Thursday, 14 May 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann. ABS labour force figures released today show that 2.7 million Australian workers either lost their job or had less work in April—one out of every five Australian workers. These are truly devastating figures and indicate just how difficult the past few weeks have been for millions of Australians and their families. Minister, 600,000 people have lost their job in the past month, the largest fall ever recorded. In light of these confronting numbers, is the government prepared to reconsider the eligibility criteria for JobKeeper so that more people can remain in employment?
Let me first, of course, recognise these are devastating figures; they're not entirely unanticipated, but they are devastating. That is, of course, why the government has put very significant support measures in place to keep as many Australians connected to their employer as possible during this period, and about six million Australians are now benefitting from the support provided through JobKeeper, and indeed 1.6 million Australians are receiving enhanced support through the enhanced jobseeker arrangements.
As a result of the measures that we have taken, while these numbers are devastating—of course they are—the Australian position, the position for working families around Australia, is much better than it is in many other parts of the world, where the health effect has been more devastating and where the economic impact of the coronavirus has been more devastating. I know that that is cold comfort to those who are facing difficulties through this period. We absolutely understand that. But we are doing the best we can, and the JobKeeper program has been designed in a very, very generous way in order to support six million Australians who are now taking advantage of the opportunities through that program.
Thank you. So I take it you won't reconsider. Today's figures show that underemployment rose to a record rate of 13.7 per cent, with over 1.8 million Australians being underemployed, and almost 500,000 left the labour force altogether. What would the unemployment rate be if nearly half a million Australians hadn't simply given up looking for work entirely?
I think that in the circumstances it is not surprising that the workforce participation rate has deceased. It was at a record high, or close to a record high, at 66 per cent, in March. It has reduced to 63.5 per cent, which is still rather high in the circumstances.
As Treasury has indicated, the expectation is for unemployment to continue to rise through to the June quarter to about 10 per cent. If we had not provided the supports that we have provided through the JobKeeper package in particular and other measures, unemployment was expected to rise to 15 per cent, which is where it is at in many other jurisdictions. In many other jurisdictions it is 15 per cent and higher, up to more than 20 per cent in some cases. Nobody will be surprised that this is a difficult period. We all know that. We're dealing with a major global health pandemic, and we're doing the best we can to help the Australian community through it.
Isn't it the case that, if the government had acted sooner and provided JobKeeper for more Australians, such as the 1.1 million casuals who've been with their employers for less than 12 months, these figures wouldn't be as devastating as they are today? Could the government have acted to protect more jobs?
I think that is an unreasonable proposition. We are dealing with an unbelievably hard-hitting global health pandemic, with devastating impacts all around the world. In Australia, by any objective measure—I wouldn't expect the opposition to be objective; we can understand why the opposition is throwing rocks at those that are making the decisions. I understand that that is the way that you go about these things. But the truth is, in dealing with this, we are winning the fight against the virus and we are putting ourselves in a position where we can start easing restrictions and start getting the economy growing again so that businesses around Australia can start hiring people again and so that Australians can again be in a position to build sustainable livelihoods and lift their living standards, and here you are continuing to nitpick in a partisan fashion. It's rather disappointing.