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Thursday, 4 October 1956

Mr CLAREY (Bendigo) .- I desire to discuss matters relating to the Department of Labour and National Service, and to bring to the notice of the committee and the community generally the serious situation of growing unemployment in Australia.

Before developing my remarks on this subject, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the officers of the Commonwealth Employment Service throughout Australia who are devoted to the task of placing people in employment and are discharging their duties with great efficiency and skill. However, 1 taKe exception to the manner in which the news release is made by the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) in respect of the summary of the employment position in Australia every month. I have before me the Minister's news release for 20th August, 1956. In that document the Minister commenced his statement about employment by saying -

The trend of the employment market during July as disclosed by the activities of the Commonwealth Employment Service-

And I emphasize these words - indicates a continuing process of correction of a lack of balance in the economy which the Government's policy has been designed to cure.

Then the Minister's statement goes on to point out that the number of vacancies registered with the Commonwealth Employment Service during the month decreased from about 32,000 to about 28,000, that employment in the larger factories throughout Australia had declined substantially - that is, by about 3,000 - while the number of persons receiving the unemployment benefit increased during the month by 2,161, making the total of persons receiving that benefit 9,164 throughout Australia. The latest news release of the Minister is dated 18th September, 1956. It indicates that there is a continuation of Government policy which is resulting in further unemployment throughout Australia. In the latest news release we find that the number of registered vacancies for employment has fallen from 28,000 to 26,000, employment in the larger factories has declined by a further 2,950 and the persons receiving unemployment benefit have increased to 10.333. What occurred in July and August is simply a continuation of the trend that has been apparent for some months past in respect of employment throughout this country.

The first thing that I object to in regard to the Minister's statements is the undue emphasis that he gives to the number of persons who are receiving unemployment benefit. While it is true that the number receiving the unemployment benefit gives an idea of trends in the employment situation, the real test of unemployment in Australia is the number of persons who are seeking employment. The register of unemployed persons which is kept in the Commonwealth Employment Service is checked frequently, and if a person has not been near the office for some time his name is taken off the list; but it can be said that the number of those who are seeking employment is a better indication of the total number of unemployed persons in Australia than is the number of those receiving the unemployment benefit. 1 stress that point because applicants for the unemployment benefit are subject to a very strict means test, and any person who is receiving an income of £ I a week or more is immediately denied the benefit. This is one of the social services payments for which it is very very hard to qualify.

I further regret this tendency to place emphasis on the recipients of the unemployment benefit as expressed in the unemployment returns which, I think, are issued by the Commonwealth Statistician. The returns to which I refer may be found at page 14 of the last statistical bulletin issued in July, 1956. It is there indicated that the statistical record used by the Commonwealth Statistician is based on persons receiving the unemployment benefit, and I suggest that that indicates a very sorry position in Australia. According to the bulletin published in November, 1 955 - a couple of months after the little budget had been introduced - the total number of persons receiving the unemployment benefit was only 1,677, but by August that number had increased to 10,177. If we consider the matter from another angle, and again I use the same bulletin, we shall find that employment in the larger private factories - which would be a source of greater and more stable employment than smaller factories - decreased. In November, 1955, there were 493,000 persons employed, but by August of this year that number had declined to 484,000, indicating that even in well established and stabilized industries the tendency for employment to decline is becoming clearer and clearer.

The matter that worries me, and probably worries those honorable members who represent country electorates, is the growing unemployment in country centres. That has disastrous effects, because in country centres the opportunities for persons to obtain alternative employment are very rare indeed, and the consequence is that people who become unemployed in centres like Ballarat, Bendigo or Geelong and similar centres in other States, frequently have to sell up their homes and migrate to capital cities because of the greater opportunities for obtaining employment there. One finds in the September issue of the Minister's release that while the number of persons receiving unemployment benefit in Sydney totalled 1,783, there are remarkably high figures for the smaller centres. For example, in Wollongong there are 278 unemployed, in Maitland 109, in Leeton 97, in Wagga 91 and in Cessnock 68. When we take into consideration the population in those centres as compared with the population in the capital city of New South Wales, we find that the proportion of unemployment in the smaller centres is much greater than that in the metropolitan area. The same thing can be said about the position in Victoria. In Melbourne 2,152 people are unemployed, in Geelong 569, in Ballarat 134, in my own centre of Bendigo 95 and in Shepparton 86. When we take into consideration that the population of Geelong is about 85,000 as against 1,750,000 in Melbourne, if there are 569 people unemployed in Geelong and at a place like Bendigo with 33,000 people there are 95 persons receiving unemployment benefit, one can perceive how seriously the country areas throughout Australia are being hit as a consequence of the application of Government policy to overcome what the Minister has described as a lack of balance in the economy.

I have made inquiries from the trade union movement, in order to ascertain what had been taking place in regard to individual unions, and I was astonished by some of the figures that I received. I found that in respect of vehicle building - and my remarks refer to the members of the vehicle builders' union only and not to the persons doing skilled work in the industry - since last March 2,500 people have been displaced in Victoria, 1,300 in New South Wales, 1,800 in South Australia and 300 in Queensland. Of those persons displaced in South Australia, some 300 were taken over by General Motors-Holden's Limited in their new establishment in that State, but the net loss in the vehicle-building industry of persons classed as vehicle builders is no less than 5,600, whilst the Australian Society of Engineers, which is associated with that industry in a minor way, lost 500 members. The Rubber Workers Union in Victoria, which forms only a small proportion of a very big organization, has lost 200 members.

One could go on and show, from the figures I have received, that sales tax, excise duties, higher rates of interest and credit restrictions have affected industry after industry in Australia and made conditions exceedingly difficult. We have to remember that when employment is increasing it finds employment for other persons, but, on the other hand, when employment is declining, it is like a snowball in that the more persons who are out of work the greater is the number of others who find their security and their jobs threatened. As a further indication, one need only point out that, as a result of the budget itself, unemployment is growing in the ship-building industry and in government factories, and, generally, as a consequence, a. feeling of insecurity is gradually growing throughout the community.

I have no doubt that the Minister, in his reply, will say that the amount of unemployment is relatively small. Compared with conditions in the past, in the 1920's and 'thirties, that probably would be correct, but, on the other hand, we, to-day, consider ourselves the pioneers of a new type of economy in which we give full employment to our people. The Minister will probably say that the honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen) said, some time ago, that we would have full employment if 5 per cent, of the people were unemployed. 1 go a little further and say that, prior to World War I., no less an authority than Professor Copland, who, at that time, was regarded as Australia's leading economist, expressed the opinion that for all time in the future we would have at least 10 per cent, of the community unemployed. The point is that when one is prophesying in respect of a new type of economy one can find only as a consequence of its operation what is going to be the unemployment position. With the type of economy that was originated during World War II., and with the development of the resources of the community in a progressive and expanding economy, the only unemployment should be frictional unemployment of persons changing from one job to another.

In addition to the Government's policy, automation is having some effect and is gradually making itself felt in Australian industry. The growing problems of automation and unemployment should be the subject of very full consideration, and there should be a complete reversal of government policy in order to give security to all in the community.

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