MPI: Employment

02 September 2020

An address to the Parliament on a Matter of Public Importance, employment.

Today was the darkest day in the Australian economy for almost a century, as we had confirmed what so many Australians already knew, which is that Australia is in the deepest, most damaging, most devastating recession on record. Recessions rob communities of jobs, they rob families of breadwinners, they rob nations of opportunities and they risk discarding entire generations of people who are disconnected from work for long enough that they find it hard to ever find their way back again. These are the human consequences and the human costs of the type of recession that Australia finds itself in today.

Australia's had a really remarkable run of continuous economic growth. No other developed nation like ours can claim to have grown continuously for almost three decades, as Australia has done. That is a tribute, most of all, to the Australian people—Australian workers, Australian businesses, Australian communities—who have achieved something truly amazing, something that the rest of the world has envied us for for some time: a remarkable three-decade run of continuous economic growth. It began under Paul Keating, of course, under the Labor government of the early nineties; it was protected when it was last most at risk by another Labor government—Kevin Rudd, working with Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan; and that's something that this side of the House is really proud of. The fact is that that remarkable run comes to an end today, officially, on the watch of those opposite.

This is the worst recession in almost a century. We do already have a new record: more than a million Australians are jobless for the first time in the history of this nation. The government tell us that they expect something like an extra 400,000 Australians to join the unemployment queues between now and Christmas. The Treasurer has spent much of today telling Australians what they already knew, that things are bad, things are grim—people already knew that; they already felt that—but, remarkably, still not a word about what the government actually intends to do about it; still nothing that resembles a credible, genuine, comprehensive plan for jobs in this country. And that is what the nation most needs right now, as we face these dark days of recession and the long tail of unemployment. We fear the intergenerational disadvantage that comes from long-term unemployment—the lost generation, the disadvantage that concentrates and cascades. Unfortunately, it's something that has happened in many of the communities that we on this side of the House represent. That's the thing that we are trying to avoid here. That is the reason why we are so passionate about getting the economic decisions right—because the human costs of getting it wrong are diabolical. And it's not just for the next few months, as important as that is, and not even for the next few years, as important as that is. But, if the government continues to get things wrong, this nation will wear the costs and consequences of that for generations, and that's what we're trying to avoid.

This recession is deeper than it needs to be, and it will hang around longer than it needs to hang around if the government continues to get at least three things wrong. The first is that they were too slow out of the blocks to provide what is welcome support in the economy. Unfortunately, they show all of the signs of withdrawing that support too soon. So, having come in too late and too narrowly, they risk withdrawing that support too soon and too broadly. As the Reserve Bank governor and others have pointed out, that does have the potential to cruel the recovery before it even gathers pace, and that is something we need to avoid. That's the first mistake.

The second—and, unfortunately, it's become a feature of the government, of those opposite—is the mistake of thinking that announcing support for the economy is a substitute for delivering that support to real people in real communities, and real workers and businesses right around Australia. The announcement of that support is not the thing that keeps the economy going; it's the delivery of that support. We heard yesterday, and again today, the government saying they're delivering $314 billion of support, when in reality they can only get to $85 billion. What that means is that, having not got enough support out the door, the recession is deeper than it needs to be and it will hang around longer than it needs to hang around.

The third mistake that those opposite have made may be the most consequential one, and that is that, in their rush to withdraw support from the economy, they don't have a plan for jobs to replace it. If they said to us, 'We want to replace this support with something else,' we would listen. But the reality is they're in this rush and they're all clambering over each other to withdraw support out of the economy, but there's nothing to replace it. That is also going to have devastating consequences for the economy.

Australians are really worried right now, for good reason. There's a lot of anxiety. We all know it. We all hear it and feel it when we engage with our own communities. And people are anxious for the right reasons. They're worried about how they'll put food on the table, put school shoes on their kids, pay the rent or pay off the mortgage. These are very real concerns that those opposite need to understand. When the Australian people are as concerned as they are, they look to the government for support, of course. But they also look to the government for a vision of what happens next, how we get out of this together and what we need to do to stand up for each other, speak up for each other and work together to get ourselves out of this mess that we are seeing in the economy right now. That plan for the future and that plan for jobs is entirely absent. We heard that again in question time today.

The Treasurer has had a lot to say today, of course—it's an important day for the Treasurer to seek to explain what's going on to the Australian people. But they have not explained to the Australian people what they're going to do about it. I think that at the end of today, when Australians tuck their kids in and fall asleep, all they will really have learned is that there are some abstract numbers from the Bureau of Statistics which confirm what they already knew, but they're none the wiser about what the government wants to do about them.

I think it's becoming really clear that the Treasurer is not up to this task. I don't say that lightly, because we do want the government to succeed. If the government succeed with their policy agenda then more Australians will keep their jobs or find work, having lost their jobs to this recession. But I think it is clear that the Treasurer is not up to it. If you could create jobs in this economy by spinning and grinning your way through it, if you could create jobs by networking or if you could create jobs by being really good at poring over other people's transcripts with your little yellow highlighter out then this would be the guy—we've got our guy! But, unfortunately, we need a Treasurer with a bit of vision, a bit of humility, a bit of depth, a bit of grunt and a bit of understanding of what's happening to real people in real communities. It pains me to say that we don't have that.

He is in many ways a poster child for the problem with this government: the preference for spin over substance, chasing headlines and not chasing jobs—as the Leader of the Opposition says, 'always there for the photo op but never there for the follow-up'. This is a real problem with this government. This is not just a political criticism that we're making; it actually has consequences for people. When you have a government that prioritises the headline over the job and the announcement over the delivery then more and more people are going to suffer during this recession. It's no wonder that when we opened the paper during the course of last week we saw what even the Treasurer's own colleagues were saying of him, in Rob Harris's piece in The Sydney Morning Herald:

"We were announcing stimulus packages in the morning which were irrelevant by the afternoon, but you'd pick up the paper and read about how Josh did this or that and how the policy was formed," one colleague said on the condition of anonymity. "I thought to myself 'how on earth does he have the time to promote himself when we are dealing with the biggest challenge we've faced in a century?'"

I think there's something to that criticism. Whoever that was over there, I think you're right. I think that's a legitimate criticism.

One of the ways we know he spends more time promoting himself than trying to identify with the real needs and anxieties of the Australian community is that, when we got the worst number in almost a century today, his response was, 'Well, the good news is we're not doing as badly as Donald Trump's America'. If you're one of the one million unemployed in this country, or you are one of the 400,000 who are about to lose their jobs, the idea that things are a little bit worse in Donald Trump's America is absolutely meaningless to you. It is cold comfort for all those people who have lost their jobs and all of those businesses who have hit the fence in the last little while. We desperately need those opposite to reconsider their withdrawal of support from the economy. We need them to get the support that they announced out the door and, most importantly and most fundamentally, we need to hear a plan for jobs in this country.