Bill's Transcripts

Transcript: Press conference at Parliament House, 8 March 2012

Subject: Labour force figures

COMPERE:   We will now take you live to Canberra where Bill Shorten is responding to today's economic - unemployment data.

BILL SHORTEN:     …in Australia.  Also the quarter's numbers for the September-December quarter of industrial days - or days lost to industrial action. 

Unemployment has been recorded in the months as having had a slight increase, from five-point-one per cent to five-point-two per cent.  We've seen a slight decrease in overall full-time jobs of about one hundred net jobs.  We're also seen a decrease in the number of part-time positions. 

So unemployment is at about five-point-two per cent at the moment in Australia.  An examination really throughout the whole of last year shows that there was a definite slowing in the economy.  I believe that from about August of last year through to now, though, we've seen the unemployment number stay steady at five-point-two per cent, five-point-one per cent.

We believe that the volatility of the monthly numbers still highlights the underlying strength in the Australian economy; despite the GFC and the aftermath; despite the problems in Europe which are under way at the moment; despite the impact of the high dollar, we're seeing that unemployment whilst it's potentially going to go up in the course of the year, hasn't increased as greatly as I think people first feared.

In terms of jobs going forward, I'd also make the point that the number - the unemployment number in Australia compares very favourably to those in the industrialised OECD world.  Whilst Japan has slightly lower unemployment, the Germans, the Americans, the English, in fact the whole euro region, has unemployment much higher than Australia.  So we're relatively well placed but we still expect further softness in the unemployment numbers in coming months.

In terms of industrial action and work days lost to industrial disputation, they've fallen in the last quarter of last year to five-point-three.  We're pleased with that number.  This is at a time when there's been increased disputation between public servants and Liberal Governments at the state level and also with some of the turmoil which happened at Qantas.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION:   Have you considered with an increase in the - a lowering of the participation rate, means that more people are not actively looking for work?

BILL SHORTEN:  We're very committed to maintaining the highest possible participation rate in Australia.  This month's numbers are sixty-five-point-two per cent.  When you think back ten years ago when the former government was releasing their Intergenerational Reports, it was spelled out that one of Australia's greatest challenges with an ageing population would be the fall away of people from working.  What we're seeing in the last ten years is that in fact the participation rate number has remained pretty sticky and in the sixty-five percent plus range. 

What I think is worth mentioning on International Women's Day is that we have some of the best participation rates for women in any workforce around the world.  We think the trick to go forward is to make sure that people have as many skills as possible. 

There's two ways to secure jobs.  One way to secure jobs is to be able to support particular industries periodically which is for instance what we're doing with the car industry.  But the longer term solution is to make sure that Australians understand that they'll have more than one job in their life and they need to have the skills to be able to move as new jobs arise and opportunities in old jobs cease to exist anymore.

QUESTION: Minister, [inaudible] in the National Council the Government's contribution to the GDP was practically zero and we saw it slowing in the economy.  If the Government isn't going to, as it were, prime the pump any more, do you think we'll need to look to lower interest rates?  I mean, otherwise these soft figures are maybe going to worsen.

BILL SHORTEN:  Well, I think the numbers that you refer to, Paul, about the gradual withdrawal of the Government from its stimulatory policies of two years ago underlines how important it was that over the last three years we did stimulate the economy.  There was something like a hundred- and-twenty thousand jobs created through the Building Education Revolution alone across nine and a half, ten thousand school projects.

So we've seen that the timely action of the Government during the GFC certainly, I believe, kept people in work.  We saw the impact in the retail industry with the stimulus there.  But we always made it clear that our stimulus wasn't going to remain an ongoing and constant feature.

But what we also have, and this goes to your point about interest rates, is we have a cash rate which is at four-point-two-five per cent.  The best analogy I can use for our monetary policy when some people say, oh, the Government's not spending money like it was, so what will happen next, is this four hundred and twenty-five basis points is the equivalent of the sea room that we have before hitting economic rocks.

So what we have is a lot of sea room, which frankly other nations would love to have.  So I do believe that the Reserve Bank - it's independent, of course, it understands that we've got four hundred and twenty-five basis points of sea room and that's I think a great advantage in our economy at the moment.

QUESTION:  You'd be happy that… [inaudible]

BILL SHORTEN:  It's an independent entity, any emotions I have about them are irrelevant to their conduct.  Again, unemployment, it's a fundamental issue.  This Government doesn’t want to see people without jobs.  That's why we are working so hard to train people.  That's why we're spending literally billions of dollars to train people so they've got the skills for the future. 

But there's no question in our mind that when you have a look at where we are at the moment, any Australian who comes back from overseas, lands at an airport in Australia, they fundamentally know that this nation is going better than a lot of the places they've visited.  So our fundamentals are solid, despite the turmoil in Europe and we do have that flexibility I believe in our monetary policy but our unemployment is still at five-point-two per cent.  It's not at some of the European numbers that we get reported on our nightly news.

QUESTION:  How can you defend Fair Work Australia for not cooperating with police [inaudible] union when they are the industrial relations umpire?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, let's be very, very clear here.  The Fair Work Australia is an independent entity.  The legislation to which the general manager of Fair Work Australia is reporting to is legislation that was introduced in 2001 and 2002.  Now, to save you looking back to the Hansard to see who the relevant minister was who introduced the sections of the Act governing the conduct of Fair Work Australia, it was Minister Tony Abbott for Industrial Relations. 

So fair's fair.  We kept the laws that he introduced which preserved the independence of Fair Work Australia.  It just happens that the Conservatives have got a case of political amnesia and are now saying, oh, you've got to intervene.  Is this the sort of the Government they would be if they were to form government, interfering with the public service?

QUESTION:  Are you comfortable that they're not cooperating with police when they're supposed to be the industrial relations umpire and they are - you know, police are investigating fairly heavy allegations of misuse of union members' funds?

BILL SHORTEN:  Well, the matter is very serious, incredibly serious.  But I'd refer you to an answer that I gave to Paul just a little earlier when he said, not to verbal him but, you know, how do I feel about the Reserve Bank decision.  If you've got independent agencies in this Government then we let them get on with their job. 

The general manager in Senate Estimates conceded that she thought that the matter had taken too long.  But when you've got an independent agency, you let them be independent.  When she was asked - the general manager was asked, by the Opposition about had there been political interference, she made it very clear there wasn't. 

The Opposition is half pregnant on the question of the Fair Work Australia investigation.  On one hand they want to look under the bed to see if there's been political interference.  On the other hand they're complaining that we won't politically interfere. 

What we have in Fair Work Australia is legislation which was introduced by none other than the Leader of the Opposition and the general manager's working to Tony Abbott's legislation, and then they now complain about it.

QUESTION: Minister, what do you make of the comments made by Joe Hockey about the high dollar?  Does the Government need to plan in a systemic way for the dollar hovering around as high as one-twenty, one-twenty five?  And does the Productivity Commission need to be called in [inaudible]?

BILL SHORTEN:     I haven't seen all of the shadow Treasurer's comments but a couple of observations.  He's a confident man if he can predict currency movements over the next three years and perhaps he's in the wrong occupation and should move into the markets.  I don't know if he's got that sort of guessing ability.

But it is fair to say that at a dollar five or a dollar eight, the high dollar is accelerating changes in our economy.  Do I think it's always going to remain as high as that?  Probably not.  Do I think we're seeing a long-term structural shift where the dollar won't be back down at sixty or seventy cents?  I think that is less likely than more likely.

What we are seeing in terms of the value of currencies around the world, in my opinion, is a fundamental shift from west to east.  What I mean by that is that I think that some of the European currencies are going to take - or the euro is going to continue to take a battering and we will keep seeing strength in some of the Asian currencies.

Australia's currency height I think is influenced by several factors at the moment.  One is by the minerals boom.  Now traditionally though, because the minerals is a relatively narrow part of our economy - it's about eight to nine per cent of our GDP - you would have thought that when there's global volatility you'd have seen a currency which is based on commodity prices, which can be volatile, might have fluctuated more than there is. But clearly, the rest of the world's made a judgment about the strength of our minerals industry.

I think there's another factor at work here, is that our cash rate is relatively high and I think that compared to returns that depositors can get in other currencies, people see Australia as an attractive investment destination.

I also think the fundamentals of the Australian economy are strong and as the Americans have taken time to a - perhaps it's been a slower and longer recovery for their economy - I think that people who take an interest in international currency movements are interested to put the Australian basket - put the Australian currency in a basket of currencies to offset the American dollar.  So I think there's a range of factors at work. 

But taking it further than that, I don't think you can safely predict that in three years time, a currency will be a dollar-twenty-five.  What I do know is that the high dollar is accelerating some of the pressures on our labour-intensive export exposed sectors, be that tourism, be it manufacturing, be it educational services.  So I do think what the high dollar is doing, is accelerating some of the developments in the Australian economy. 

But our strength in the Australian economy is not just the mining sector, we are seeing - 385,000 roughly, don't hold me to the exact number, jobs have been created in the last three or four years in the healthcare sector.  We’ve seen jobs increase in construction as well.  So I think the best long-term strategy is to make sure that we have the most educated workforce possible.  That's a strategy regardless of where the dollar is.

QUESTION:  Mr Shorten, what's your view of Dave Oliver, you think he'd be a good successor to Jeff Lawrence at the ACTU?

BILL SHORTEN: It's up to the unions who they pick.  I don't have a view who the Business Council picks to lead the Business Council.  I don't have a view who the ACTU pick, if he in fact is the person who's elected.  We will work with whoever the groups that we have to deal with pick.  I know him personally, I think he's a very competent and professional union official. 

QUESTION:  [Inaudible] 35,000 jobs a month, do you think there's something here that government here or in this industry should be doing about that?

BILL SHORTEN:  Well, I did read somewhere that since Ted Baillieu became Premier, there's been 46,000 jobs lost in Victoria, which would confirm the number that you've just said.  I think it is important that you have an education and skills strategy.  I think it is useful that the Victorian Government's managed to get over the 110-day argument with the Nurses Union, that's not good for confidence. 

But I do think it underlines the importance of the car industry, which generates full-time skilled jobs in Victoria.  I do think Mr Baillieu should be on the phone to Mr Abbott and saying, we hear what you say about trying to plug a $70 billion black hole in your own finances as the Opposition, but please don't do it at the expense of Holden and Ford.  So I think that's an important test. 

Thanks very much, guys, sorry that was very nice.

QUESTION:  Can I just ask on IR.  Are you worried about the message you've sent to the unions by hiring somebody who was working for Qantas during the lockout?

BILL SHORTEN:  Is this the story which appeared in The Australian six weeks ago?

QUESTION: No, it was the Financial Review.

BILL SHORTEN:  No I know that, I'm just referring you to - I think Joe Kelly wrote something about this same issue.  I've got a very professional staff with backgrounds from Freehills right through to having worked in unions.  I even have got some people who haven't worked for employers or unions.  I've got a very professional staff.  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  Cheers.

COMPERE:  The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, responding to today's disappointing jobs data, live in Canberra there. 

Minister Shorten noting that Australia's not immune from developments in Europe and if conditions are to deteriorate further, this could inevitably put further pressure on the Australian labour market.  He says the Australian economy is, however, built on strong fundamentals with low debt and low unemployment and the government has a proven track record of dealing with global instability.