Thursday, May 14, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

A tough day
One in five employed Australians lost work last month

The official employment figures show that a staggering 2.7 million people (one in five working Australians) either left employment between March and April or had their hours reduced. The participation rate – people working or looking for work – fell back to the level it was at before the China boom took off in 2004, with half a million people giving up jobseeking altogether. Almost 600,000 people lost their jobs, according to the ABS, while the underutilisation rate (unemployed plus underemployed) hit a record 19.9 per cent. And although the headline 6.2 per cent unemployment rate was better than some economists expected, it is certain to get much worse. In a press conference this morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was a “tough day for Australia”. At this point, however, most voters are simply grateful we are not dying by the thousand – a Lowy Institute poll shows that 93 per cent approve of Australia’s handling of COVID-19 – and they are also glad that restrictions are easing. As the economic crisis deepens, that gratitude won’t last. 

Knowing as much, the PM during question time attempted a subtle rewrite of the history of his government’s response to COVID-19. “We knew that we had to fight this fight on the health front,” Morrison said, “but we also knew, at exactly the same time, that this was a fight that had to be fought on two fronts – on the economy and on the health front. Not all agreed with us on that point. Some believed that we should only focus primarily on the health, but we always believed that we had to ensure that we had to deal with this issue on the economic front as well as the health front.”

That’s not true. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was arguing back in March that the federal government should deal with both the COVID-19 health crisis and the economic crisis, “in that order”. Having adopted the Opposition’s preferred policy response to the pandemic by embarking on an unprecedented $214 billion fiscal stimulus package, including the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs, the Coalition would now like to argue that the economic fallout would have been worse under Labor, which wanted tougher, earlier restrictions and more fiscal stimulus. If the Opposition was only calling for more generous wage subsidies – and question after question to the treasurer today asked why he was leaving behind 600,000 Australians ineligible for JobKeeper, who have joined the jobless queues in the last month – they would be playing into the PM’s hands. But the Opposition is also asking why the JobKeeper program is, in some cases, too generous – paying some lucky young casuals multiples of their pre-COVID income, while unfairly excluding others. 

This morning, shadow employment minister Brendan O’Connor said the ABS figures were a picture of the economy a month ago, and would get worse. “Labor’s call to broaden out the JobKeeper package to cover the sectors most affected has not been listened to,” he said. “And it is very unfortunate that the sectors most affected have the highest proportion of casuals, for example, and therefore have been given the least support by the stimulus package. And this is why the government needs to tend to this. This is just the beginning of what is going to be increasingly frightening figures.” 

Hopes that the JobKeeper program might be expanded to include some of the millions left out – short-term casuals, university employees, arts workers, entertainers, migrant workers – were dashed in the Senate this afternoon as One Nation voted with the government on disallowance motions supported by Labor and the Greens. How Pauline Hanson, who purports to represent battlers, can justify that is a matter for her. What is sure is that the consensus politics of the health crisis will not endure as the economic crisis deepens and the task of economic recovery gets harder and harder. As columnist Niki Savva writes in The Australian [$], disagreements are “not only inevitable, they are essential”.

“A little less George Christensen and a little more Marise Payne would be a good thing.”

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong gives the government some constructive advice on how to manage tensions with China.

“This is the latest example of Premier Palaszczuk being completely out of her depth … She doesn’t have a dollar left, and yet she’s talking about going out and spending billions of dollars she doesn’t have on an airline that has no money coming in, that has billions of dollars’ worth of debt.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton responds to reports that state-owned QIC will make a bid for Virgin Australia, which is under administration.

The ABC’s funding crisis
ABC staff are revealing the pressure they are under as the public broadcaster absorbs budget cuts amounting to more than $100 million a year. Today, Mike Seccombe on the role the ABC plays during a national crisis and the future of the national broadcaster.

The value of the new home in LA bought earlier this year by Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, which today closed its UK and Australia operations.

“The [bill] will give Australian Border Force officers strengthened powers, including to search for and seize illegal drugs and other items that put at risk the health, safety or security of people in immigration detention. Under current legislation, officers are not legally able to search for or confiscate dangerous items, such as illicit drugs, child abuse material or extremist material. Officers must rely on local police or the Australia Federal Police to attend the facility to search for and seize the items.”

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge reintroduces 2017 legislation that would give the ABF yet more powers.

The list

“Chances are, you don’t care very much about movies right now. I can’t say I blame you. My father died two months ago, about 11 days before the world began tipping into chaos, and my mother spent the following five and a half weeks in hospital, slowly receding from a life whose terms she no longer appeared willing to accept. And in the anguish and uncertainty of those weeks, I found myself thinking hard about what people call ‘the consolations of art’, and whether this might in fact mean anything beyond an elegant turn of phrase.”

“Yes, Family Trees can feel like a queer Ken Done homage – with its compulsively conjured kangaroos and wombats and lyrebirds, and its reanimations of the kitsch of colonialist dreaming – but this belies the book’s technical achievements, which are indeed substantial. And anyone interested in poetry today will recognise the seriousness of Farrell’s project and the integrity of his vision.”

“It began with a single careworker with a ‘scratchy throat’ and swiftly morphed into a Covid-19 cluster that has killed 16 people, infected at least 68 all up and necessitated the creation of an isolation chamber that has shattered families … Containment of the outbreak may have been possible, were it not for a medley of errors at all levels that expose historic, systemic flaws in the nation’s aged-care system.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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