enough: the game has changed too much.
That’s why we have embarked on important changes to the organisation.
By reimagining how we recover, operate, organise, collaborate and use technology we believe that we can continue make a difference for our members, and add ballast to our political relationship.
If we grow and prosper as an organisation, we can set the foundations for our Members to achieve success in their engagement with China, and to thrive as we emerge from the pandemic.
The “but” to all of this is that we cannot move with the speed that is required without support over and beyond that of member dues and event income.
We are extremely fortunate to have sponsors and corporate partners that have stayed with us during these difficult times. We thank them for their commitment and will work hard to ensure that they receive value for their investment in us.
For potential sponsors, especially those in Corporate Australia, we look forward to engaging with you.
In a post-COVID-19 world, government, industry and business will need to collaborate, work together, support each other in ways that we have not done in the past.
So, I take this opportunity to ask you to reach out to Corporate Australia for your support. Let’s talk. The phone lines are open!
In conclusion, let us hope that the most exciting opportunities lie ahead of us.
We at ACBC will continue to dedicate ourselves to helping you, our Members, achieve success in the new era we are entering.
We aim to provide practical, relevant and effective support to you, to advocate on your behalf, and to make a difference to your business engagement with China.
Even more than any other year, our membership drives our organisation so, on behalf of our Board and teams across our Branches, we thank you, our Members, for your ongoing support in 2020.
We look forward to standing strongly beside you as we all look to recover in 2021.
National President and Chairman
Australia China Business Council