The economic news of the “solid but not spectacular” variety continued today, with the ABS unemployment data steady at 5.0% for February. A big 47,600 rise in full-time employment was offset by a 57,700 rise in part-time employment, but there was a slight easing of the participation rate, by 0.1%, due to a fall in the female participation rate back below 59% for the first time in a few months.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for a big drop in unemployment in Western Australia, down from 4.6% to 4.2%, there might have been small rise in the national rate. NSW unemployment went up from 4.4% to 4.6%, Queensland was steady at 5.6%, and Victoria dropped a tad, to 5.0%. But, given how troubled the big-employing residential and commercial construction and retail industries are currently, it’s a solid outcome.

The other data released this morning was on industrial disputes for the December quarter. They showed a significant fall in in the number of days lost to industrial disputes from the September quarter — 46,ooo down to 27,000. They also show that 2010 saw less industrial disputation — 126,000 days lost — than 2009 — 132,700 days.

Expect this data to be ignored, because it doesn’t fit the persistent line being run in the business pages and from conservatives, that there’s a pressing need for more industrial relations deregulation as we return to full employment and workers become more fractious (and start behaving like corporate executives behave).

There’ll be more strikes, more union power and higher wage growth, we’re told by the deregulationistas, because of the government’s changes to IR laws after it removed WorkChoices.

There’s zero evidence for those claims. Growth in average weekly earnings declined over 2010. Real unit labour costs are flat or falling, particularly in the non-farm sector. There’s been no surge in industrial disputes. And remember that the Coalition opposed Julia Gillard’s new Fair Work industrial relations framework on the basis that it would make employers, particularly small business, less willing to hire people. An unemployment rate of 5% doesn’t say much for the idea that employers are reluctant to hire anyone.

Still, the demands for more IR “flexibility” will continue in the pages of the Financial Review and Coalition MPs will still talk about how, while Workchoices “went too far”, there’s a need to deregulate. It’s nothing to do with what’s happening in the real world. It’s just ideology speaking.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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