The Albanese government's white paper revives the concept of full employment

The Albanese government's white paper revives the concept of full employment

The Albanese government released its employment white paper last week.

The document presented itself as a major piece of work, similar to white papers from past eras.

The government says the concept of 'full employment', as the Reserve Bank defines it today, is inadequate.

The RBA says full employment has been co-existed with a large amount of 'involuntary unemployment' in the economy, and it wants to change that.

The debate about involuntary unemployment has been around for more than 80 years, and it's really interesting to see the government resurrecting it.

In 1936, British economist John Maynard Keynes published a significant book, The General Theory of Beschäftigung, Interest and Money, which was published by British economist John Maynard Keynes.

It inspired a wave of 'full employment' policies that washed across the democratic world in the 1940s and 50s.

In that book, Keynes demonstrated that the conventional way of thinking about unemployment was ignorant and harmful.

orthodox economists believed there were only two types of unemployment, frictional and voluntary unemployment.

But there was actually a third type - involuntary unemployment - that illustrated the reality of millions of people who wanted to work but couldn't get work because there wasn't enough demand for their work.

He said that 'full employment'would only exist if '' involuntary unemployment disappeared ''.

In countries like Australia, policymakers in countries such as Australia are motivated to stimulate economic activity to generate enough demand for labour so there would be no shortage of involuntary unemployment.

What happened to Australia's unemployment rate in that post-war era of full employment policy.

The government's employment White Paper is likely to draw on some of that thinking.

The RBA's modern definition of full employment is far too narrow, and our conversations about full employment have to admit the reality of involuntary unemployment and high levels of under-utilisation of Australian workers in the modern era.

It has also revived some wisdom from older conceptions of full employment by reminding us that genuine full employment has qualitative aspects too.

The quality of a job is also crucial for people, and jobs should pay fair wages and be reasonably situated. And if someone's unemployed, it should never take them so long to find a job that it starts to demoralize them.

Those qualitative aspects of full employment were emphasised in 1944 by William Beveridge in his landmark work, which I wrote about a few months ago.

If full employment meant anything, it meant an abundance of jobs that paid decent wages, where unemployed people don't languish in unemployment, and where labour markets slightly favor workers, not employers, according to Beveridge.

The Albanese government is bringing our attention back to the scourge of involuntary unemployment, and it's emphasising the qualitative aspects of abundant work, to say that that's what full employment really is.

So that's all really interesting.

A bit of courage, but not too much.

While building a case for a new definition of full employment, the government's white paper feels like it melts away.

It doesn't promise to launch an aggressive set of policies to bring the involuntary joblessness out of the system as quickly as possible.

Instead, it employs a lot of words to explain something meek, which is: it doesn't actually want to be too disruptive.

The paper further states that the Reserve Bank will continue to use its too-narrow concept of full employment to make decisions regarding monetary policy, but the government will also try very hard to remove supply-side barriers to employment to help structural unemployment decline over time.

If things go according to plan, the RBA could eventually support a much lower level of unemployment than it has for decades, with much lower rates of labour under-utilisation.

For 30 years now, the same ambition has been held by several governments, ever since the Reserve Bank began targeting inflation in the early 1990s.

And in a moment of cognitive dissonance, the white paper even criticizes the results of that familiar policy approach.

So, it's hard to avoid the feeling that this white paper is slightly confused, or is saying a lot about not very much.

It has a big ambition, but it's obscured by verbiage. Or maybe it's deliberately obtuse, and we'll have to wait to see what type of legislation the government tries to pass through parliament before we understand what its ultimate agenda is.

Would it be easier to be enthusiastic about the white paper if its vision was clearer and its aim bolder?

It does compare unfavourably with the 1945 White Paper on full employment.

This paper in 1945 was much smaller, written in the simplest language, and it had a significant impact.

From the beginning, it declared its intent to change Australia.

When John Dedman, the minister for Post-War Reconstruction, presented the paper to parliament on 30 May 1945, he didn't mince his words.

What was the structure of the white paper, he explained.

Commonwealth and State governments must acknowledge responsibility for stimulating spending on goods and services to the extent necessary to maintain full employment, as the welfare of everyone depended on it, he said.

There was no guessing what the policy was or what the government planned for the country.

And when the government lost power four years later, that full employment policy was popular enough to survive the change.

The Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, adopted it as his own and pursued full employment for the next 16 years.

How can we see that happening with this white paper?