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Professor of Economics discusses latest research on unemployment levels

MONICA ATTARD: Well, there's confirmation today of the growing disparity in the level of unemployment around Australia. Official figures show the highest rate of unemployment is in the Wide Bay Burnett region of Queensland at 18 per cent, while the northern beaches of Sydney is a tiny 3.6 per cent, and according to the Federal Opposition, joblessness has risen in three quarters of regional areas since the Howard Government won office. Unfortunately, that's not a new trend. Bob Gregory, who's a Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, has seen the situation get steadily worse over two decades, especially in rural Australia. Professor Gregory is speaking here with Kevin Wilde about the latest research.

KEVIN WILDE: Is it fair for the Federal Opposition to claim that the National Party, in particular, has let down its voters because unemployment in regional and rural Australia is normally higher than most parts of the cities, although there are obviously problem areas, high unemployment areas, within our cities?

BOB GREGORY: No, I don't think that is fair. The reason why it's not fair is that what we're discussing here is outcomes which take some time to evolve. So the growing disparity has been going on for quite a while. And even if this government could solve this problem, which I don't think they can, but even if they could solve this problem, they couldn't solve it in a year or two or three. It would take some time. So it's not fair to blame them. All that's fair to say is that these statistics are very bad and perhaps blame the Government for not paying enough attention or having enough policies directed towards these outcomes, but it's not fair to blame them for the outcomes at this stage.

KEVIN WILDE: Because we're looking at regionalised unemployment and you've done research in terms of breaking these figures down even further into postcode areas, what can we do to reduce unemployment in one suburb without in fact affecting another part of the country in an adverse way?

BOB GREGORY: It's very, very hard to work directly on unemployment rates in individual suburbs. The main approach you've got to do is attack unemployment across the country as a whole and, as the unemployment as a whole reduces, then unemployment in all the areas will reduce. It's quite right - if you were to focus a program on, say, one area alone, then it would drag people from other parts of the city and it wouldn't be very effective. I think what these results warn us against most of all is that there's a whole range of government policies which have impacts on areas which we're perhaps not sufficiently sensitive to. For example, when we're closing railway lines, we tend to look at the receipts that the railways receive rather than whether closing that railway line will make jobs harder for people who live at the end of the railway lines. When we make decisions about education, we don't always place enough emphasis on the schools in the poor areas, which are finding life tougher, and so on.

KEVIN WILDE: Should Australians get used to a greater disparity in the job opportunities for us all, and even with the best of intentions from either side of politics, that the trend which we are seeing now will only get worse?

BOB GREGORY: Australians should not get used to this because it's a bad thing. I think Australians will increasingly get used to it because, as time goes by, people just adjust to these sort of circumstances. Whether the trends will get worse, I don't really know. I hope they won't get worse, but all the data we've got together so far doesn't show any reverse on these trends, it shows either the trends are continuing or more or less the status quo is put in place. We've not seen any reversal of this trend towards growing inequality now for 25 years, for 20 years.

MONICA ATTARD: Professor Bob Gregory of the Australian National University with our finance reporter, Kevin Wilde.