In troubling news for 9-5 wage slaves, official ABS data released this morning showed employers hived off a massive 44,000 full-time jobs in December, but nearly all of these were absorbed by a growth in the number part-time positions, slightly easing economists’ frayed holiday nerves.

The jobless rate crept up 0.1%, from 4.4% in November to 4.5% as expected. But the headline damage was effectively cancelled out by a gain in part-time employment by 42,800 to 3,102,200. Overall, the economy lost only about 1,200 jobs, seasonally adjusted, well below initial predictions of around 20,000.

The extreme volatility reflects the vagaries of the lead-up to Christmas, where employers tend to take on part-time staff to do things like wrap presents. The ‘Christmas casual’ syndrome appears to have taken centre-stage in December, although as anyone with retail experience knows, these shifts tend to dry up in January — the data released this time next month could make for interesting reading.

Chris Caton, chief economist at BT Financial, told Crikey the data could have been a lot worse:

“December is notoriously a hard month to seasonally adjust for, so overall it’s not a bad report. Unemployment is rising, but only at moderate pace. The fall in full-time positions could simply be a seasonal trend.”

The number of Australians in work rose to 10,749,400, around 65% of the population, even though two demoralising job-ad surveys released this week showed underlying confidence might be evaporating. Ads in newspapers in December were down 52%, while Internet ads fell 28%, the biggest annual falls on record.

The flat data could also point to a lack of impact of the Rudd Government’s stimulus package and cuts to interest rates, which were expected to return confidence to employers and consumers. Most economists are forecasting substantial cuts in interest rates this year to around 3%, but the 3% already hacked away since September is yet to really bite.

However, as Crikey’s interviews on Tuesday with leading economists showed, there’s little the government can really do to assuage the damage, with the economic levers of earlier eras receding from reach. While Rudd — and to a lesser extent, Wayne Swan — have been careful to draw attention to global nature of the downturn, the Peter Costello pretense to ‘economic management’ remains largely in place.

The latest data was released as Rio Tinto and Telstra announced plans to sack even more staff. In Telstra’s case, they pondered the fate of an additional 10,000 employees poolside at a board meeting at the ironically t-shaped Bellagio Hotel Las Vegas.