The Future of Work - Chifley Research Centre Conference

08 December 2019





I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today. I acknowledge their elders, past and present, and any people of indigenous descent who are here with us today.

It’s trite and obvious to say so, but there is nothing more compelling and important in politics than talking directly with your voters.

I did some doorknocking in Mulgrave, in my electorate, last Sunday. Here are some of the people my team and I met.

A man in his late 50s who recently lost his job, and has already lost hope of seeing permanent employment again.

A woman who resigned after being harassed at work. No union onsite, no one to back her up.

A young family grappling with rising household costs, who haven’t had a real wage rise for what they reckon is about five years.

A disability worker with eight kids who can’t get more than six hours work a week. The older children work part-time to help with groceries, the family is living hand to mouth.

The Future of Work is not just some arcane policy conversation.

This is the single biggest issue facing the people we seek to represent. Many of them are really, really hurting.

Six months into taking on this portfolio, the first thing I want to get across to you is the depth of my drive and hunger to solve the problems we are talking about today.

I will not rest until we help the people I met last Sunday.

I can still see their faces as they talked about their fears and anxieties about this most fundamental driver of their quality of life: work.

When I first came into this portfolio, one thing that took me by surprise was how polarised the expert views about what the Future of Work will look like are. It’s extreme. You actually start to wonder if everyone is talking about the same issues, in the same country.

The first group are the utopians. They believe technology will solve the world’s problems: spreading democracy, growing productivity, democratising opportunity. And, they believe the Fourth Industrial Revolution - this massive wave of change we are now experiencing - will be perhaps a bit bumpy along the way, but ultimately lead to a better quality of life for Australians.

The second are the doomsdayers, who predict technology will lead to the redundancy of labour and future mass unemployment. For them, the benefits of the revolution will accrue only to owners of capital. It’s us working for the man, and his robots.

The third are the shruggers. Their view is that work has and will always evolve, and there simply isn’t good evidence that work is changing any faster than it has in the past. Yes, there will be some challenges, but governments have successfully handled similar transitions, and they will again. So, no biggie.

Let’s have a look at what the data tells us which of these perspectives is most likely, a few years into the transition to the new economy.

For Australia on the whole, job creation is growing roughly in line with population.

Job longevity - the length of time the average employee is staying in their role - is actually increasing, challenging the common narrative that Australians will have to switch careers endlessly throughout their modern working life.

Wages growth is a huge problem - of course, intractably connected with technology and declining unionism. There is a skills gap, which is bleedingly obvious and must be addressed.

So some big and fundamental problems, but ones that a good quality Labor Government, over a period of time, could tackle.

Where I really want to take the conversation with you today is what happens when we double click on the national view.

Because these futures of work I have described - the utopian, the doomsdayer, the shrugger - they are all going to exist, for different groups of Australians. Your experience of the Future of Work will depend: on where you live, who you are, and what you can do.

I want to talk today about one of these dimensions. In a moment, I am going to share some data that has not been published before which shows the powerful role where you live in Australia will play in influencing the Future of Work you experience.

Before I get into that, I want to make a quick comment about the measures we use to track how the change in work is affecting people’s lives.

Traditionally, we tend to talk about Australia’s economic health in terms of two pretty crude measures: economic growth, and unemployment.

In the Future of Work conversation, neither of these numbers gives us an accurate picture of what’s going on.

For the first time in Australia’s history, our economy is growing but ordinary families are going backwards. This is a seismic challenge to Labor’s economic model. Growth is always going to be core to our mission, but if growing the economy it isn’t making people better off, on its own it’s not enough.

Similarly, unemployment is not telling us the full story.

Unemployment is higher than it should be, but lower than you might expect given how bad things feel out there. There is a reason for this. As you know, if you work for one hour a week, you are classified as employed for the purposes of economic data.

Today, almost a third of all Australian workers are part-time. And, for the first time ever we are working in an economy where we have on-demand work, through companies like Uber or Airtasker.

If you lose a high-pay, secure job in manufacturing on a Monday, you can start work as an UberEats deliverer by the end of the week. You will have just experienced an extremely poor labour market outcome. But technically, you will have been consistently employed.

In the old economy, unemployment gave us a good read on the slack in the labour market – you either had a job, or you didn’t.

In the new economy, unemployment numbers are highly deceptive.

The national unemployment rate has become the false prophet of the future of work.

If we can make one shared shift in the policy and political debate today, it would be to get the very smart people in this room used to looking for ‘underutilisation’ as a measure of employment outcomes rather than unemployment alone.

Underutilisation measures the large and growing group of Australians who want to work more, but can’t - either because they can’t find a job, or they have a job but can’t get the hours they need.

Australia’s underutilisation rate is 13.8 percent, with the female rate even higher at 15.6 percent. That’s about two million Australians who are not getting what they need from the labour market.

It’s their drought.

Two million people who want to have a go, but can’t get a go in Scott Morrison’s Australia.

Important to note, too, that the average additional hours sought by an underutilised worker in Australia is 14 hours a week. We are not talking about Australians looking for $50 here or there for luxuries. We are talking about an average per-worker shortfall of hundreds of dollars a week.

Now, back to the Future of Work and the geography of growth in the new economy.

Some of you may have met my friend Dr Daniel Mulino, who is a new MP for Fraser in Victoria and a really respected economist. He and I have been working away in recent weeks putting together a picture of where we see big changes to employment in the last six years.

We used unreleased ABS data to measure the change in underutilisation over that period. That is, since the Coalition has been in power, how many more people are either unemployed or looking for more work, in different parts of Australia.

The results are stark, and shocking.

Your Future of Work depends - to a great degree - on where you live.

Here’s the tale of two Queenslands. In outback Queensland – seats like Leichhardt and Maranoa – underutilisation was about 8 percent when my party last held office. In the last six years it more than doubled, shooting up to 17 percent.

In just six years, almost one in 10 additional families in these communities have gone from working enough, to not working enough.

Jobs numbers back this up, showing that since 2013, four thousand jobs in Outback Queensland simply disappeared.

Think of the impacts: families struggling to buy school shoes and uniforms, relationship and parenting stress, strain on the local cafe and pizza shop, the sporting clubs. And, on the sense of what the future might hold for that community.

Now, what happened in the big smoke in that time? In inner-city Brisbane, underutilisation improved since 2013 and - get this - employment increased by 36%.

Over six years, outback Queensland lost 2.3% of the jobs that existed in 2013, Brisbane gained 36%.

There are two New South Wales too.

In the Hunter, some new jobs were created since 2013, but underutilisation grew by 4.1%. It means those new jobs probably weren’t very good ones. And, many more households in the region are not able to make ends meet today, when they were six years ago.

Compare that to inner-city Sydney. Since 2013, underutilisation fell, and new jobs have grown by 25%.

There is a pattern here, of the impacts of the new economy for those living in the cities and outside of them. But it’s far from uniform.

There are parts of suburban Australia, too, which are really struggling. In the suburban ring around Perth, underutilisation grew by 5.4% since 2013, and just a handful of new jobs were created.

Today, Townsville has 15.5 percent underutilisation – worse than it was six years ago. Sunshine Coast – 17 percent. Mandurah – 18 percent.

Overall, the numbers paint a big picture of vastly differing regional opportunities.

Parts of the suburbs, and especially large areas of our regions and the bush, are really, really hurting. And while of course many people in our big cities are doing it tough, the CBDs of our major capitals are where new opportunities for work are tending to aggregate.

Why isn’t this a bigger part of our national conversation? Because when we look at the national data, these effects average out, obscuring the hidden epidemic of underutilisation affecting vast swathes of our country.

It has effects, too, beyond family and community.

When you don’t have the leverage to ask for more time on the tools, how can you push for a pay rise?

The economic slack that underutilisation creates in our labour market is contributing to sluggish wage growth, leading to poor consumer confidence, then awful retail numbers, and all the problems that follow.

And where is the government on these profoundly important economic and social questions? Nowhere to be seen.

Scott Morrison is not just a daggy dad. He’s a failing Prime Minister who is presiding over an epidemic of regional and suburban underutilisation.

The ad-man knows how to construct a pithy slogan. But I have hardly heard him mention underutilisation since coming to office - even though it’s happened on his government’s watch, and mainly in Coalition held seats.

They may end up with a budget surplus, but they are presiding over a deficit of quality work.

We in this room are not going to let him get away with it.

Of course, we will not just criticise. A job, a good quality job, has been the fundamental promise of Labor for 128 years.

No one else is going to solve this problem.

Scott Morrison is back in office but completely out of ideas.

Pauline Hanson will only offer up more blame and division.

And Clive Palmer barely makes sense on the best of days.

Labor will do the hard work to understand what we can do to fix the gross inequalities that the Future of Work will result in, should we do nothing to shape the changes to come.

On the geographic question, clearly, we need to have a think about driving growth where it’s needed most. And, how we can better connect Australians to where jobs growth is occurring.

Of course, there is much more in this conversation.

The future of work presents many, many opportunities as well as threats, and we need to actively set about making sure Australians get access to them.

There is a story here about workers wanting choices and how flexibility can be a nasty threat and a big opportunity – again, depending on who you are. About organisational decision making, cultural diversity at work and the role of through life learning.

I want us to keep this conversation in the wide angle lens, not take a narrow focus.

The Future of Work is many things: a story of Sydney startup unicorns, and of people being replaced by robots. And, as I have described today, of frustrated and forgotten Australians in big parts of our country.

Our task is to do what our movement does best: focus our vigour and commitment on ensuring that quality work is available to all Australians, no matter who they are, or where they live.