Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

With his third speech in little over a week, Josh Frydenberg is making a concerted effort to shake off his “invisible man” tag; now he just needs some substance to go with it. But when the government’s economic policy is “don’t just do something, stand there”, substance can be hard to find.

Frydenberg’s first speech was about Bretton Woods and the marvels of unaccountable internationalist bureaucracies multilateralism. His second was about how the housing market and state government productivity reforms would boost the economy. For the third, Frydenberg went back to that faithful stand-by of treasurers all the way back to Peter Costello — an ageing population.

Treasury can — and by the look of them, does — write such speeches in its sleep. Throw together life expectancy, the number of people aged over 100, the number of working people per retiree and the impact on the budget (concern about our ageing population and its fiscal impact has been a key driver of our retirement incomes policy — it’s why we have $2.8 trillion in super sloshing around the economy — and all the attendant tax and other rorts).

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Once these boxes have been checked, it’s then time to invoke the mantra of successive governments and their Treasury officials: the three Ps — participation, population and productivity.

On productivity, of course, we’ve performed pretty shabbily, with the labour productivity surge under Labor giving way to years of flat or falling productivity under the Coalition. Frydenberg was honest enough to admit there’s a problem. His solution? “Our focus is on deregulation, skills, industrial relations and other micro-economic reforms to improve service delivery,” he said. Hopefully he remembers that productivity took a nosedive last time the Coalition deregulated industrial relations with Workchoices, but don’t count on it.

On population and participation, however, we’ve performed brilliantly, at least from Treasury’s perspective. Australia’s population has grown far more rapidly than the Howard government projected back when it first began producing intergenerational reports. And we’ve slowed the fall of workers per retiree by dramatically increasing the supply of temporary labour.

According to CEDA, the outfit to whom Frydenberg was speaking, under the Coalition the number of temporary workers in Australia has surged, driven by a dramatic increase in foreign students working in the economy, alongside working holidaymakers and workers here on various forms of temporary working visas, which the government is expanding.

The success on participation has been even more dramatic, and it is one of the few unalloyed triumphs of the Coalition government: our participation rate appeared to max out at around 65% in the years leading up to 2017. We could have confidently expected it to decline from there given the ageing of the workforce, but instead it has since risen to 66%, fuelled by a significant rise in female participation. That’s a direct result of the huge expansion in health and social care, and education, which the Turnbull and Morrison governments have helped fund.

Problem is, we’ve been too successful on population, in particular, and participation. In the Howard years, Joe Hockey defended measures to encourage women into the workforce by saying “we’re running out of workers”. But suddenly that’s not the case: despite years of strong jobs growth — even now, jobs growth is still above the long-run average — there’s no sign of running out of workers.

In fact, unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 5% when many other developed economies have unemployment below 5% and even below 4%. The Reserve Bank is well short of its objective of getting unemployment down to a level that will spark inflation — if anything, we’re drifting further away from it.

The result is, outside health and social care and education, the persistent wage stagnation that is punishing Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”. There are too many temporary workers, and too little enforcement of industrial relations laws to ensure they are paid the right wages. As a result, business uses them to undercut the wages of permanent workers (not to mention the impact on infrastructure and housing affordability).

More and more older workers — healthier and more active than previous generations — continue working into their 60s and even 70s, many because of debt, expanding the workforce. At 62.6%, the employment-population ratio is at a sustained historical high (it briefly touched 62.8% right before the financial crisis hit in 2008) and four percentage points higher than twenty years ago.

In light of six years of wage stagnation (which Treasury has endlessly forecast was about to end), it might be time we updated, or at least seriously reconsidered, whether the three Ps are still working for us.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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