Release type: Transcript

Date:

Interview — ABC News Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas

Ministers:

The Hon Stuart Robert MP
Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business

Topics: Latest unemployment rate, vaccination rates, Afghanistan, COVIDSafe app

E&OE-------------------------------------

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

And the official unemployment rate has dropped to 4.6 per cent. The main reason the figure fell, according to the ABS data, is that the participation rate dropped .2 per cent as many people gave up looking for work during these lockdowns.

Stuart Robert is the Minister for Employment, and he joined me a short time ago to discuss today's figures.

[Excerpt]

Minister, welcome.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Patricia, lovely to talk to you as always.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Unemployment fell from 4.9 to 4.6 per cent in July. The main reason for that is a fall in the participation rate. People give up looking for work. Is there really any positive news from these figures then?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It's a tale of two cities, I guess: Sydney, New South Wales and Melbourne, Victoria. It's a tale of participation and hours. Ostensibly, there's no change from last month – 13.156 million people employed. Still something to be pleased about, but no one's going to be celebrating 4.6 per cent, especially not with a lot of the country locked down, but it does show that the Government's response, the Morrison Government's economic response, is working. It’s keeping employers connected to their employees, and it's keeping people connected to their workplace.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

You say the youth participation rate has increased, yet the overall workforce participation rate sits at 66 per cent. Is that sustainable?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, it’s dropped .2 percentage points, so 66.2 to 66. And if it had been at 66.2, you would have not seen a drop of unemployment from 4.9 to 4.6. Sustainability all comes down to vaccination rates and lockdowns, Patricia. What we want to see is the nation vaccinated. We want to see more and more arms out. We're seeing some record numbers occurring every day in numbers of vaccinations. Thousands of pharmacies now on board in terms of joining that program. These numbers are sustainable, as long as we can get out of the lockdown structures, and we do that by vaccination.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Okay. Vaccination is key to the economic recovery. In that context, are you disappointed that we've seen the delays we've seen?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think we're all disappointed. The Prime Minister has reflected that as well. But as he said, he's taken responsibility for the delays and also taken responsibilities for what is now the extraordinary results we’re seeing, which is good, and we just need to keep doing it. And we need to keep getting our arms out and get into your GPs and your pharmacists and mass vaccination centres. It is just so important we keep doing that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

But yeah, young people are still waiting, and they're often in this insecure work. They’re really being hard hit by these lockdowns. And as we know from the data, they're also the ones spreading the virus. A lot of young people can't get their preferred or the recommended vaccine of Pfizer, so it's having an impact, is it not, on the economy substantially?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's no question that lockdowns have an impact on the economy. We're seeing that. In fact-

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

[Talks over] But the slow vaccination is having the impact.

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's no question that vaccinations are our way out, and that once we get the nation up to the 70 percent, of course, we can then move to Phase B and then up to 80 percent, as per the national rollout plan. And the Prime Minister has been very clear about how important vaccinations are to the country and how important it is for everyone to get their arm out.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

A large proportion of those losing jobs were women. What is the Government doing to address that? That's really concerning. Women are being hit hard.

MINISTER ROBERT:

If you look at the women's participation rate, it's certainly a lot higher than when we came to government. It's dropped a few percentage points, of course, from the record high we had a few months ago. And as you quite rightly note in the recent numbers that we’re talking about today, we've seen 19,000 odd jobs lost for women. So it is something we need to continue to work out. We need to get women's participation up – 6.2 million, give or take, women in the employment market compared to 6.9-ish for men. And there's a number of things we need to do. Childcare is one of the crucial ones. And of course, last week in Parliament, or the last sitting week, our $1.7 billion plan to assist further building on the $10 billion we’ve put into childcare, which is about giving women opportunities and choices to really get involved in the labour market. And we've just got to continue to do more of those type of activities that give women choice.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Okay. So on that- okay, so childcare is one piece of that puzzle. What else is the Government exploring? Because clearly this is a really significant issue, that women are being so hard hit by this pandemic.

MINISTER ROBERT:

No question that everyone's taking hit from the pandemic, [indistinct]… job numbers that have come out.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

[Talks over] Well, no. Women are taking a bigger hit. This is the issue.

MINISTER ROBERT:

And we've seen that women have taken a hit in these set of job numbers, but again, the women's participation rate is only a number of .1 or 2 per cent off the highest we've seen so far, which is superb. And we just need to keep on providing opportunities, giving opportunities for workplaces to understand and to be more female friendly, continue to double down on our childcare, which is exactly what we've done to give people choice.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

On that, the national gender pay gap has risen .8 per cent in just six months to 14.2 per cent. That's a difference of more than $260 a week. What do you make of that figure?

MINISTER ROBERT:

You'd have to say it's certainly linked to where we are with the pandemic. I mean, we saw the numbers above 17 when we came into government, and we've seen the numbers higher. So they're certainly coming down. And of course, we have an aim to get it down to zero. That's where we all want it to be. There's no question about that. But this is just another unfortunate result of the pandemic, and it's hitting women, especially women who are in a lower skill workplace.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

It means women have to work an extra 61 days to earn as much as men in a year. Is the Government working to address that? I mean, this is going in the wrong direction. That’s… this is the wrong data to come out today. Does the Government take responsibility for that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Actually, Patricia, it's going in the right direction since we've got elected. And since we've got elected, it's been progressively coming down, which is what we want to see. Now, during the pandemic-

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

[Talks over] Well, today- the gap increased today.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Absolutely. And these things jump up and down, as you'd expect them to do. The key thing is the downwards trend. And it's very important we continue to focus on getting a downwards trend and doing everything we can to continue to see that pay gap come to zero.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Do you admit that the jobs recovery has effectively stalled?

MINISTER ROBERT:

What we've seen from last month's numbers to this month's ostensibly no change – 2200 extra jobs created, if you like, between June and July. So you’ve seen a plateauing happening, you’ve seen month on month increase. But of course, the reference period in the middle of July for this struck the end of Victoria, and the beginning of New South Wales in terms of lockdowns, so it’s going to be difficult to get a good positive trend because of the impact of lockdowns. You’re seeing the numbers of New South Wales who’ve been stood down, rising from 13,000 to 116,000. But seeing the reverse in Victoria. You’re seeing a loss of hours, a seven per cent loss in New South Wales. But a gain of hours of 9.7 per cent in Victoria. So, it is difficult to make anything out of the numbers today, except to say there’s certainly over 120,000 more Australians employed post-COVID than pre-COVID, and we’re still only one of the advanced nations to be able to have the joy of that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

But we’re not post-COVID. New South Wales is in a long lockdown, it’s anything but post-COVID.

MINISTER ROBERT:    

The point I’m making is that we’re still got more jobs now than we had pre-COVID. Now, we’ve still a long way to go, the vaccination programme will begin to peak. And that’s really, really important in terms of stopping the lockdowns and getting our economy back up and running at full pace again. But the numbers today will tell us that there hasn’t been great losses. Now the numbers next month will be more instructive again, and we’ll get a bit of an idea about where those numbers align. But in the middle of lockdowns, you’re going to get some instability in numbers bouncing around.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Yeah, okay, so, you’re right, things- this is probably the high water mark. How likely is a recession by the end of the year?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I don’t think this is the high water mark at all, Patricia. And in fact, the Reserve Bank doesn’t agree with you on that. And, frankly, nor do I. I think [Indistinct]… got a lot more scope.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:    

[Talks over] Well, I think unemployment will rise. Unemployment will rise, right? It’s inevitable.

MINISTER ROBERT:

We- the- we’ll look at the unemployment numbers across the trend as we move through into the vaccination period, and then into next year when we come out of the lockdown, we move into Phases B and C. But the economy has still got a lot more scope to pick up. 640,000-odd Australians that have still got capacity to be employed. And that number’s reflecting the Jobactive figures as well. So, the Reserve Bank governor believes that full employment in this country may have a three in front of it, so I think there is still capacity in the economy to soak up Australian labour. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

On Afghanistan, Australia has committed to 3000 humanitarian visas for Afghans, the government says that’s in addition to some 9000 already allocated. That’s still short of previous commitments, given the unfolding situation and migration is down as a result of the pandemic, why not increase that number?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We’ve taken over 8000 Afghans from, ostensibly, 2013 as part of that program So the 3000 on top of that. And our program, of course, extends right across the world, and we make adjustments as required, as we saw that in Syria. So 3000 builds on the 8000 to have a net 11,000 as a minimum. That’s the level that we’re pitching at as part of our humanitarian program.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not hid the fact that she blames the NSW light and long lockdown for the spread of COVID-19 across the Tasman, do you agree with that assessment?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I'm sure the Prime Minister of New Zealand is able to speak for herself, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

But I asked you if you agree. Not- I don’t want you to speak for her, I want to see what you think of that analysis?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I don’t. And as a general view, we don't comment on the statements of other national leaders and I don't intend to do that today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Sure, but clearly the New South Wales outbreak has made its way into New Zealand as it has into the ACT, Victoria, it's of great concern that it’s been handled this way, is it not?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, it's a global pandemic and these things spread globally, and we’ve seen that from where it started in Wuhan. There’s no question about that, which means we have to fight it globally, and that’s why the vaccine program globally is just so important for everyone.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Just on the COVIDSafe app, and the way to manage making it more useful, why does the Government continue to refuse to enable exposure notifications? I think that’s available in everyone’s phones. I know the UK, for example, uses it. Why not enable that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Because ENF framework, Exposure Notification Framework by Apple and Google, they determine the parameters. So for example, on our COVIDSafe app, we’ve set parameters at 1.5 metres and for 15 minutes, we can adjust that at any time to meet our national response, or any time we get a new variant or new requirements. If you were to take the Apple and Google approach, you dial out completely all of your public health, there’s no public health tracking and tracing. There’s no data from the ENF framework that goes to public health officials. And of course, Apple and Google then determine the settings. Now, I’m not too sure that's what we need on our tracking, tracing, isolating and quarantine constructs right now.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Sure, but if you look at the New South Wales situation, they just cannot possibly keep up, and our own
COVIDSafe app just hasn’t done the job. It just isn't doing the job.

MINISTE ROBERT:

[Talks over] No, no, I reject that Patricia. The COVIDSafe app is there for Australians to use, and the data goes to states and territories. How they use it is up to them. It’s just one more tool in the [Indisinct].

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

[Talks over] Yeah, but they’re not using it to contact trace all those people, we know they’re not.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Yes they are, it is being used, Patricia. And it’s being used in concert with-

PATRICIA KARVELAS

[Interrupts] Are you telling me- okay, is it keeping up?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The app is there as one more capacity to assist state governments in contact tracing. There’s no silver bullet in this. There’s lots of different measures that states are using, and the COVIDSafe app is just one of them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Okay, but if it’s been successful, as it has in other places, why wouldn't you consider it, given the very high numbers for NSW?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The Exposure Notification Framework, Patricia - and I don't think- quite think you understand how it works – is that it doesn't inform state health officials where someone has been. It doesn't do that. It doesn't plug into state health. It doesn’t plug into a contact test and trace, that's not what it does. It doesn’t do that at all. Settings aren’t set by the Federal Government, the settings are set by Apple and Google.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

[Talks over] No, I do understand it. I do understand it. I do quite a bit of reading, I'm all over it. I am all over it. But as an additional tool, if you allowed for it to happen, would it not give you extra help in trying, as the individual could, to trace their contacts, to try and figure out where this is spreading?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, I don't believe it will. I think what New South Wales is putting in place, what other states and territories, through the QR checking apps in terms of geo-locating where citizens have been, on top of everything they are doing, is world-class, I think it really is. And I don't believe the ENF framework will add any value, and I don't think international experience has shown that to be the case either.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Okay. Thanks so much for your time.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Great to talk, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:

Stuart Robert is the Minister for Employment and he joined me, a little earlier, to discuss today’s unemployment figures.