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November 19, 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Brendan O'Connor is the Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry and my guest this afternoon. Brendan O'Connor, welcome.


KARVELAS: Australia's unemployment rate rose last month as more people looked for work. But what's really interesting here is there was also a strong increase in the number of people hired, and that I suppose was as Victoria's coronavirus lockdown eased. What's your assessment? Is this an indication that the economy is recovering?

O’CONNOR: Well, there's no doubt that there's signs of recovery in parts of the country. And there's no doubt that the correlation between easing restrictions once we've got on top of the health challenge has a bearing on employment opportunities. So it's good to see the fact that there's been, even though unemployment has gone up, that means more people are looking and there's more unemployed last month as compared with the month before.

The fact is there are a lot of jobs that just been restored because businesses can go back to operating and that's a wonderful thing. But we still have a 7 per cent unemployment rate. We have underemployment of 10.4 per cent. There's a very, very high underutilisation rate of the labour market - 17.4 per cent.

So I think it's fair that I expect the Treasurer to congratulate Victorians and Victorian businesses and the Victorian Government because without suppressing the second wave, there's no way in which we would have been able to operate the way we have and see the employment numbers improve. And to that extent, Labor is very, very happy to see that happen.

KARVELAS: These figures are mainly because people on the JobKeeper wage subsidy program now have to look for work. And so they are counted as part of the workforce. Does that demonstrate that the changes that the government has made is actually about getting people engaged again to look for new and genuine jobs?

O’CONNOR: Yes, certainly there's no doubt that once you can open up you get businesses thriving, you have consumers buying goods and services, and that allows businesses to recover. Once they recover to a certain extent they lose the JobKeeper support, which is exactly how it should occur. The concern Labor still has is that there is still a very, very high proportion of businesses that are in need of JobKeeper. It cuts out in March. And I think the significant question, Patricia, will be will the hiring credit JobMaker in any way properly replace the JobKeeper payments once that ends in March. That's going to be a very big question.

I've spoken to a lot of businesses today and yesterday and certainly since the unemployment rate and indeed banks, their major concern has been that once JopKeeper disappears there isn't anything that's comparable to deal with recovering businesses and the actual hiring credit JobMaker scheme is not actually built for recovering businesses, it's built for businesses that have either fully recovered or weren't affected by the pandemic.

KARVELAS: Brendan O'Connor, before I let you go, I just want to talk briefly about hotel quarantining, the staffing of hotel quarantining. Obviously we've seen this issue in South Australia, we had the issue in Victoria. Now there's a discussion going on about workers in hotel quarantine working secondary jobs. The Victorian Premier wants to address that. He sees that as an issue. Clearly it was in South Australia in and in Victoria it's an issue as well. What do you think should happen here? I mean, should there be a sort of national approach where people who are working in these quarantine hotels don't work secondary jobs?

O’CONNOR: Look, people can have two jobs. But I think it does point to the fact that we have a precarious labour market. We have a very, very high proportion of people precariously employed in casual work, not just those uni students that are doing work in hospitality. Increasingly jobs where there was some levels of security have disappeared. And I think what the pandemic has done has exposed the fault line in so far as people don't have sufficient hours in a job therefore have to have two. And it's hard to believe that even to this day, we have security guards looking after people with a contagion that still are going to other workplaces, but that needs to be stopped-

KARVELAS: So it does need to be stopped nationally?

O’CONNOR: I think there needs to be - certainly that has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. But I think then a deeper question is about how do we deal with this precarious employment as we go forward where we can because obviously, nobody wants to be so insecure at work as to worry about paying their bills and looking out for their family.

So of course you need to have a flexible labour market, but not one that is sacrificing levels of security of employment. And that has been on the rise over decades now. And certainly Labor would like to see some rebalancing so workers can feel more secure. But no doubt the pandemic has exposed the problem in such a dramatic way. And I do think that needs to be redressed by all governments across the country as we deal with this very vicious virus.

KARVELAS: Brendan thank you.