Christian Kerr writes:

The WorkChoices war will put a heavy focus on unemployment figures between now and the next election – but how good are they?

There’s
been heavy murmurings about the way in which the Australian Bureau of
Statistics calculates them since last Thursday’s release showed
Australia had an unemployment rate of just 4.9 per cent – the lowest in
30 years.

As a former press sec to a federal employment
minister, I find myself defending the ABS. The unemployment figures
might be a flawed yardstick, but they’re still the best yardstick we’ve
got.

Many Crikey readers would beg to differ. They’re
particularly concerned with the way in which the ABS defines “employed”
– working for an hour.

We covered this issue before and looked
at how unemployment figure are calculated in Europe in Crikey last
year. It provoked a strong debate. Here’s how one blog, Shortshadow,
took it up: “It’s good to see more people in work, but what about the
underemployed: those who don’t qualify as unemployed?” Good point.
Another reader had this to say: “It might be the only yardstick we have
but then that’s like saying John Howard is the only yardstick for the
height of national political leaders. True but unhelpful and
misleading.”

There’s some suggestion that a measure of
unemployment that took better account of underemployment would put the
figure at around nine per cent.

The Prime Minister thought last week’s job figures were good enough to warrant a doorstop.

“Fairness
in the workplace starts with the chance of a job and people have had
greater chances of jobs under this Government than for many, many
years,” he said. And he had a key figure to focus on: “Today’s figures
are very encouraging, they show a rise of something like 56,000 in the
number of full-time people in work.”

Indeed, that’s where most
of the jobs growth came from, according to the ABS: “Employment
increased by 56,000 to 10,142,200. Full-time employment increased by
55,800 to 7,254,000 and part-time employment increased slightly to
2,888,200.”

Flawed figures – or does that answer the underemployment question? This one will run and run.

Peter Fray

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