Australian employment figures
New Attorney-General Michaelia Cash (Image: AAP)

Yesterday’s release of detailed jobs data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirms that Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has been telling porkies. And not for the first time.

Last week, she responded to the standard monthly jobs data with a series of upbeat pronouncements. All these are either false or deceptive:

“Figures released by the ABS today underlines the strength of the Australian economy, with more Australians in employment than ever before and full time employment surging.”

“Full-time employment has now risen by 166,700 in the six months to June 2017, the largest increase in full-time employment in the first half of a calendar year on record.”

“Since the Coalition came to office in September 2013 more than 700,000 jobs have been created.”

“Today’s data clearly reflect a stronger labour market and highlight the success of the government’s budget measures, which are helping stimulate jobs growth.”

Normal rises with population

If the economy were humming along satisfactorily, then as population increased each month, we would expect people with jobs to increase at the same rate. We would also expect people without jobs to rise commensurately.

Hence it is perfectly routine to have a “record number of Australians in full-time employment”. That should happen every month.

Clearly, there should be a substantial rise in jobs since the 2013 election, 46 months ago. Claiming “more than 700,000 jobs have been created” might or might not be a good outcome. Let’s see.

Weekly hours per person

This is the most useful indicator of actual work the economy provides for the community. This allows for population increase and also adjusts for the dramatic shift to part-time and casual work.

Yesterday’s figures for weekly hours worked in all jobs per employed person (Table 10) show this has plummeted under the Coalition. The last 12 months have been the lowest since the series began in the early Howard years.

Throughout the Howard years, weekly hours ranged from a low of 36.48 to a high of 37.27. Through the Rudd/Gillard period, the range was from a low of 36.00 to a high of 36.93. So weekly hours worked have been pretty constant through recent history, even through the global financial crisis (GFC) — the worst recession in 80 years.

Within months of the Coalition taking charge, however, its decisions on spending, taxing and industry assistance — or non-assistance — caused this number to crumble. The lowest average for six months under Labour had been 36.20. It fell to 35.95 in the six months to June 2014, then down to 35.87 in the six months to December 2015.

The latest two half years — after Scott Morrison replaced the hapless Joe Hockey — were the lowest ever, at 35.62 and 35.66.

This clearly disproves the claims that jobs data reflects “a stronger labour market” and that budget measures “are helping stimulate jobs growth”.

The opposite is the case.

Long-term unemployment

A critical sign of a successful economy is the long-term jobless number — those out of work for more than a year. This has deteriorated significantly.

At the time of the 2013 election, 132,800 were in this plight (Table 14a, column DF ). That was 1.11% of the labour force. For the last six months the number has varied between 156,900 (1.22% of the labour force) and 197,900 (1.55%).

Youth jobless

The other Australians conspicuously left behind by the Turnbull government are young people aged 15 to 24 (Table 1, column BM). This group was particularly impacted by the GFC, with the jobless rate increasing from a low of 7.4% in August 2008 to peak at 13.8% in February 2013. It had dropped back to 12.3% at the 2013 election.

Soon thereafter it broke through 13.0% again, then 14.0%, then 15.0% in January 2015. The average for the last six months has been 13.17%.

Benchmarks

“Full-time employment has now risen by 166,700 in the six months to June 2017, the largest increase in full-time employment in the first half of a calendar year on record,” Cash said last week.

That is technically true, if we look just at raw numbers. But then we would expect it to be true every six months as population increases.

It is deceptive, however, in that it does not relate to population. The Keating government added 141,300 full-time jobs in the first half of 1995, when the labour force was only 69.4% of today’s. The Howard government added 150,400 full-time jobs in the first half of 2005, when the labour force was 80.6% of today’s. Both are much stronger outcomes when population is considered.

The second nifty ruse in Cash’s comment is that she chooses her benchmark selectively — December 2016 — when jobs were particularly depressed. She ignores the fact that the first six months of 2016, when she was also employment minister, recorded a loss of 31,730 full-time jobs. That was the worst first six months in eight years.

International comparisons

Finally, the minister’s hubris is deflated when we compare Australia’s global standing now with 2013. When the Coalition came to power, Australia’s jobless rate ranked seventh among the 35 developed countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD ). By the end of 2015, after two failed Joe Hockey budgets, ranking had slipped to 13th.

It is now an all-time low 16th.

Such is Australia’s doom.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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