With reports of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull taking control of the 2017 budget and rumours that Scott Morrison will be demoted from the senior portfolio in the next ministerial reshuffle, the March news on the economy was disastrous for the Treasurer.

At least seven new records were set. None are to his credit.

Labor’s debt doubled

The Office of Financial Management released figures on Friday showing gross borrowings at $484.6 billion. Of this, $58 billion is residue from the Howard government or its predecessors. Labor increased it by $212 billion. Another $214.6 billion has been added since the 2013 election.

Hence the Coalition has now more than doubled Labor’s gross debt, in three years and six months. It doubled Labor’s net debt in January.

Rate of debt increase

Gross debt added in March was $18.7 billion, the highest monthly increment in Australia’s history. The most Labor treasurer Wayne Swan added was $13.2 billion in May 2009, at the depths of the global financial crisis. Former treasurer Joe Hockey’s highest was $12.7 billion in November 2013.

Nine months into this financial year, the total gross debt added so far has been a staggering $64.2 billion. That’s an extra $7.13 billion each month on average — the highest for the first nine months of any financial year in history.

It belts Hockey’s first nine months in 2013-14, when he added $53.6 billion — the second greatest ever. Labor’s highest was $44.7 billion in 2011-12.

People unemployed

Since the restructure of Australia’s economy in the late 1980s, the jobless number has steadily declined. It dropped below 720,000 in 1998, where it stayed for the next 15 years. Until Joe Hockey.

Within months of the hapless Hockey becoming treasurer, it was back above 720,000 again. Levels have remained high ever since, despite changing prime minister and treasurer. The jobless number has been above 720,000 for 31 of the last 34 months. In February it was 748,123.

Jobs for women

Women’s unemployment is now back above 6%. It has been 5.7% or higher for the last 39 months. The last time that occurred was 2001 to 2004. For most of Labor’s period, including the GFC, female unemployment ranged between 4.6% and 5.6%.

The ratio of full-time to total jobs

This ratio fell in March 2016 to the lowest in history — 68.6%. It tumbled further for the next two months and then fell below 68% for the first time last September. The January number was a new record low of 67.7%. February’s is the third lowest ever at 67.99%.

Ratio of men’s employment to population 

This ratio has been at 62.2% for the last two months and for three of the last six. The last time it was this low was in the early 1990s recession.

Underemployment

As Crikey showed last week, the number of workers who need to work more hours has exploded. It clicked over 1 million after Joe Hockey’s first budget and last month reached a new record 1,114,558 workers. That’s up as a percentage of the labour force from 7.8% when the Coalition took office to an all-time high 8.7%.

Youth underemployment

For young people aged 15 to 24, underutilisation is now 31.5%, a new Australian high. This breaks all Joe Hockey’s previous records. The Labor period’s highest was 27.4%, and in the Howard years 27.9%.

Engineering construction

Total engineering construction activity for the year to December 2016, announced by the ABS on Wednesday, showed the worst annual decline ever.

Activity in 2016 fell 19.7% on 2015, which was down 13.0% on the year before. Even 2014 was 9.6% below 2013, which was down 1.7% on 2012. That makes four consecutive annual declines — for the first time. The last three were all the worst on record.

Trade surplus slashed

One positive for the Turnbull government in recent months has been the trade balance, which appeared as a surplus in November for the first time in 32 months. December’s trade surplus was even better at $3.33 billion, a record high.

That was followed, however, by the second worst collapse in Australia’s history. Figures released last month show the January balance is suddenly $2 billion lower at just $1.30 billion.

So, Scott, as the soothsayer said to Julius Caesar: “Beware the ides of March.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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