Adjournment: Employment

25 August 2020

An adjournment address to the Parliament on employment.

There are two things during this pandemic that we seem to hear over and over again, so much so that they risk becoming meaningless slogans. The first one, that 'we're all in this together', is true enough, but only if we mean it and only if we act on that basis. The second one, which we hear again and again, is that 'the virus doesn't discriminate'. I don't think that's quite right. Obviously, anybody is capable of catching COVID-19, but the impacts of this crisis and the impacts of the recession lean heaviest on some of us rather than others of us: old people in nursing homes, essential workers putting themselves at risk every day, small businesses and sole traders, women and young people in the labour market and in education as well.

Young people are concentrated in the industries most impacted by what we're seeing here. Fifteen per cent of jobs in March were filled by young people. Thirty-five per cent of job losses since then have been lost by young people. Unemployment, at twice the overall rate, doesn't even take into account the 100,000 young people who gave up and who aren't in the official numbers in the last few months. No wonder more than half of young people surveyed by headspace said that their mental health had deteriorated. No wonder more than half said that their studies had been negatively impacted as well. These numbers speak to a deeper and darker truth, that this virus has exposed some of our deepest and darkest fears: the fear we might lose someone we love, the fear our kids will be robbed of the opportunities available to us, but also a fear that an entire generation could be discarded, an entire generation sacrificed to this virus and to this recession.

One of the defining features of recessions throughout time, and not even recessions as deep as the one that we're dealing with right now, is long-term, entrenched unemployment and a long tail of lower incomes and stagnant living standards associated with that. Study after study show what we're up against. Academics and the economists call this labour market scarring. It's the idea that the longer that people are disconnected from work, the harder it is for them to find their way back into work. We cannot afford this spike in unemployment that we're seeing right now to concentrate and cascade through the generations, making joblessness something that kids inherit from their parents in communities like mine and communities like the member for Dobell's and others represented by this side of the House. We cannot see the long-term unemployment and intergenerational violence that comes with mismanaging recessions like this one—the skills destruction and the social dislocation which we avoided more than a decade ago during the global financial crisis and that we absolutely must avoid now with all of our strength and all of our efforts. We cannot afford a lost generation of Australians.

That's why, as we respond, recover and reimagine the economy, the stakes are so incredibly high during this recession. There's a stunning clarity that comes from understanding that that's what we're up against. Avoiding this lost generation of Australians should be this parliament's reason for being. It should be this parliament's defining purpose. It should be our calling, our mission and our moment because the shadow of this recession will loom large over our country and its people for some time: over our physical health, our mental health and social cohesion. It will loom large over our jobs, incomes and living standards and over those who had the least to begin with. This all requires us to have the capacity to see ourselves in others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and to act boldly, decisively, with compassion and with courage here on their behalf so that no Australian is left behind during this recession; so that no Australian is held back in the recovery; so that—when this is all over, when we wake up from this nightmare—we can say that we did what we could for the generations most at risk; and so that the worst fears that we have for the impacts of this recession aren't realised and don't do all of that intergenerational damage that recessions like this are capable of doing.