The government wants the recession to be over to justify winding back stimulus measures

Greg Jericho
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

Recessions should be a catalyst for change. But what we are seeing is the government wanting to quickly return to the path it was on prior to the pandemic – one which already had low wages, insecure work, low industrial action and an ever decreasing share of the national income going to workers.

This week the government was very eager to say Australia was no longer in a recession.

The reality is there is no “official” or even “technical” recession – those are just words used to hide the fact that two consecutive quarters of negative growth is just an arbitrary construct clung to by many as a definition mostly because it is very simple (and simplistic).

Related: All the recent growth can't hide the fact that Australia remains in a deep recession | Greg Jericho

But one thing is clear: just because you have stopped digging does not mean you are no longer in a hole.

It’s a drum I have been banging a bit of late; not because I am a gloomy, depressive type who takes the “dismal science” to heart, but because these things matter – they shape the narrative.

The government wants the recession to be over so they can justify winding back their stimulus measures.

While they embarked on the biggest stimulus in history, do not be fooled into thinking they liked it.

The Treasurer may boast of research that suggests the jobkeeper program saved 700,000 jobs, but that only serves to highlight that denying the program to the university sector and many workers in the arts and culture industry was little more than a pointed slap at sectors they have little care for.

Even in the midst of a recession the government kept its eye on its ideological prize.

The sooner people believe the recession is over the sooner we can return to the old talk of debt and deficit and the need for tax cuts, more gas and greater IR “flexibility”.

The treasurer told reporters while commenting on the GDP figures that “we’ll look for targeted support where it’s appropriate, but as for our macro supports like jobkeeper, they are tapering down.”

Tapering down at a time when 462,000 more people are underemployed or unemployed than were in March.

Crucially he noted that “all along we have been talking about a private sector-led recovery” because “government is not the solution.”

And yet were it not for government spending, the economy would not have shrunk 3.8% in the past year but 5.3%.

Coincidentally 12 months ago when the last lot of September quarter GDP figures came out we were in much the same state – only government spending was keeping the economy from going backwards.

And back then I was also noting the shrinking level of income going to employees.

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One of the quirks of the jobkeeper program is that it has led to a massive boost in company profits. Because while the money is intended to go to employees it was provided to businesses and thus is counted as corporate income.

That is one reason why in September a record share of national income went to companies and a record low went to employees. But it is not a weird blip – it merely reflects the story of the past 45 years.

Sixty-one years ago when employees last received less than half of the national income, companies received only 19%; now they receive 31% (the rest is government income, and things like rents and interest earned).

Another record set this week was that the past year had the fewest days lost to industrial action. Now clearly that is also due in part to the pandemic, but again it is also a long-term trend – even before the pandemic the number of strikes was essentially the same as occurred under WorkChoices.

The two aspects are not unconnected; neither is the long run of low wages growth nor the tendency towards casual work and push towards treating workers as self-contractors in the “gig economy”.

The drive to keep this in place is evident in new IR laws to be introduced by the government this week that will give employers “powers to change employees’ hours, duties and location of work and to offer part-time workers extra hours without overtime rates”.

Prior to the recession our economy was experiencing weak growth, with poor wages growth and strong profit growth.

The pandemic forced the government to intervene but it was only temporary and it is quickly using the pandemic and claims that the recession is over to return to where things were heading in February – lower wages growth, less employee power, and greater company profits.