Time for collaboration, not cliches

Unemployment results released this week were greeted with justifications and cliches from the Government, explanations and predictions from economists, and expected criticisms and calls for action from Opposition parties and unions.

The latest quarterly figures from Statistics New Zealand showed unemployment rose to an annual rate of 7.3% in September, up from 6.8% in June, putting the total number of unemployed (175,000 people) the highest in 13 years.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said the results from the Household Labour Force Survey showed New Zealand was not immune to "global economic headwinds" and many of the country's trading partners continued to struggle with sluggish economies and too much debt.

The country's unemployment rate remained better than most OECD countries and was equal with Canada, he said.

Looking further afield, the minister is right. In Greece and Spain, the euro zone's most troubled member countries, the unemployment rate is spiralling. Recent data shows Greece's overall unemployment rate is now 25.4% (and is at 58% for those aged 15 to 24).

Spain's overall unemployment rate is 25.8%. Youth unemployment there is 54.2%.

Although we might be a long way off such alarming figures, there is certainly no comfort in Mr Joyce's predictable soundbites. In a comparison closer to home, Australia's unemployment rate was unchanged at a lower-than-expected seasonally adjusted 5.4% in October.

This country's figures showed that while European unemployment was at 5.4%, the figure for Maori rose to 15.1% and the Pacific community was 15.6%. Mana Party leader Hone Harawira said those statistics would be much worse, but many Maori had moved to Australia for work. (Indeed, the most recent migration figures from Statistics show a total of 53,700 New Zealanders moved to Australia in the year to September 2012.)

While there have been questions raised about the sampling method used to obtain the unemployment figures, there is no denying the trend. This is the third consecutive quarter in which the number of unemployed has risen. But what, beyond hand-wringing, has been done?

In the wake of the global financial crisis, households have been told to save, and the Government itself is focusing on reducing spending and debt. That influences domestic growth - and with it the job market.

Opposition parties used cliches to slam the Government, saying the situation showed the economic plan was failing and it must do something to grow the economy and create jobs. Labour Party leader David Shearer said Prime Minister John Key promised to create 175,000 new jobs, but instead there were now 175,000 people looking for work. Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway called the situation a "national crisis" and said the Government must make jobs a priority.

Mr Key said the figures were "unusual", at odds with other data and economic predictions, his Government was "reforming the economy, as is absolutely necessary" and that "I don't think we should change course - I think we're on the right track". His response also contained platitudes: the country was "part of an international circumstance" with "difficult international trading conditions". That "right track" will be a bitter pill to swallow for those who have lost jobs in recent shutdowns and layoffs in the manufacturing and meatworks sectors - and those who continue to look for employment.

The Government has made various attempts to address the situation - through the likes of youth rates to encourage employers to take on young workers, and increased funding for skills training - but these have also been criticised as either unworkable or not going far enough.

Mr Conway is right in saying "these are not just numbers, they are people and families". And the trickle-down effects of unemployment can cost society through increased welfare dependency, poverty, mental-health problems, drug and alcohol abuse and crime.

The job of creating jobs has seldom been as important or as difficult. But some of the difficulties lie in cross-party finger-pointing and blame-laying. It is time all concerned had the courage to collaborate.