Keep Australia Working

Sunday Telegraph, 28/06/2009
I still remember the day my father came home and told us he had been retrenched. It was the early 1990s. Recession had snatched the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians, but I never thought my old man would be one of them. He had been a draftsman at the same manufacturing company for 23 years.

Now a global recession threatens jobs again and that same sense of shock and insecurity that I felt is being felt by a lot of families around Australia. In some places more than others.

Western Sydney has already been hit harder than most. It bore the brunt of rising interest rates in the last few years and now it’s bearing the brunt of the global recession. Unemployment in south west Sydney is already 9 percent. In the last 12 months it’s risen by twice the national average.

Manufacturing is doing it particularly tough. A company in my electorate that makes car parts has had to put off 419 people. Two years ago they had a workforce of 580, now it’s 61. People like my dad, who worked for the company for years.

When things like this happen the after effects are felt for a long time. Unemployment goes up a lot faster than it comes down. In the 80s unemployment jumped from 5.4 to 10.4 in three years. It took another six years to get it back down. In the 90s it made the same leap in two years. This time it took 11 years to get back down.

A lot of people suffered in the time in between. One in three young people who didn’t finish high school couldn’t get a job. They were three times more likely to be unemployed than young people who had finished school. Other workers suffered too. A lot of older blokes who got retrenched never got a full time job again.

There are a few lessons here. First, we have to do everything we can to keep unemployment as low as possible. That’s why the government’s economic stimulus package is so important. Without it unemployment would be a lot higher and we would already be in recession.

Treasury modelling indicates that without the stimulus package up to 210,000 more people would be unemployed. That’s two Olympic stadiums full of people without a job.

Second, skills and qualifications are important, especially for young people. Amongst all the fury and anger of the last few weeks of Parliament we also passed a law that requires young people who haven’t finished Year 12 to be in full or part time study or training to access government income support. The logic is simple. The more skills you have the more likely you are to get a job.

Third, retrenched workers need help to get back into the workforce quickly. That’s why someone like my dad who is retrenched today now has access to a $298.5 million program with immediate assistance, careers advice and training to get back into the workforce.

It’s places like western Sydney where this will really help. Places where unemployment is already high and qualifications are lower than the national average. This is what entrenches social disadvantage and this is where good policy and a bit of hard work can make a real difference.

That’s where Lindsay Fox and Bill Kelty come in. Two blokes who have done it all before. Around the same time my dad lost his job Lindsay and Bill teamed up and travelled around the country twisting the arms of businesses and creating thousands of jobs.

This time Kevin Rudd has twisted their arm and in the next few weeks they will hit the road again, talking to businesses in places that are doing it tough about ways to keep workers on and put on a few more. I will be travelling with them and I know I will learn a lot.

They are an odd couple. Lindsay is a self made man, an entrepreneur. He started a company with one truck. Now he has six thousand. Bill’s a union man who convinced another Labor government to extend superannuation to all workers. One of the most important decisions Australia ever made. Two very different blokes. What they have in common is a determination to keep Australia working.

This is the greatest challenge we face. Things are going to get tougher in the next few months. Unemployment is going to go up. We can’t wish the global recession away, but working together with good policies we can reduce its impact.

In case you are wondering dad was one of the lucky ones. He got another job, this time in sales. A lot of others weren’t so fortunate. We can’ afford to let that happen again.