How the ACT has defied Australia's high unemployment rate

Stephanie Skinner works for the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. Source: SBS News

The ACT has defied national unemployment trends with the help of the resilience of the nation’s public service who were called on to support Australia’s coronavirus response.

This is part of a series of reports on unemployment in Australia. 

When the recession first hit and unemployment soared around Australia, the ACT defied the nationwide job trend, recording a slight decrease in the jobless rate.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded a drop in the ACT’s unemployment rate of just 0.1 points to 4.1 per cent in May. This compared to a national unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent, helped by the resilience of Australia’s public service (APS).

With thousands of its workers enlisted to support the nation’s economic and health response to the pandemic, many are now working from their own homes.

Stephanie Skinner is assistant manager at the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources in Canberra. She said the public sector had been critical in making sure Australians were receiving support from the government in the crisis. 

Stephanie Skinner
Stephanie Skinner said thousands of APS staff transitioned to working from home.
SBS News

“In my department, I know there's upward of 2,000 people working from home … it was truly massive,” she told SBS News. 

“It's definitely made me realise the importance of the APS… I think everyone really stepped up and did their absolute best.”

Ms Skinner said thousands of APS staff transitioned to working from home arrangements during the height of the pandemic.

“It was definitely a test of how rapidly you can transition an entire workforce to working virtually … From day one, we were basically on video conferencing systems, still chatting to our colleagues as if we were still in the office,” she said. 

Economist Stephen Koukoulas said the ACT’s large public service had indeed helped it “outperform” the rest of the country.

“Canberra has been more resilient, and I think that's down to the fact that around about 40 per cent of the workforce is in the public service,” he said.

“They tend to be more secure and higher-paying jobs and that feeds through to other parts of the economy too.”

But Mr Koukoulas warned the ABS figures did not tell the full story about the labour market in the ACT.

He said the data didn’t capture underemployment and people who have left the labour market altogether and more Canberrans had actually lost full-time employment in recent months.

“There’s still been some weakness in the private sector, the hospitality sector and tourism, for example, have all been hit very hard,” he said.  

Unemployment has risen across Australia
Unemployment has risen across Australia in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
AFP/Getty Images

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said APS staff had been working around the clock to assist the community during the pandemic.

“More than 5,000 public servants have been re-deployed to other departments to administer critical help to the community in response to this national crisis,” she said.

“People working in Services Australia and Centrelink have done an extraordinary job helping the millions of unemployed Australians and Tax Office staff have helped small businesses keep their doors afloat and apply  JobKeeper.” 

But Ms Donnelly said the sector had been operating with a skeleton staff in trying conditions after huge job cuts by successive conservative governments. 

“Since 2013, the election of Tony Abbott's government, we've seen over 20,000 cuts to the public sector,” she said.

“Public sector workers are absolutely stretched at this point; people working in Services Australia and Centrelink are working six, seven days a week to get the job done.”

Ms Skinner said it was an incredible effort to roll out the government stimulus programs under the new working conditions.

She said the sheer number of JobKeeper and JobSeeker applications meant across the APS staff, different taskforces were organised into different departments “to help manage the crisis”. 

“Within our department, quite a number of people were sent across to Services Australia to help manage the sheer number of applications that were coming in,” she said.

Mr Koukoulas said the labour market was in “dire straits” and the worst it’s been since the 1930s Great Depression, with reliance on government support programs expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

He predicted the national unemployment rate would rise again when the June figures are released next week.

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