The federal government should request a Productivity Commission investigation into entrenched disadvantage in this country, says Australia’s pre-eminent business leader.

Presenting the annual oration of welfare agency the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott argued for sweeping social and economic reform, encompassing health care provision, tax reform and ways to tackle the intergenerational poverty in parts of the Australian community.

Westacott told Crikey that the lack of opportunity experienced by some Australians was a fundamental economic issue that prevented people from participating in the workforce to their full potential.

“The Productivity Commission is a great body to tackle tough issues, and it would take some of the politics out of the situation,” she said.

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Westacott also argued that welfare payments should be increased for those “who really need it”.

“People cannot live on $35 a day.  Entrenching them in poverty is not a pathway back to employment,” she said.

She said that Australia’s education system needed to be modernised, and greater flexibility given to principals to make decisions about their schools, to ensue fewer students were left without a year 12 qualification or equivalent.

“Unless you get young people through the school system with the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, you are setting them up to a fragile future,” she said.

Westacott arrived at the BCA with wide-ranging experiences in executive roles, including as director and national lead partner at KPMG, and director of Housing and secretary of Education in Victoria.

Her calls for increased, targeted welfare payments and an investigation into entrenched disadvantage drew widespread applause from her diverse audience, including members of the business, community and government sectors and clients of the Brotherhood.

More contentious with some in attendance were her calls for lower company taxes, which she said would increase productivity and “grow the pie” of wealth and jobs available.

“To make our economy more resilient, we must be competitive,” she said. “We must support, not punish, those sectors of the economy that will drive growth.”