Opinion: RBA's interest rates rise to lift household stress, and political pain for Jim Chalmers and Anthony Albanese

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels
Tuesday 7 March 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Two numbers out in recent days will have Labor's marginal seat MPs nervous, if not sweating bullets quite yet. The more so because they are connected.

One is the 10th straight mortgage increase from the Reserve Bank announced at 2.30pm on Tuesday.

As Treasurer Jim Chalmers grimly advised the House in the minutes after the decision came down, for each half-million owed, the cumulative effect of these 10 upward increments has added a thousand dollars to monthly repayments.

That's $12,000-a-year extra that many cash-strapped households will have to find just to stand still. Just to avoid a distressed sale or default. Just to avoid potential homelessness. More if their debt is higher as it is for those who stretched themselves on the promise of record low rates until sometime next year.

The other number is the latest Newspoll survey showing Labor support remains high, but could be softening.

Anthony Albanese is still strongly favoured by voters over Peter Dutton, but the latter's 28 per cent support as preferred PM is his best outcome yet. For a leader who has routinely put Coalition unity ahead of observable community preference - think his decisions to oppose emissions reduction, superannuation reform, Voice (potentially), housing assistance, affirmative action - Dutton's standing among voters is mid-range for an opposition leader. Plenty have scored worse, including John Howard and he did make it in the end.

Doubtless, Labor has benefited from the mean incompetence of the previous Morrison government. Albanese has set about restoring faith in institutions, stressing due process, collaboration, and honesty as hallmarks of his government. This has all been welcomed with voter goodwill towards Labor proving resilient.

The PM's post-election "honeymoon" has been repeatedly declared "over" (especially in the Coalition-aligned press) and yet still he remains pre-eminent.

On a two-party-preferred basis, Labor sits well-clear of the Coalition but there has been a 6-point narrowing.

As long as the smell of Morrison's odious lingers in the nostrils of voters, the gap between Labor and the Coalition should hold.

But at some point not too far away, the worsening cost-of-living crisis in the here and now, will obliterate this odour and other historical comparisons with it.

Economists predict more rate rises to come - maybe one, maybe two.

Thanks to its independence, the RBA has no eye to the political fallout of its actions even if it brings recession. It kept rates too low for too long and now may be driving them too high by way of over-correction.

These are tough conditions in which to craft a popular budget - especially as fiscal policy (spending) will be expected to tighten right when the household pain is at its worst.

Economics is a numbers game. Politics equally.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  9 March 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications