CPA Australia: A key role in shaping business responses

Content Summary

Author: Dr Jane Rennie, General Manager External Affairs, CPA Australia

Although accountants have never been busier, the increased workload is not always reflected in their revenues. Jane Rennie, general manager – external affairs at CPA Australia, tells The Accountant about the challenges facing the profession.

The Accountant: Covid-19 has impacted every corner of the world. Please tell me about the impact it has had on Australia and its accountants?

Jane Rennie: In Australia, lockdowns to control the spread of Covid-19 forced the closures of many businesses, some of which may become permanent.

This has been more acute in the state of Victoria, which has experienced a second wave of Covid-19 infections. The Victorian government has enforced stricter lockdown measures over an extended period in an attempt to control these outbreaks.

Australia is experiencing its first recession in almost three decades. The federal government has responded to the economic crisis with significant financial support in the form of stimulus packages to individuals and businesses. Government stimulus measures, including Australia’s wage subsidy scheme, JobKeeper, have relied heavily on the accounting profession to assist businesses in accessing the support and to comply with their obligations under the schemes. These schemes have been rolled out very quickly, with accountants investing considerable time understanding the schemes so that they can assist their clients.

A decline in consumer spending has had significant financial implications for businesses. As a result, many accountants have undertaken work for reduced or no fees in order to support their clients through this difficult period. Although CPA Australia members have never been busier, this is not necessarily translating into increased revenue. 

TA: How have accountants adapted to new situations such as working from home or advising on contingency plans in light of the pandemic?

JR: Government-mandated lockdowns to control the spread of Covid-19 have forced accountants to work and service their clients remotely. The shift to working from home has required many accounting practices to make large investments in technologies to support remote working and remote client engagement.
Feedback from CPA Australia members suggests that this has been a challenging time for many. Regulators have provided support such as deadline deferrals, acceptance of e-signatures and acceptance of virtual annual general meetings.

TA: How is business confidence in Australia? How is public confidence in the accountancy profession?

JR: According to the National Australia Bank’s monthly survey of business confidence, business confidence fell sharply in Australia in March and April, but rebounded by June before dropping again in July as a second wave of infections hit parts of the country.

Business confidence varies by geographic location and industry. Engagement with CPA Australia members indicates that business conditions are good in Western Australia and parts of Queensland but very poor in Victoria, which is currently experiencing a second lockdown. Sectors of the economy that are reliant on international tourism are also performing poorly. This has flow-on effects for the businesses that support such businesses. Meanwhile, online sales have significantly increased.

Accountants retain the trust of the Australian community. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that 59% of small businesses sought external advice in response to Covid-19, with accountants, lawyers and banks being the most popular sources of advice.

TA: How are accountants positioning themselves as trusted business advisers?

JR: Accountants play a frontline role in helping businesses manage through the Covid-19 crisis. In particular, they have performed a critical role in advising and assisting businesses to access the government support and stimulus.

As government economic supports are withdrawn, businesses have a short window in which to revitalise their operations. 

Accountants can assist businesses to navigate the best course of action to create jobs, identify efficiencies and restore growth in their operations. 

Technological disruption continues to occur in the profession and is transforming how accountants work – from cloud technology to artificial intelligence, data analytics and robotic process automation.

More broadly, the role of accountants as advisors and business partners is adapting to match the economic and social transformation that accompanies the emergence of new technologies.

CPA Australia encourages its members to embrace change, whether they are working in public practice or elsewhere. CPA Australia wants to make it easier for members to adapt to change, to understand what change and technological developments will mean for them, their practices and their workplaces, and to see the enormous potential that innovation in technology brings.

Accountants also have an important role to play in recognising and supporting their clients, co-workers and staff who are experiencing mental health problems during the pandemic. CPA Australia has developed a mental health toolkit with useful links to mental health information, resources and support.

TA: Other than the pandemic, what other challenges do accountants in Australia face currently?

JR: The catastrophic bushfires that devastated so much of Australia last summer have impacted many people and communities around the country. Some CPA Australia members have been directly affected by the fires and many have clients who have been impacted. These members are now using their accounting expertise to play a valuable role in the recovery and rebuilding of their clients.

Accountants also play an important role in shaping the business response to climate change – whether that be improved financial and non-financial disclosures or assisting businesses with climate-sensitive investment decisions. Accountants have an important contribution to make to the economic and business response to the imperatives of environmental transformation, including achieving a net-zero carbon emissions position by 2050.

Covid-19 presents an opportunity for government to reset policy. The regulatory settings that existed before Covid-19 will not necessarily be the right regulatory settings post Covid-19. For accountants, they will need to be across these changes so that they can explain the business implications to their clients or employers.

TA: What is going to be CPA Australia’s focus over the next 12 months?

JR: When Australia’s economy begins to emerge from recession, for most it will not mean a return to business as usual. Over the next 12 months, CPA Australia will focus on ensuring that its members and businesses have access to tools as they respond to their changed circumstances.

CPA Australia, in consultation with its members, has developed a range of resources to assist businesses at each stage of their response to the pandemic, from recovering from closures and declines in revenue to reimagining what their businesses will look like in future.