The latest figures present a bleak picture of the job scene in Ballarat - and the scale of the task ahead for all levels of government to get people back into work.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded 5700 fewer jobs in the region last month compared to April, a "devastating" figure according to the federal member for Ballarat, Catherine King.
As with most data, it comes with caveats. The ABS warns about drawing firm conclusions from month-on-month data as was published this week. However, as one of the first official indicators of the post-COVID-19 employment landscape, it is being taken very seriously.
BALLARAT - employment figures month to month in the past five years
The City of Ballarat mayor Ben Taylor called the figures "heartbreaking" and said the city was cutting red tape, trying to keep works going and actively seeking stimulus funding.
When The Courier queried if enough was being done to scope out "shovel-ready" projects, a City of Ballarat spokesperson cited four road projects which are the subject of an application for federal funding.
However, they also confirmed an engineering design for the biggest, Stage 2a of the link road - which Cr Taylor has cited as one of the main infrastructure projects for recovery - had not yet taken place. The City of Ballarat says this could be done within a short timeframe and that the project - which has an estimated value of about $11.5 million - was "considered shovel-ready". They remained "hopeful" federal funding would come through for work to begin in September.
A query about why $6 million of funding for the regeneration of Bakery Hill had been deferred to the next financial year was not addressed.
The Courier also spoke with Michael Poulton at the Committee for Ballarat, as well as two economics experts, Dr Alex Millmow and Dr Jerry Courvisanosfrom Federation University, about the next steps. There was unanimity on the need to keep on with JobKeeper allowances beyond the current September deadline.
All agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic was likely to change the face of the local economy forever - and rejected the likelihood of a "snapback" recovery, particularly within the tourism sector. There was also broad consensus that stimulus needed to come at government level with the downturn forcing many private businesses to keep a lid on investments.
However, serious concerns were raised about whether enough was being done on that front, including whether enough borrowing was taking place to prepare for a new jobs landscape.
As for the data itself, it put the unemployment rate in the city and surrounding area at 7.1 per cent - higher than the state average of 6,7 per cent and significantly above Geelong and Bendigo [6.7 and 5.7 per cent respectively].
BALLARAT - averages since 1999
The statistics also suggest a steeper decline in employment around Ballarat than in both other regions.
In the month of May, Ballarat registered 76,600 jobs, down from 82,300 in April. The decline in Geelong and Bendigo appears much more marginal up to now, with Geelong remaining reasonably steady with a dip of 1,100 but still nominally ahead of where it was at the beginning of the year. Bendigo even noted a 1,400 rise in May.
The figures reinforced data released earlier this month suggesting Ballarat had been more vulnerable than other regional areas to the downturn.
Treasury figures showed earlier this month that the Ballarat postcode had the ninth highest application rates for the JobKeeper in the country, with more than 2,000 businesses applying for the scheme, which is designed to allow employers to keep staff on their books despite the downturn with grants of up to $1,500 per person every fortnight.
The JobKeeper scheme will also to a large degree be masking the true scale of unemployment as those receiving money are registered as in work.
Meanwhile, as well as calling for the retention of the JobKeeper grants beyond the current September 30 deadline, Ms King also said the level of JobSeeker allowance - for those looking for jobs - should remain at its current rate. It was doubled in March as a response to the large extra jobless numbers anticipated.
For state opposition treasurer Louise Staley, the ABS figures prompted a call to reopen the regions for business.
Describing the statistics as "grim reading", Ms Staley said the unemployment rate in Ballarat had been rising before the outbreak and the figures suggested restrictions should be lifted.
"Ballarat and the surrounding areas have had very few COVID-19 cases. It's more important than ever that restrictions are eased in regional areas like Ballarat so we can get people back in work and back in business," she said.
PERSPECTIVE FROM THE TOURISM INDUSTRY
Australian Hotels Association Victorian president David Canny believes Ballarat's hospitality and tourism sector would have played a large role in the figures.
"Lots of pubs and hospitality staff got stood down overnight," Mr Canny said. "What you also have to remember is that JobKeeper did not kick in for over a month, but by then the damage was done.
"The other thing Ballarat pubs and clubs has been very fortunate in over the years is the ability to get staff from the university and once again, that all stopped once the uni stopped.
"I wouldn't say Ballarat has an over reliance on casual staff, but a lot of those positions are transient positions and often they are people that are keen to receive the casual rates and not worry so much about accruing leave. Certainly our venue (Red Lion) is very much like that.
"Anywhere you see a reliance on hospitality or tourism it was affected immediately, we were not an industry that could ride things out for a while. A lot of the casuals we had simply had not worked for 12 months so were not eligible to apply for the JobKeeper and were forced onto JobSeeker."
There were serious warnings of increased pain if the Federal government were to rescind its JobKeeper scheme.
Dr Alex Millmow, a research fellow at Federation Business School, was particularly emphatic. "There's no 'snapback' chance whatsoever by the end of September," he said. "The federal government, if they cut that assistance, they're crazy - we'll be into double-digit unemployment and despair and deflation."
Dr Millmow cited the loss of thousands of Qantas jobs as an indication there would be protracted pain for the tourism and education sector in the Ballarat region, with long-haul travel at an indefinite standstill - and fears of a "second wave" growing in many destinations.
The CEO of the Committee for Ballarat Michael Poulton agreed, saying he would lose optimism if a "targeted" JobKeeper extension were not put in place.
And Dr Jerry Courvisanos, an associate professor also at Federation Business School,said the changing face of the jobs sector could mean JobKeeper payments could be cut - as they were for Qantas staff.
Citing the example of Chinese visitors at Sovereign Hill, he said: "Much of Ballarat is run on hospitality and tourism. Anybody on JobKeeper is still calculated as having a job if they are not working. But who knows how many of those JobKeeper people will come back?"
WHAT LIES AHEAD
Dr Millmow is candidly pessimistic about the changes ahead, saying that many of the jobs lost may never come back. Closed international borders had profound implications for the recovery, he said. "We're scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with solutions."
There's got to be to expand the economy and expand jobs. That's not going to come from the private sector. The private sector has not got any confidence, it has got no certainty. It must come from the governmentDr Jerry Courvisanos
Job sharing could be one possibility he said, while construction and manufacturing were the two areas in the Ballarat that had a more positive outlook.
Both Dr Courvisanos and Mr Poulton stressed the importance of investing in new solutions. Dr Courvisanos said: "There's got to be regional and sectorial efforts to expand the economy and expand jobs. That's not going to come from the private sector. The private sector has not got any confidence, it has got no certainty. It must come from the government."
"They've got to identify how the regions are going and put an effort in them and identify sectors. It's got to be a lot more targeted, particularly from the Victorian government. We're looking at smaller markets now. "
He said Ballarat could build on its strong quality and brand for its educational sector, particularly its secondary schools and get more people going into TAFE. Increasing the investment in heritage works and restoration were other potential areas for worthwhile investment particular to Ballarat, he said.
Mr Poulton cited three areas that he thought could be keys to a local recovery: investment in the renewables sector, new social housing and transforming regional rail.
If we're just focusing on the short-term sugar hit, I think we are failing our regionMichael Poulton, Committee for Ballarat
Increasing social housing would be addressing a long-term issue, he said, while strong investment in regional rail had the power to "reform the state" and allow people to live their lives differently.
There were opportunities in renewables space to access money on the long-term money market and borrow against really significant infrastructure builds.
He also said greater borrowing should also be a serious option at local government level.
"I support council working to get as much funding as they can for short-term, shovel-ready projects."
"But if there's money to be borrowed because it's never been so cheap as it is now, then let's look at the serious, long-term changes that are critical for the city."
"If we're just focusing on the short-term sugar hit, I think we are failing our region."
HOW RELIABLE ARE THE STATS?
The monthly job statistics come with an extended caveat from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which says the figures have a particularly wide margin of error for regional areas.
It should also be noted that the number of people employed in Ballarat has been at a historical high in recent times.
From October last year to April this year, the figures in Ballarat have looked the healthiest they have ever looked in terms of raw numbers, averaging 83,600 people in work over that time.
BALLARAT v BENDIGO (employed people in past 12 months)
For context too, there have also been more significant changes in the figures for Ballarat.
The statistics from June to July 2017 looked even more grim if taken on a month by month basis, going down 6,400 in that time span alone - but then they had leapt by 5,800 from May to June.
By way of context, the rolling 12-month average for May this year is considerably higher than the 12-month average for May 2019, with the current figure standing at 80,300 in work compared to 75,200 at the same point last year.
But are these May figures an anomaly?
It's possible but given what we know so far it is unlikely. A spokesperson for the City of Ballarat said it was thought appropriate to use the monthly data "to examine the impacts of COVID-19."
We will only know in the months to come if a similar pattern emerges. It is perhaps more likely worse is to come, especially if the JobKeeper assistance is removed in September as currently planned.
BALLARAT v BENDIGO v GEELONG (employed people in past 12 months)
The comparison figures between similar regional centres would be a particular concern for Ballarat in the way they compare with similar regional centres such as Geelong and Bendigo.
The City for Ballarat also noted the last month was above Bendigo (5.7 per cent) and Geelong (6.7 per cent), noting that "in recent times Ballarat's unemployment rate has been generally lower than the State average, Geelong and Bendigo."
COVID-19: A timeline of economic devastation in Ballarat
This is the first sign of the troubles that await, as Sara Quon, the CEO of Sovereign Hill makes a candid statement about the impact the ban on incoming Chinese tourists is having on Ballarat's main attraction.
February 25:Coronavirus toll starts to rise in Victoria
The virus suddenly begins to seem a little closer to home, with cases rising to seven in the state. But reports of the lockdown in China and the impact on Italy still seem like distant troubles.
This for many was a defining moment in the way COVID-19 was seen in the country, with an elderly Perth man becoming the first person in Australia to die from the virus. At this point supermarket workers begin to see more panic buying and more empty shelves as Australian supply chains are put under unprecedented pressure.
The Victorian premier puts the state on an emergency footing, suggesting that shops and schools will inevitably close and people will be asked to do things they have never been asked to do before.
Taking a decision in front of many other local government authorities, the City of Ballarat announces a swift shutdown of many of its buildings, from the town hall to the Aquatic Centre.
March 21: Sovereign Hill closes its gates
Seen by many as a "tipping point" in the economic crisis gripping the city, the closure of Sovereign Hill is a devastating announcement for the tourism industry, the city - and the many people who work there.
March 25: Council casual staff go
As many as 200 casual staff working at the City of Ballarat will be paid for two weeks then let go.
March 27:Myer closes
Another iconic closure in the city, the Sturt Street store is a major retail landmark.
A bitter irony as new figures show just how well Ballarat was faring as a tourist destination before COVID-19 struck.
The City of Ballarat is vying for federal funding for major road-building projects - including stage two of the Link Road - to help kickstart a local economy under huge strain due to COVID-19.
Help for some of Ballarat's biggest tourist attractions is on the way after the federal government announced funding to assist zoos and aquariums across the country.
Hospitality sector calls for JobKeeper eligibility review to help businesses recover.
Victoria edges closer towards a gradual exit from coronavirus lockdown, and attention turns to exactly how Ballarat will begin to reopen.
June 1: Restrictions eased
More facilities and businesses will be allowed to reopen from Monday, June 1, as restrictions to protect people from the coronavirus continue to ease. Up to 20 people at a time can gather at a private household, and in public, indoors and outdoors.
June 21: Restrictions reimposed
In another devastating move for the city's hospitality industry, restrictions are tighter as community transmission of COVID-19 in the state begins to spike in a concerning way.
Restaurants, pubs, auction halls, community halls, libraries, museums and places of worship that had been set to welcome up to 50 patrons now have to stay at a maximum of 20 people until July 12.
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