Helen Kelly: Jobs, not debt, should be priority

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The Government debt is very low compared with other OECD countries but unemployment at 11th lowest is an embarrassment. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Government debt is very low compared with other OECD countries but unemployment at 11th lowest is an embarrassment. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Government should review its priorities. Continuing high unemployment, much greater than its own forecasts, could do far more damage than taking longer to pay down debt. The Government debt is very low compared with other OECD countries but unemployment at 11th lowest is an embarrassment given our economy is now growing faster than all but four of those countries.

The 2011 Budget forecast we should have only 4.8 per cent unemployment by now and the 2012 Budget forecast 5.7 per cent, yet the figure is 6.2 per cent or 146,000 people unemployed and 251,400 jobless. In addition, 51,300 people left to live in Australia in the past year.

There will be little to celebrate if the Government reaches its surplus at the expense of working people and their families. It is risking a repeat of the 1990s: armies of consultants and contractors, and disasters like Cave Creek.

The Government should ensure that we set the economy on a course that provides good jobs for the future and addresses the much bigger debt problem - the overseas debt, mostly owed by banks and other businesses.

It should put more money into assisting people when they face unemployment, with more intensive support for finding jobs, retraining and more generous income replacement. It should expand tertiary education and industry training. The announcements it has made are simply not enough. It should increase programmes that give unemployed people jobs doing work needed in the community.

Rather than laying off public service staff, there is plenty of work that needs to be done in our health system, schools, conservation estate, protecting immigrants and other workers from exploitation, expanding state housing and much more.

It has announced some belated improvements to government procurement, but it could do much more to buy locally. It could actively support local industry, especially manufacturing, including by management of the exchange rate.

And last but certainly not least - the Government's Workplace Health and Safety Taskforce produced a report that deserves unqualified support. The recommendations need at least $30 million more a year on an ongoing basis. We hope that the Budget will announce this increase and that we can work with the Government towards much safer and healthier workplaces.

Helen Kelly is president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

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