Rate rise forces verdict on Morrison’s economic management

Scott Morrison is fighting for survival at the federal election by making three central claims about the help he offers Australians at a dramatic turn of the nation’s economic tide.

Asked how he will protect Australians facing higher mortgage payments, the prime minister nominates record low unemployment, lower taxes and help with essential services.

Scott Morrison was more polished and powerful than Anthony Albanese on Tuesday when all sides knew the rate rise would dominate the campaign.Credit:James Brickwood

His great challenge, when this rising tide threatens to sweep the Coalition out to sea, is that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is promising the same.

The three claims are based on fact and are essential to what Morrison calls the “shield” that can protect households from financial pain. He listed them without hesitation on Tuesday after the Reserve Bank lifted interest rates.

First, Morrison says the jobless rate will fall to 3.5 per cent this year and that the best financial help is a job.

Second, he says the government is making sure people earning between $45,000 and $200,000 a year will pay only 30¢ in the dollar under changes already legislated.

Third, he says the Coalition guarantees essential services such as healthcare because only it can run a strong economy.

Every claim depends on voters being confident about Morrison and worried about Albanese. Yet the polls suggest the opposite – that people are turning off Morrison and opening up to the idea of an Albanese government.

And which of the claims does Albanese threaten?

Labor is not being accused of a radical agenda that would increase the unemployment rate. Labor voted for the tax cuts in 2019 and confirmed last year it would not reverse them. Labor is promising “safe change” on the economy.

Peak business groups seem comfortable with the idea of a Labor government and are not expressing any alarm about what it would mean for their profits or share prices.

As usual in this campaign, Morrison was more polished and powerful than Albanese on Tuesday, when all sides knew the rate rise would dominate the campaign. The prime minister knows exactly what to say to play on doubts in the community about change, in a press conference in a wood-panelled government office. In a country with a long history of conservative government, he plays to his strengths.

Albanese was nowhere near as slick in his backyard press conference on the NSW Central Coast after speaking to a young woman about his housing affordability plan.

In some ways, this is a contrast between the backyard and the boardroom: Albanese tries to channel household anger at the government, while Morrison offers the reassurance of the incumbent.

Albanese was nowhere near as slick in his backyard press conference on the NSW Central Coast after speaking to a young woman about his housing affordability plan.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The government record is not as black as Labor paints it, of course.

Unemployment is at a level that few predicted and voters may remember the financial payments and the JobKeeper wage subsidies that helped them through the pandemic.

And Morrison has a predictable line against Albanese: that the man who could not remember the RBA cash rate three weeks ago now claims to be the better leader to look after it.

Yet there is no escaping the contradiction in Morrison’s basic message. He blames the rate increase on forces outside his control at the same time as he claims to be the only one who can keep them low.

Melbourne radio host Neil Mitchell interrupted Morrison on 3AW on Tuesday to point this out.

“You’re doing it again,” he said. “You’re telling me that interest rates have been low because of you, but now they’re going up you’re telling me it’s not because of you.”

What Australians are seeing is a rare sight at a recent federal election: a leader being forced to run on his record.

The regular replacement of prime ministers over the past 15 years means that Morrison is the first to serve a full term since John Howard. And just like Howard in 2007, Morrison has to handle an RBA rate rise in the middle of the campaign.

The rate rise forces a verdict on Morrison’s management of the economy and nine years of Coalition government.

Morrison wants voters to trust him, Albanese wants them to blame him. Everything turns on whether the mood for change is greater than the need for reassurance.

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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