Release type: Transcript

Date:

Press Conference — Thursday 17 March 2022, February Labour Force Figures

Ministers:

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

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, good afternoon. Thank you for joining me. The Treasurer sends his apologies. As you'd expect, he is bunkering down, putting the final touches on the Budget. 

Can I say, first off, my heart continues to go out to those struggling with floods right across our communities, not just in my home state of Queensland, but also in New South Wales. 

Today's job numbers, though, vindicate the Morrison Government’s economic settings and show a strong economy that is rebounding from COVID and the strength of the economy based on what the Morrison Government has been putting in place. 

Unemployment today at 4 per cent is the equal lowest since 1978. Extraordinary. The participation rate at 66.4 per cent is a record for our country. Again, an extraordinary result for a strong, resilient, and growing economy. We're seeing female unemployment at 3.8 per cent – again, the lowest since May 1974 – and a participation rate at 62.4 per cent – again a historic high. An extraordinary set of economic numbers that show the strength and the resilience of the Australian economy and shows the Morrison Government's economic settings are indeed correct. 

77,400 new jobs were added in terms of the jobs market, which brings to a total of 13.372 million total jobs – hundreds of thousands more than when we went into the pandemic. Australia is still one of only a few nations that has more of its citizens employed now than pre-pandemic. What is exceptionally pleasing is there were 121,900 full-time jobs created and part-time jobs decreased by 44,000 to net out at that 77,000 job total.

Pleasingly, employment increased across every single state and territory, but the standout was New South Wales. Unemployment in New South Wales now has dropped to the lowest level since 1978 at 3.7 per cent, at the same time as their participation rate increased to 65.4 per cent. New South Wales saw a net increase of 57,000 jobs. Whilst jobs increased across every single state and territory over the period, something like 80 per cent of those jobs increased in New South Wales. And full credit to Treasurer Kean for the work he's been doing and his economic stewardship of the state of New South Wales. What we're seeing is as New South Wales has come out of the Omicron wave, the economic growth there and the strength is being well seen. 

Right across the board, we are seeing a strong economy. We're seeing dividends with the Morrison Government's $2 billion investment in JobTrainer, $3.7 billion in Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements. We're seeing record Australians now into jobs, which vindicates the $13 billion that was spent during the pandemic on skills. We are seeing a generation of skilled Australians, not a generation of scarred Australians, because of the economic investment that we've been putting in place.

These numbers are also cognisant of the fact that since the 20th of November through to the beginning of March, 583,000 visa arrivals have occurred into Australia, including 122,000 students, 49,000 skilled visa arrivals, 47,000 temporary worker visas, and 162,000 visitors. 

But the Morrison Government is unashamedly focused on skilling and seeking opportunities for the employment of Australians. And these pleasing economic numbers today are occurring at the time the economy is opening up, that visa holders are returning to Australia and over 583,000 people have arrived into Australia.

QUESTION:

Minister, can I ask, in terms of the impact of the floods on people's ability to get to work and to be in employment, what kind of an impact are you expecting that to have?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There will be an impact. The reference period for this set of economic numbers is from the 20th of January to the 12th of February. So you'd start to see any impact from the floods being reflected in the following months. The fact that almost a million Australians have received Australian Government disaster relief payments paid within a matter of weeks, in what is certainly a national first, and at the scale and the speed at which payments are done, may well rank highly internationally. It will demonstrate that there has to be some impact and that we will probably see it in next month's figures.

QUESTION:

And what's the modelling telling you about that impact now? Surely something of that nature has been done.

MINISTER ROBERT:

If I look through – and I did yesterday in ERC – looking through the operations of major industrial plants, most of those are back online; Lismore being the notable exception. All schools are back online apart from five; although seven are irreparably damaged. So the economies and the local businesses, the infrastructure, the schools, the childcare centres, all of those have kicked back in and for the most part rapidly recovered. However, for a period there, for a week or two, you saw a number of businesses that had to clean out and restock and sort out where they were going and what they were doing. Most of those are back online now, but that two-week period will be reflected, I suspect, in next month’s numbers.

QUESTION:

And do you think that the unemployment rate could eventually, in that situation, actually go in the wrong direction to where your government’s hoping it will go because such a large swathe of people were effected?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well in this reference period you’ve seen over 140 million hours’ extra work – an increase of 8 per cent – which is a reflection of coming out of Omicron. I suspect, although it’s hypothetical, which is always bad, that you’ll see a drop-off of hours worked because of the floods. That would be consistent when we’ve looked at floods, fires, drought, pestilence and other natural disasters, that drop-off of hours worked tends to be a response.

QUESTION:

And, if I may, just to finish that thought. So, how many people do you think have lost their job because of the floods, because their business can’t operate again?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It would be difficult to ascertain what that number is. You’d look at numbers – for example, almost a million people have claimed the Disaster Recovery Payment. There’s also a Disaster Recovery Allowance, which is the JobSeeker rate for 13 weeks. So, at present, 2000-odd have actually received and been paid that, with further requests being processed as we speak. So that DRA payment is the most exact number you will get, and over the next week or two, a final processing of those payments will be done, and that’s when you’ll have an exact number of the job losses, because people then are claiming that Disaster Recovery Allowance – which is, they’ve lost their job because of the disaster, and that payment kicks in.

QUESTION:

Given the unemployment rates already almost below 4 per cent, and given the strength in the unemployment continues to surprise, how low do you now think unemployment could fall over- in the coming year?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think our numbers validate what the Reserve Bank Governor showed, that his expectation was moving for the third quarter that unemployment will have a three in front of it, and we’ve moved to about 3.7 per cent. The fact that we’ve seen a drop from 4.2 to four, whilst the participation rate has increased, is quite extraordinary and goes to the strength of the labour market. 

Last month of course, we saw women’s unemployment rate at 4 per cent; at 3.8 per cent now, and we’ve seen the participation rate of women jump 0.3 per cent again, which is extraordinary. Out of the jobs that have come back – almost 1.2 million over the pandemic – 59 per cent have gone to women, which is fabulous that exercise of choice and control is being taken by women. 

I think these numbers demonstrate the Reserve Bank Governor is on the money.

QUESTION:

Could this influence the RBA to hike interest rates sooner?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, it’s a question for the RBA.

QUESTION:

And can I follow up on that, then? Are you absolutely sure, in the numbers that you’ve seen, that there will not be a rate hike before the election?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Again, it's a question for the Reserve Bank Governor and their independent board.

QUESTION:

So even though in the past we have heard from the Reserve Bank Governor, and it's possibly later in the year, you are leaving open the potential that the Reserve Bank may in the current climate have to move earlier?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I’m leaving nothing open, making no statement, simply referring you to the comments of the Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank board is independent. They make these calls independently. The Reserve Bank comments of the Governor should be seen and taken at face value.

QUESTION:

But for every homeowner out there or someone paying off their home who’s closely watching this, what would you say to them?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I'd say to them, follow the Reserve Bank Governor and his comments carefully. That's the beauty of our independent Reserve Bank and the independent setting of our monetary policy.

QUESTION:

Minister, you talk about employment obviously being at record-low levels and about economic settings being in the right place. But obviously at the moment we are seeing high levels of inflation, we're seeing petrol prices go up. I mean, do you think these are the numbers that- do you think Australians are feeling the benefits of this lower unemployment rate, or are they focused more on cost of living pressures?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's no question people are feeling the benefits of getting a job. The best form of welfare is always a job. A job gives hope, it gives economic stability, it gives the opportunity to buy a house and purchase goods and take care of your family. There is nothing more important than getting Australians into jobs. That's why there's been a $13 billion investment by the Commonwealth in skills, and why we are unashamedly focussing on skilling Australians. 

If you look at the underlying inflation rate at 2.6 per cent, this is the first time that inflation has been within the Reserve Bank Governor's band of 2 to 3 per cent in almost six years. Now, whilst the underlying cause of the headline inflation rate being above three is driven in part by fuel price increases and, of course, housing prices, and the disruption of global supply chain when it comes to goods, they will moderate over time. 

The current fuel shock, if you like, has been driven very much by the illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. Again, in time that will moderate. 

But this is the first time we've seen the underlying inflation in the Reserve Bank Governor’s band. But right now, in terms of Australians and the Australians I speak to, the opportunity to get a job, the opportunity for their sons and their daughters to get a job. With youth participation rate at 70.2 per cent and youth unemployment again low historically, all this says the opportunity is there for Australians. 

QUESTION:

Minister, if the RBA started raising the interest rate during May, during the election campaign, would that hurt the Government’s chances of winning?

MINISTER ROBERT:

We’re not going to deal with hypotheticals and what the Reserve Bank Governor may or may not do.

QUESTION:

But surely you would be looking at something like that?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Surely we’d be following the Reserve Bank Governor’s comments and will encourage all Australians to do that.

QUESTION:

Minister, the Prime Minister earlier today in Perth said that the last time the unemployment rate was this low he was five years old, in the early 1970’s. Do you accept that that’s wrong?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, unemployment four per cent, the equal lowest level since 1978. So I was eight. 

QUESTION:

You accept that the last time it was actually that low, though, was in 2008?

MINISTER ROBERT:

In 2008 in August and in February. And in 1978 at three times it was 4 per cent. So clever question-

QUESTION:

[Talks over] So when the Prime Minister says the last time the employment rate was where it is now was in- he was five years old…

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, the Prime Minister is quite right.

QUESTION:

Do you accept that that is incorrect?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, the Prime Minister was quite correct and I'll say it again because I know my numbers as well as you do, sir. The last time it was 4 per cent was August of that year, 2008. It was February and it was in 1978. That’s why I chose my words carefully to say it is the equal lowest rate so the Prime Minister is absolutely correct. And I was eight years old.

QUESTION:

So he didn't say equal. Did he choose his words incorrectly then?

MINISTER ROBERT:

[Talks over] And I suggest you weren't born then.

QUESTION:

But sorry. Can we just understand, as the Employment Minister, if the Prime Minister made this comment, he didn't say equal lowest, he said when he was that young age.

MINISTER ROBERT:

He's quite right. It was 4 per cent in 1978.

QUESTION:

But he's saying that's the last time.

MINISTER ROBERT:

It was equally, the last time it was at 4 per cent was in 1978. 

QUESTION:

You mean 1974? 

MINISTER ROBERT:

Sorry. No, it was 1978. The equal lowest since 1978.

QUESTION:

Minister, you have a glowing set of numbers here for...

MINISTER ROBERT:

[Talks over] The nation as a glowing set of numbers.

QUESTION:

The nation has a glowing set of numbers. What about remote indigenous communities? What is the current unemployment rate across remote indigenous communities and what would you like to see it fall to that you'd be happy with?

MINISTER ROBERT:

In remote communities of course, we don't look at the unemployment rate there because the fact there is no free and floating set of economics or free and floating labour market. That's why we have the Community Development Programme and the programmes that follow from that to ensure that there is economic activity and opportunity in those communities. What I can tell you is 93 per cent of all Indigenous children right now, including remote communities, are in the early years of school foundations 1 to 6, which is about driving opportunities for those young Indigenous children to get ahead and come forward and find economic opportunity.

QUESTION:

My question was about employment. What's your vision to see Indigenous Australians in remote communities have a job?

MINISTER ROBERT:

For remote communities where there is no free floating economic activity, there's no free employment market, if you're in a community like Meekatharra. Lockhart River, Aurukun, where the community is very much isolated by virtue of being on traditional lands, the economic opportunity there is serving within their community and that's the genesis of the Community Development Programme and the subsequent programmes the Indigenous Australian Minister is putting in place for those communities and we're going to continue to do that. There is some 40,000 Indigenous Australians in those communities working in those community development programmes to better their communities. That is the only economic activity available for them. 

Now there is a lot of work going into providing opportunity in eco-tourism. We're seeing an increase in Indigenous rangers in terms of caring from country to get past 1000 of those and we'll continue to work on those programs to provide opportunity for Indigenous Australians. But there is always a limited economic and jobs market in a remote community by virtue of being remote.

QUESTION:

And are you pushing in those ERC meetings to see any change there? Do you think there are improvements that can be made to improve the potential and incapacity of people in remote communities?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There has to be. If you look at closing the gap from 2008 to 2018, the goal was to increase economic or to increase employment by ten percentage points and well-meaning governments, and the Rudd Government was incredibly well meaning. But for those ten years, from 2008 to 2018, the rate of increase of Indigenous employment was 0.9 per cent. It increased by 0.1 per cent per annum. On any look at it, that is a failure. Our job now over the next ten years is to get an increase of 10 per cent of Indigenous employment. That will require a 1000 per cent increase every year for the next ten years.

QUESTION:

[Talks over] So how much have you been able to increase it since coming to power then?

MINISTER ROBERT:

And that is the national target that is ahead of us and that is the challenge that is ahead of us.

QUESTION:

But what's the increase between when Tony Abbott came to power and now, in terms of the increase in remote employment?

MINISTER ROBERT:

From 2008 through to 2018, it increased by 0.9 per cent. As a nation over the last ten years we have not been able to succeed. This is why the new Closing the Gap targets include the states and territory governments as equal partners and equal participants in this. And that's why it's so important and it's difficult and it's challenging and we understand all that, and that's why we've got to work together to solve this problem. Everyone, all of us together. 

Thanks very much.