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Unemployment rate improves as March end to JobKeeper confirmed

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The national unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped to 6.6 per cent in December as Australia’s recovery from recession gathered pace.

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Australia Bureau of Statistics figures released on Thursday showed a further 50,000 people found work in December and largely full-time positions.

But despite most of the new jobs being created in Queensland, the state continued to unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent, the highest in the nation.

Economists had forecast Australia’s jobless rate to ease to 6.7 per cent from 6.8 per cent in November.

It was a further retreat from the 22-year high of 7.5 per cent last July and during the depths of the recession.

The ABS published the data as Prime Minister Scott Morrison was holding a media conference in Gladstone.

“Jobs, jobs and jobs, that’s what we’re about,” he said in immediate response to the report, adding he would want to study the figures before commenting further.

However, Morrison is firm on ending the JobKeeper assistance package at the end of March.

December’s employment rise comprised a 35,700 increase in full-time workers and a 14,300 lift in part-time positions.

It means 90 per cent of the collapse in employment between March and May when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the economy sank into its first recession in nearly 30 years has now been recovered.

The ABS said while the number of employed people in Australia was 88,000 lower in December compared to March, it was now 784,000 higher than May.

The participation rate of those people in work or seeking employment rose to a record high 66.2 per cent in December, up from 66.1 per cent in November.

“The bounce back in jobs is very welcome and when compared with other countries it confirms that Australia’s economy is a relative outperformer,” BIS Oxford Economics chief economist Sarah Hunter said.

She said recent job ads data suggest demand for labour remains robust, with activity in a number of sectors being underpinned by additional government spending and the rebound in domestic demand.

“We expect further gains to materialise through the first three months of 2021,” Hunter said.

The strength of the jobs recovery also dates both Treasury’s and Reserve Bank’s forecasts.

Only last month Treasury forecast a jobless rate of 7.25 per cent by June this year, while in November the RBA predicted a rate of 7.5 per cent by then.

Businesses have been told to prepare for life after wage subsidies with Scott Morrison adamant JobKeeper is still due to end in March.

“Australians would agree that taxpayers’ money can’t be used endlessly to run the Australian economy,” he said.

“That is not a sustainable way forward. That just piles up debt. We’ve got a lot of it now that was necessary to do.

“But my approach on these things is (spend) every dollar you need to, but not a dollar you don’t have to.”

RBC Capital Markets strategist Robert Thompson said that while there are still risks to the outlook, the surprising strength of the jobs recovery suggested the planned end of the JobKeeper wage subsidy looked “far more manageable”.

But Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers was not convinced.

“What we’ve heard from the peak organisations, businesses of all sizes and workers that we have spoken to … is that when JobKeeper ends, too many local workers will lose their jobs,” he told reporters in Cairns.

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