WESTPAC'S chief executive, Gail Kelly, has urged her fellow business leaders to be prepared to work with Julia Gillard and to put aside the combative approach to policy debate which has been dogging the minority Labor government.
The powerful banking boss also gave an endorsement of the Prime Minister's attempt to reach out to business, even in the face of intense and sometimes bitter criticism over issues ranging from the carbon tax and the rush to deliver a surplus.
''It's important that big business rolls up its sleeves and engages constructively and I think the Prime Minister is also adopting this approach. She is a consultative person,'' Mrs Kelly told the Herald. The comments mark a critical turn of support for Ms Gillard, who is lagging in the polls.
Mrs Kelly herself has often come under attack from Canberra on issues from mortgage pricing to job cuts at her bank. And in an apparent slight to big miners that campaigned against the mineral resource rent tax, Mrs Kelly also hit out at businesses attempting to ''run an agenda through third parties or the media''. This approach was not conducive to economic reform, she said.
Westpac and its rivals have come under intense criticism from members of the government in recent years for failing to pass on the Reserve Bank cuts to official interest rates in full. Anger was sparked again after Westpac's flagship retail bank last week passed on just 37 basis points of the Reserve Bank's 50 basis point cut.
''She [Ms Gillard] stepped into the role. She does listen, I can tell you from personal experience,'' Mrs Kelly said. ''Even if you have a different starting point she will listen. And I really respect that in politicians.''
Mrs Kelly said she has had a number of ''robust discussions'' with Ms Gillard on policy issues where the two may not agree. ''But we work our way through them and there's a very healthy respect.''
While she declined to discuss the nature of the talks, the banks and the government have been at loggerheads over whether the sector has been making excessive profits by pushing through out-of-cycle interest rate cuts.
Under pressure to fund lending from deposits, the banks argue the higher cost of raising funds is forcing them to hold back some of the reduction in interest rates.