House debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Matters of Public Importance

COVID-19: Employment

3:17 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | Hansard source

It is indeed a very difficult day for many, many Australians. The ABS has reported that, as of today—reflecting back, of course, to the first fortnight of last month—we've seen almost 600,000 jobs disappear from the labour market. The headline figure of 6.2 per cent sounds relatively modest in this climate, but the ABS itself has said:

Had the increase in the number of people who were not in the labour force (489,900) been a further increase in unemployment (that is, if they had been actively looking for work and been available to work) then the number of unemployed people would have increased to around 1.3 million people, and an unemployment rate would have increased to around 9.6%.

In effect, that's the real unemployment rate. It's the labour market of a month ago that we're dealing with. That's why Labor has been prosecuting the argument that we need to do better insofar as the JobKeeper package is concerned.

Let's be very clear. Let's remember exactly what happened. On 23 March, on behalf of Labor, I asked the Prime Minister why the government were not going to introduce a wage subsidy package, and the Prime Minister effectively said it wasn't necessary. Then they proceeded to close the parliament until August. It was only a week or so until they saw the long unemployment queues around every Centrelink office across the land, which had them bringing parliament back together. They convened the parliament two weeks later to introduce the JobKeeper package. When they announced the introduction of the JobKeeper package, we welcomed the announcement. We welcomed the change of heart and the change of mind. But we said then, and we say now, that there are design faults with the package which have left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Australians worse off and indeed not protected. That's one of the reasons why we see such a very significant spike in job losses today when we look at the data reflecting on early April. That's why we'll continue to say to the government that they need to include many other classes of employees that have been completely and utterly left to their own devices and left really unsupported. That's why we say, for example, that there is a need to include casual employees in the labour market.

The situation is that we have sectors of our economy devastated by the pandemic. In many circumstances businesses were asked, of course quite rightly, to shut down for health purposes, and we support the decisions of governments to do that. But sectors where there is a very high proportion of casual employment are not getting the support they need. The fact is that sectors which have higher numbers of casuals are getting the least support, and they're the ones that need the most support. That effectively is a design flaw. Had you listened to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister today you would have thought that everything was fine. They effectively were suggesting that everything they've done is good enough and that, really, 600,000 job losses is, well, pretty good in the circumstances. Frankly, that is not good enough. That's not what the Australian public expect of their government. The fact is, we do not have to push people onto unemployment benefits. We do not have to push people out of the labour market.

The other concern that Labor has is the misunderstanding of the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and this government of what this wage subsidy means. It doesn't just mean supporting those workers; it means supporting those businesses. It's not good enough to say, 'We're providing jobseeker money to unemployed Australians,' instead of providing support for those workers. The fact is that, if you don't provide JobKeeper support and you don't provide wage subsidies for the workers in those industries most affected, the businesses collapse as well. We've got a situation where more businesses are hitting the wall because of a failure to support those workers. That's going to continue to happen, and they will not be able to get to the point where they survive the next few months as a result of the misunderstanding that the wage subsidy was to subsidise the workers and the businesses. Of course, jobseeker does none of that, so we have some grave concerns about the next few months. Already we're seeing so many people left out of the labour market. That's the other point: the fact that it's going to be much harder for people to return to employment, to return to the labour market, if they are unattached. That's quite tragic.

We've had a number of questions of the government today. Why is it that people in the arts community have been completely abandoned? Why is it that casual workers have been left without proper protection? Why is it that, therefore, the government hasn't been seeking to provide better support for those workers?

One of the other points that we've made is that this is not just something as a result of the pandemic. It is clear to say that this global pandemic has been devastating for many, many countries and it has certainly hit our economy, but we had the highest rate of underemployed Australians prior to the pandemic. In fact, if you look at the March figures you'd see that there was the highest number of underemployed Australians ever at 1.2 million. That figure of 1.2 million underemployed Australians has now gone up to 1.8 million. That's the highest increase we've seen since records have been brought together by the ABS. And we've seen a very significant fall in the participation rate—the biggest, again, since data has been collected. We think a lot of this could be avoided if they would take the suggestions of the opposition, of Labor, and include those workers in the package. That's what we continue to say, because this is only the beginning of what are going to be escalating increases in the unemployment rate. If you think about it, the rate that we're using at the moment is reflecting the labour market of the first fortnight of April. When we are looking at the job numbers in a month's time, I'm afraid to say, unless the government starts to properly consider Labor's concerns and proposals, we're going to see these numbers continue to rise throughout the next few months.

The other concern we have—and we're really asking the government to consider this—is: what is the government going to do with respect to the economy after 30 September? We've seen the Prime Minister walk away from his earlier phrase of 'snapback'. He effectively suggested some time ago that the economy was going to return to normal after a five-month period. Well that is not what leading economists believe. Nobody is forecasting a return to normal, and certainly no-one is seeing that economic likelihood. In fact, it would appear that this is going to be a very, very long challenge for this nation. The government has to start thinking about medium- and long-term ideas about protecting business, protecting the economy and protecting workers. But, to date, we have not heard one thing. In other words, there's going to be the complete contraction of public expenditure from 30 September—completely taken out of the economy—and somehow the economy is just going to survive without any form of support by public expenditure. That does not ring true.

We are concerned about a series of things which the government has to consider. Namely, broadening out the package to provide more support for workers. Indeed, it would have been better—of course, it's too late now—if the money had got to those workers and businesses earlier. It was too narrow. It has been too slow. Without more support for those workers who have been excluded, we're going to see these numbers continue to rise in June, July and August without any real guarantee that we're going to see some form of recovery. Labor are thinking about those things.

Labor are thinking about what we need to do during this crisis and what we'll need to do beyond the immediate challenges that we have. We have yet to hear any strategic plan by the government—a government that was not going to have a wages subsidy and a government that closed down the parliament until August but has had to bring us back. Now we have sittings for June as well, which we welcome, but the fact is that this government has been wrong footed on a number of occasions when it has come to responding to the needs of the economy. In this instance, they're still living down many, many Australians by not including them in the wage subsidy package. This is something they can fix.

The Treasurer has the power to broaden out the eligibility of the JobKeeper package, and that's what he should be doing today so that next month, when we see the job figures come out, we don't see another doubling of the losses that we've seen already in the first fortnight of April.

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