Peter Primrose MLC
We have a Prime Minister and a Premier who are famously all spin and no substance. So, when they and their fellow travellers in the Murdoch media machine tell us that our recent economic woes are the result of a ‘COVID-Recession’ - as if it all has nothing to do with them, we need to make sure that the truth is out there. We need a different position put by Labor that is clear and coherent – and has substance. Anything less is the very worst sort of disrespect to those who need Labor to be in government at all levels and who we ask to vote for us.
In fact, we know that even before a summer of natural disasters, an ongoing drought and the outbreak of COVID, the NSW economy was already in decline. Wages were at a record low and under attack from radical conservative federal and state treasurers and increasingly militant employers, who felt their arm strengthened by new anti-worker legislation and the promise of even more constraints on the rights of working people to organise and take action in support of their own and their families’ safety and financial security.
Of course, the worst impact of our economic decline, those natural disasters and the pandemic have been felt by those in precarious employment – those workers and their families who must rely upon insecure, low-wage work. As the unions in those sectors dominated by insecure work will tell you, the growth of precarious employment is far from a coincidence. The long-standing desire by some employers, and certainly our current federal and state governments to evade and avoid their employment responsibilities have driven this change, hoping to seize the opportunity of the recent natural disasters and current pandemic to secure a more fearful and compliant workforce, while shifting costs and risks to those same workers.
While the impact of insecure work is perilous for any worker and their family, it is often more common in those sectors that are largely feminised. It is a painful irony that the worst impact of insecure work includes those frontline workers who have helped us to survive and will help us to rebuild after the pandemic: community and disability workers, healthcare, hospitality, and retail workers; jobs which are all undervalued and more likely to be insecure and low paid. As a matter of fact, these are also the fastest growing workforces in the state and in the country.
Yet despite what we know to be the truth, when the NSW Liberal-Nationals Government talk about jobs and infrastructure, there is only one kind of job they ever seem to really want to discuss: the sort of job that comes with a photo opportunity, high-vis vest and a hard hat. No one doubts that construction and physical infrastructure jobs are vital to our community and to our economy. But these are not the only jobs that people do in NSW, and it is not the only work that people need to have done.
Work in construction and physical infrastructure provide good jobs that are skilled and well paid. The people who work in those industries help to build our communities: homes, schools, places of worship, aged care facilities, recreation facilities, roads, bridges, manufacturing hubs, shopping centres and childcare centres.
It is an old adage that we live in a society, not just an economy and it is a truth that communities are not only constructed but are also built by other highly skilled workers including those in the health, community and disability sectors. These are skilled professionals, including disability support workers, nurses, refuge and housing workers, youth workers, aged-services workers, counsellors, early childhood educators, cleaners, social workers, and mental health workers to name only a few. They build independence, safety, mental and physical health, social cohesion, dignity in the way lives are lived, and a sense of community.
We need investment in both physical and social infrastructure jobs for our communities to work well. This is something that Labor understands very well – just look at the way the Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Gillard and Rudd Governments invested to see how to make a difference.
Despite being the fastest growing workforce in Australia and NSW, there have been virtually no announcements in recent federal or state budgets about job creation, workforce development, training or major funding for the largely feminised health, community and disability sectors. Currently one in eight jobs in our State comes from that sector. The workforce is growing exponentially, and it is estimated that by 2050 it will make up over one-quarter of our labour market. Yet the Liberal-Nationals in NSW and federally are missing in action. Their jobs announcements are invariably short on detail and often presented by a minister uncomfortably donning a hard hat. In the wake of the aged care royal commission and now the disability royal commission, the State Government should be looking towards these sectors to not only enrich our communities, but also to grow our economies and deliver good, secure, stable and skilled jobs.
These jobs are particularly critical for western Sydney and regional NSW, where there has been a recent surge in the services sector workforce, led by the community and disability sector. Government investment in social infrastructure in the health, community and disability sectors stimulates jobs and better conditions, provides economic stimulus to all other sectors of our community and the economy, and specifically addresses the historic feminised economic disadvantage that has been highlighted during COVID.
In terms of jobs, investment in the health, community and disability sectors outperforms the multiplier effect of most other industries with modelling by Victoria University showing $1 billion of net investment lifting economic activity in New South Wales by $10 billion per year. Yet in a recent round of budget estimates the NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney could not even name the largest growing workforce in western Sydney, much less talk coherently about issues of workforce development or the economic impact of this sector and his own agency’s report claimed it to be a declining sector with a reducing workforce! Every reputable source in the country knows the truth and provides regular and detailed data and information that is directly opposite to what the Minister claims.
We must provide investment and funding for both physical and social infrastructure and the jobs that they generate for the sake of our communities, our economy and the real jobs that we need. This is far too serious to get wrong.
Peter Primrose is a Member of the Legislative Council of NSW.