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Misleading ABS employment figuers

  • 08 March 2007

Rex Graham writes:

To The Australian Statistician
Mr Dennis Trewin

Dear Sir,

I write to commend to you the article by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 19 Feb 2007. I look with interest to read, sometime in the future, your response to the article in the ABS Response to Media Articles segment of your website.

I have for years found the official unemployment figures issued by the ABS quite offensive in many ways. Not only do they insult the public’s intelligence, (expecting them to believe that if someone works for 1 hour, that they should no longer be counted as unemployed) the official figure for the rate of unemployment disarms and weakens an already weak sector of the population in its efforts to be given a fair go. Unemployed people already suffer from very little lobbying power – unemployed people do not readily organize themselves into lobby groups to see that their plight gets addressed by politicians and others who are in a position to improve their lot. It is offensive to me that the ABS albeit unwittingly, participates in weakening an already weak sector of the population by putting out gross under-estimates of the true nature of their disadvantage.

Ross Gittins uses the work “crime” and I don’t believe he’s over-stating the case, thus:

I've never met a punter who thought this made any sense whatsoever. And they're right - it doesn't. Indeed, when most people hear of this definition they immediately assume it must be a fudge imposed by the politicians.

But it isn't. It's a crime perpetrated by the world's official statisticians of their own free will. They've got a stupid definition and they intend to stick to it.

Our Statistician - leader of one of the most respected statistical agencies in the world - portrays himself as a poor soul who has no choice but to follow the international convention, one written in stone at the creation of the statistical world in the early 1960s.

Nonsense. The world changes and statisticians with any sense adapt to our changed circumstances. As Richard Denniss observed in a paper for the Greens, "one of the only things that hasn't changed in the Australian labour market in the last four decades is the way we measure unemployment".

His point is that, in the early '60s, when part-time employment constituted less than 10 per cent of total employment, adopting a rule that defined employment as working more than an hour a week didn't cause any great distortion.

It is highly morally dubious for any organization to mislead the public on such an important issue, where real lives suffer disadvantage, poverty, depression, alienation and so many other ills as a result of not having a job. In Wollongong, the youth unemployment figure (18-24 yrs) currently stated is, I understand, around a horrific 30%. Goodness knows what the real figure is, if, presumably this very high figure greatly understates the real state of affairs.

Can I say, as a Uniting Church Minister who currently works with homeless people, (and formerly an accountant, where presenting misleading figures in balance sheets and income and expenditure statements is never tolerated) that holding onto conventions that are life-robbing and damaging to people’s well-being was what Christ opposed most vehemently. In fact, we have a holiday in our country Australia, in the 21 century, namely Good Friday, because of Christ’s opposition and defiance, all those years ago, towards out-moded laws and conventions of his day. The powers that be so defended the entrenched life-destroying conventions that they did away with him. From a theological perspective, I suggest, defending out-moded and misleading practices on the basis of “its convention” is very dubious moral ground for the ABS to be standing on.

I do urge the ABS, when it comes to the headline figure it puts out on unemployment, to publish accurate and meaningful figures alongside if you must, the old, misleading figures of convention and a by-gone era. In this way, unlike at present, the ABS will be putting itself amongst those who are on the side of justice and compassion – those who want to see a very real blight on society (unemployment) exposed for what it is, as the first step in redressing it.

Paraphrasing GK Chesterton, who once remarked “its not that they can’t see the solution, they can’t see the problem”, I would implore the ABS to take note of Ross Gittins article, and see the very real problem that exists in the way the ABS currently reports the headline rate of unemployment, and then do something about solving it.

Yours faithfully,

Rex Graham



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