Almost one in 10 Canberrans would be impacted when the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and Jobseeker supplement were wound up at the end of March, prompting fears of business closures and a spike in poverty in the nation's capital.
The ACT's peak business and social services bodies have sounded warnings about the removal of the two support measures, which have been the multi-billion dollar centrepieces of the federal government's response to Australia's coronavirus-induced economic crisis.
Although ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has said the territory was the jurisdiction least exposed to the changes, their removal was set to effect more than 35,000 Canberrans.
While much of the ACT economy had recovered from the initial economic shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic, some sectors were looking down the barrel of extended unemployment until the wide rollout of the vaccine.
Thousands receive payments still
New Treasury statistics showed 16,835 Canberrans still received the JobKeeper wage subsidy, down from 44,459 in the first phase of the payment. Seven per cent of workers in the ACT were covered by the payment, well below the national average of 13 per cent.
It's not clear how many received the full $1000 per fortnight rate, and how many received the $650 per fortnight rate for part-time workers locally. Nationally, 87 per cent of recipients of the wage subsidy received the full amount.
A further 19,382 people received the $150 per fortnight coronavirus supplement paid to people on the JobSeeker and other welfare payments. That payment was set to end on March 28, and while the government had signalled the unemployment payment would not return to its previous $40 per day rate, there was no detail on what the payment would be after March, or when the government would make the call.
If the payment was not replaced, there would be almost $1.5 million less in the ACT economy each week.
TheCanberra Times analysis comes as it launches its Over The Cliff series, looking at just what would happen when these economic supports were removed.
Due to its high level of public sector employment, the ACT has fared better than almost every other state and territory. Unemployment sits at 3.7 per cent, down from a high of 5.1 per cent in June last year. Underemployment is at 6 per cent.
But among the more than 150,000 Canberrans employed outside the public sector, one in 10 was receiving the JobKeeper payment.
Businesses aren't ready
While some businesses were ready to once again go it alone without government assistance, other key industries like tourism, travel and food services warned jobs would go when the wage subsidy dried up.
Canberra Business Chamber chief executive Graham Catt estimated between 20 and 30 per cent of local businesses would be at risk without ongoing support after March 28.
Mr Catt said the removal of JobKeeper was just one part of the equation for struggling businesses, which also had to factor in the repayment of taxes and loans which had been deferred at the height of the crisis.
He was hopeful the federal government would commit to a targeted support scheme for sectors exposed to international travel restrictions, such as tourism and higher education.
While retail trade figures showed a strong Christmas period, Associate at SGS Economics and Planning Marcia Keegan pointed to persistent lower trading figures in the cafes, restaurants and catering industries as a sign there was still a way to go until full economic recovery for the capital.
"As restrictions ease, as the vaccines start rolling out, that might pick up a bit, but there will be some businesses and specific industries that will be struggling when JobKeeper ends," Dr Keegan said.
As Victoria entered day four of a snap lockdown on Tuesday, such measures and ensuing travel restrictions were also a limiting factor on economic recovery.
"As long as there is sort of a perceived risk of a sudden outbreak and a sudden lockdown, then people are going to be more reluctant about spending money, booking functions, booking holidays, that sort of thing," Dr Keegan said.
Plunged back into poverty
ACT Council of Social Service acting chief executive Craig Wallace said increasing the rate of the old Newstart payment had proven to be one of the "few silver linings" from the pandemic, helping to pull Canberrans out of poverty.
"What it will mean [if it goes back to $40 a day] is there will be thousands of Canberarns who are needing to make really difficult choices between keeping a roof over their head, or a car on the road, paying utility bills," he said.
"It is likely to see people spiralling into poverty and comprising essentials.
"You don't need a degree in calculus to know that you can't live in Canberra for $250 per week."
The ACT's jobs market also posed unique challenges to job seekers, Dr Keegan said, with the focus on federal government employment locking out non-citizens, or people with specialist skills without a place in government work. The reduction in the unemployment payment "could potentially be crippling", Dr Keegan said.
"I honestly have no idea how they live on it in the ACT unless you've got someone who's prepared to give you subsidised accommodation."
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledged some industries were still hurting on Monday, but said the government's position was unchanged.
"What these numbers show is a broad based recovery in the Australian labour market, much better than we expected, even through the pandemic last year," he said.
"With over 2 million Australians graduating from JobKeeper and over 500,000 businesses, what we are seeing is people get back to work. It's another proof point that the economic recovery is underway, it adds to what we've seen in the housing market, what we've seen with motor vehicle sales, what we've seen with business and consumer confidence reaching its pre-pandemic levels, and it is very encouraging."
Labor called for the government to "calibrate" the transition away from JobKeeper for businesses that still had no prospect of income at the end of March.
"As there is now a transition from JobKeeper, it has got to be done with some sense of realism about what's actually happening in the economy," the opposition's spokesman on employment Richard Marles said on Sky News.
"And if there are parts of the economy, where there is no way you could describe it as being back to normal, then to remove JobKeeper, as planned at the end of March, is going to see a whole lot of businesses go off the cliff, and a whole lot of people lose their jobs."