The job of bringing Australia back from the brink
26 May 2020 at 4:52 pm
Growing our economy with a job creation agenda at its centre is both decent and politically expedient, writes Joe Zabar, deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
The latest ABS job numbers paint a sobering picture for the economy and, more importantly, the individuals and families having to come to terms with the financial impact of COVID-19.
The number of people employed in Australia in March was just over 13 million, come April, that figure dropped to around 12.4 million. The number of unemployed Australians has risen from 718,000 to 823,280 and people looking for more hours of work have shot up from 1.2 million to a staggering 1.8 million. The total number of Australians looking for work or additional hours of work now totals 2.6 million. That represents more than 20 per cent of the working population.
The mood in Parliament on the announcement of these job numbers was naturally sombre. While the Morrison government and the National Cabinet should be commended on their efforts in dealing with the COVID-19 health crisis, all eyes will now turn on their ability to address the flagging economy.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s statement to Parliament on 12 May provided little detail on the government’s plans to bring the Australian economy back from the brink. Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership from the prime minister and his government.
Speculation around the early withdrawal of JobKeeper and a reduction to the JobSeeker Payment coupled with the loose commentary and pointed rhetoric about our largest trading partner, China, by some on the prime minister’s back bench create further anxiety among a population struggling to come to terms with the fallout from COVID-19.
Arresting the health impacts of the pandemic and softening the economic blow to the Australian economy through measures such as JobKeeper is the equivalent to national first aid. The Morrison government now has the enormous task of reviving the economy, in an environment where COVID-19 remains an ever-present health and economic danger.
Australia’s economic recovery cannot be left to market forces alone. Australia’s economy prior to the pandemic was not particularly strong. GDP growth since 2014 has been stuck between 2 and 3 per cent, well below that of our major trading partners. The government’s focus on budget repair during a time of record low interest rates was a missed opportunity to broaden Australia’s economic base and build on its existing strengths.
As the prime minister and treasurer begin work on the Commonwealth Budget, due in October, they must not allow ideology to distract them from the common good. While our tourism, arts, education and hospitality sectors are held back by COVID-19 restrictions, it is difficult to see how the market alone will drive the Australian economy to pre-pandemic conditions. That is, of course, unless the government embarks on an economic strategy that seeks to grow the economy at rates higher than has been achieved over the last six years.
Stimulating the economy to create jobs in the private, not-for-profit and public sectors must be the priority. For those regions like the tourism hubs of North Queensland and the New South Wales south coast, which are still to recover from this summer’s devastating bushfires, the government cannot be passive in the job creation space. Opportunities to invest in a jobs guarantee program – where everyone who wants a job is guaranteed a minimum wage job – may be the type of strategic intervention necessary to achieve a sustained level of economic recovery that will deliver jobs and increase economic activity, particularly in those regional economies.
As stewards of our national economy, the Morrison government must now focus on setting an ambitious growth target supported by sensible tax and industrial relations policy. This should not be viewed as an open invitation to ideologues and vested interests to run their usual tax cuts and increased employment flexibility agendas. Instead, it is about pragmatic and inclusive decision-making, embracing the expertise of business and civil society including charities and unions, to help deliver an improved and sustainable Australian economy.
Growing our economy in a pandemic environment will require leadership. Reforming our tax and transfer system and our industrial relations system will require courage. Committing to those without work – ensuring they will be properly supported while the economy recovers will require compassion.
Growing our economy with a job creation agenda at its centre is both decent and politically expedient. A failure to do so will leave millions of Australians in need and will be politically dangerous for the Morrison government at the next election.
The Morrison government can be well proud of its efforts to date. The job of bringing Australia back from the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is a long way from being done.