Private Members Business - Employment

21 November 2016

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) that the unemployment rate in Australia has barely fallen from immediate post Global Financial Crisis levels;

(b) Treasury projections that the unemployment in Australia is unlikely to improve in the next three years under current policy settings; and

(c) significant labour market indicators such as rate of under-employment and levels of long term and youth unemployment, are continuing concerns within the community and amongst economic commentators, as is the comparative decline in the availability of full time jobs;

(2) further notes that:

(a) rates on unemployment in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries have fallen significantly since 2012 while Australia's unemployment rate has remained stagnant; and

(b) Reserve Bank of Australia observations about the likely limited effect on economic activity of further interest rate cuts;

(3) recognises:

(a) the negative impact on the federal budget in continuing high levels of unemployment;

(b) the cost to individuals, the community and the economy in people not being able to find work; and

(c) the Government's failure to grow full-time employment opportunities; and

(4) urges the Government to give higher priority to addressing labour market stagnation and take whatever steps it can through fiscal policy and selective initiatives to address this ongoing blight on Australian society.

Mister Speaker

Last week, Australians woke to the news that wages growth had hit all-time lows and that the task of finding a job or even some extra hours was at least as difficult now as it had been during the global financial crisis. What was not news was that this government had simply no plan for the unemployed, unless that plan was to wait for something to turn up—like Charles Dickens's Mr Micawber in my favourite Dickens novel, David Copperfield.

An honourable member interjecting—

Dr FREELANDER: No, I have plenty of time on my hands to read—I always read. Providing tax cuts on the never-never to large foreign companies is not a labour market policy; it is not even a sensible variant of trickle-down economics. Last week's ABS data were, in short, as disappointing as those in the preceding months and for much of the last three years.

Yes, the number of jobs have been growing. It really takes a recession of disastrous proportions to totally kill off jobs growth. For the first time in about a year there was a small increase in full-time jobs. That was where the good news stopped. Wages growth is so slow and so at odds with the government's budget projections that it actually threatens a return to budget surplus. Australia's headline unemployment rate remained firmly stuck in a rut. In October 2012 our unemployment rate was 5.3 per cent; it is now 5.6 per cent. Employment measured by the number of hours worked—the total work effort—continues its decade-long decline.

All up, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have made no real net progress on unemployment and employment since the first half of 2013. That is despite wages being completely becalmed. The budget and subsequent estimates of unemployment continue, even if the world economy stays out of strife, at around 5½ per cent until 2019-2020. That is not great news if you are looking for work or looking for extra work hours. It is bad news too if you are one of the 160,000-plus Australians over 15 who have been looking for work for over a year—a figure that has worsened in the last two years.

Youth unemployment is substantially higher than it was in October 2014, and underemployment has risen from just over 800,000 in 2012, to over 1.1 million in August this year. Of the 400,000 jobs added between October 2014 and 2016, barely 30 per cent have been full-time. The only thing that has stopped the unemployment rate rising is the continuing decline in labour force participation. It is now down to levels not seen since November 2005. That is all despite being in our 26th year of uninterrupted economic growth, all-time-low interest rates, a small but significant improvement in our terms of trade, a more export-friendly dollar and a shift in the balance of economic activity away from much less labour-intensive industries.

While rates of unemployment in America, the UK and other OECD countries have halved in recent years, ours has stagnated and continues to stagnate. What is to be done? Policymakers must stop ignoring poor employment outcomes or treating unemployment as some sort of statistical residual, too hard to fix. The economic problems of this decade are different to those of the seventies and the nineties. The stagnation in real wages and the marked decline in the wage share, once seemingly almost unthinkable prospects, are part of a new reality that requires a rethink of priorities. By extension, continuing a fighting-inflation-first policy only make sense if you have in mind what you are going to do second, especially if unemployment remains at unacceptable levels and the inflationary risks are virtually abated.

Let us stop blaming the victim when we talk about unemployment. If there are six or seven times as many people looking for work as there are jobs to go around, unemployment is inevitable. It is not a choice. Unemployment and underemployment have a real human cost, especially with young people. The government needs to stop fooling itself that all is well with the Australia's labour market. It is not. Shying away from an aspirational unemployment target speaks more to political management than economic management. Selective government investment in infrastructure and investment in our people and our future would be timely and welcome. Giving tax cuts to big business will not, in any substantial way, improve unemployment, and it would be much better spent on infrastructure investment. Repeating a mantra of jobs and growth is not an excuse for action. It is time to act on unemployment.