Budget 2019-20: Ooops, They Did It Again!

You would think that after 5 consecutive years of wage forecasts that wildly overestimated actual experience, the government might have learned from its past errors – and published a wage forecast more in line with reality. But not this government. They are still trying to convince Australian workers, who haven’t seen real average wages rise in over 5 years, that better times are just around the corner. And rosy wage forecasts are helpful in justifying their equally optimistic revenue forecasts: since if Australians are earning more money, they will be paying more taxes!

So the 2019-20 Commonwealth budget, tabled Tuesday evening by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, featured another valiant prediction that fast wage growth is indeed still “just around the corner.” Despite a slowdown in wage growth in the last months of 2018, this budget simply replicates last year’s wage forecast – but delayed by one more year. Crucially, there  is no discussion justifying why Australian workers might have confidence in this year’s forecast, when the last five so widely missed the mark (and always in the same direction).

Our analysis of the 2019-20 Commonwealth budget focuses on the wages crisis facing Australian workers, and challenges the claim that cutting personal tax cuts can somehow compensate workers for the fact that their wages are not growing.

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Tax Cuts Can't Compensate for Flat Wages

This week's pre-election Commonwealth budget will feature reductions in personal income taxes, as the Coalition government tries to overcome a disadvantage in the polls in the coming federal election. Public debate in recent weeks has been focused on the economic and social hardship caused by the unprecedented slowdown since 2013 in Australian wage growth. It is likely that the government will portray its personal tax cuts as a form of "compensation" for slower wage growth.

But new analysis from the Centre for Future Work shows it is mathematically impossible for personal income tax cuts to offset the loss in family incomes resulting from years of wage stagnation. The report simulates the effects of ongoing regular wage increases on household incomes, compared to the "savings" of personal income tax cuts. Regular, compounding wage increases provide boosts in disposable income dozens of times larger than tax cuts. Moreover, tax cuts always come with a "cost" for households - in the form of foregone public services and income supports that also contribute to workers' standard of living.

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Labour Reforms in New Zealand, and Lessons for Australia

Australia can learn much from the policy leadership of the Ardern Government in New Zealand and its reforms to address stagnant wages and rebuild a more inclusive workplace relations framework, according to new research from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute.

As Australia's debate over wages and workplace rights heats up ahead of this year's federal election, important changes in labour policy are also being implemented right across the Tasman Sea. Under the Labour-Green-NZ First coalition government which came to office in New Zealand in 2017, several progressive changes in labour law have already been enacted. Others are in development.

Economist Alison Pennington reviews the policy reforms underway in New Zealand, and considers their relevance for Australia, in a new paper published by the Centre for Future Work.

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124 Labour Policy Experts Call for Measures to Promote Stronger Wage Growth

124 labour policy experts have today published an open letter calling for proactive measures to help accelerate the rate of wages growth in Australia’s economy. The legal experts, economists, and other policy analysts agreed that “stronger wages in the future would contribute to a stronger, more balanced and fairer Australian economy,” and they proposed several broad strategies to boost wages.

 

The letter is being circulated today through internet and social media channels, and through a full-page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review.

 

Here is the letter and the list of signatories and their complete titles and affiliations.

 

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A Historic Opportunity to Change Direction

A unique conjuncture of economic and political factors has created an opportunity for a historic change in the direction of Australia's workplace and industrial policies. That's the conclusion of Dr. Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, in a major review article published in Economic and Labour Relations Review, an Australian academic journal.

In a broad overview of the current problems in Australia's labour market, and the weaknesses of existing labour market policies, Stanford argues that the prospects are ripe for a fundamental shift in the emphasis of Australian industrial laws and labour standards.

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8 Things to Know About the Living Wage

8 Things

There has been a lot of discussion about “living wages” in recent years – in Australia, and internationally. And now the idea has become a hot election topic. The ACTU wants the government to boost the federal minimum wage so it’s a true living wage. Opposition leader Bill Shorten has hinted he’s open to the idea. Business leaders predict economic catastrophe if the minimum wage is increased.

As the debate heats up, here’s a quick guide to 8 things you need to know about the living wage:

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Economy Heads Into Election on a Weak Note

The ABS has released what is likely the last quarterly GDP report before a Commonwealth election expected in May. Coalition leaders were hoping a strong report would underline their standard talking points about being the best “economic managers.”  But they were badly disappointed.

The headline number was bad: Just a 0.18% increase in GDP for the December quarter, barely above zero. But the details, if anything, were worse.

Our Director Jim Stanford parses the numbers in this briefing note.

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Submission to Victoria Inquiry into On-Demand Work

What's a 'gig' job, anyway? There's lots of media hype about how people won't have jobs in the future (they're so old-fashioned). Instead they'll work a never-ending series of gigs. Will they love the supposed 'freedom' and 'flexibility'? Or will they yearn for the good old days when a job provided regular hours ... and a regular paycheque?

The government of Victoria is holding an important inquiry into the conditions and challenges of working in the 'on-demand' economy: a polite euphemism for gigs. The Centre for Future Work has made a submission.

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What's a Million, Anyway?

In the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a high-profile pledge that a Coalition government, if elected, would create 1 million new jobs over the next five years. Abbott was elected (although later ousted by his own party), and total employment in Australia did indeed grow by over 1 million positions between 2013 and 2018.  Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison hopes that this success can resuscitate his party's flagging fortunes: he has pledged, if elected, to create even more jobs (1.25 million) over the next five years.

But a new report from the Centre for Future Work takes a closer look at the government's claims, and finds that Australia's job-creation record since 2013 has actually been unimpressive.

Australia's working age population is over 20 million, and growing rapidly.  The labour market must create well over 1 million new jobs every five years, just to keep up with population growth.  Moreover, it was only due to a surge in part-time jobs (most of them casual, low-wage positions) that Mr. Abbott's million-job target was met.  If full-time work had retained its previous share of all work, the number of new jobs would have fallen well below the 1 million benchmark.

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Job Creation Record Contradicts Tax-Cut Ideology

by Jim Stanford

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released its detailed biennial survey of employment arrangements this week (Catalogue 6306.0, "Employee Earnings and Hours"). Once every two years, it takes a deeper dive into various aspects of work life.

Buried deep in the dozens of statistical tables was a very surprising breakdown of employment by size of workplace.  It turns out, surprisingly, that Australia's biggest workplaces (both private firms and public-sector agencies) have been the leaders of job-creation over the last two years.

This runs against the common refrain that small business is the "engine of growth."  In fact, workplaces with less than 50 employees actually shed employees (14,000 in total) since 2016.  Curiously, it was only smaller businesses that received the much-vaunted reduction in company tax (from 30 to 27.5 per cent), also beginning in 2016.

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