It’s good the PM has God on his side, he may need all the assistance he can get

It’s always nice for the country to be led by someone who’s obviously got God on his side. When he prays for a miracle, he gets it. And the challenges facing the economy are such that Scott Morrison may need all the divine assistance he can summon.

The Coalition – and their dispirited opponents – should remember the fate of the last chap who won an unwinnable federal election: Paul Keating in 1993. By the time the next election arrived, voters were, in Queensland Labor premier Wayne Goss’s words, “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday.Credit:AAP

If Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, understand the way it hasn’t been back to business as usual, they’ve shown little sign of it.

If they haven’t yet got the message – perhaps because a politicised Treasury hasn’t been game to give them news they won’t like – enlightenment, in the form of being hit on the head by the bureau of statistics, may not be far off.

Ever since Treasury’s optimistic forecasts encouraged Labor’s Wayne Swan to claim to be delivering four budget surpluses in a row – a claim Frydenberg repeated in the April budget – the econocrats have just shifted forward another year their unwavering conviction that everything will soon be back to the old normal.

It hasn’t happened throughout the Coalition’s two terms. The economy’s just kept grinding along in second gear, failing to reach the cruising speed the econocrats profess to see coming.

It hasn’t happened because the economy’s productivity – output per unit of input – hasn’t improved as fast as it used to, and what little improvement we’ve had hasn’t flowed on to wages. It’s because wages haven’t grown faster than prices, as we’ve come to expect, that so many people are complaining about the cost of living.

What has concealed the truth from us is our rapid, immigration-fuelled population growth. The other rich countries’ populations haven’t been growing nearly as fast. This has given us a bigger economy, but not a richer one.

Of late we have had a partial – and probably temporary – rebound in the prices we get for our mineral exports. Combined with years of bracket creep, the boost to mining company profits (and their tax payments) has finally made Frydenberg’s budget look a lot healthier than the economy does.

Weak growth in real wages (plus continuing bracket creep) mean weak growth in the disposable income of Australia’s households. Which, in turn, means weak growth in the economy’s mainstay, consumer spending.

All this became unmissable when the economy slowed to a crawl in the second half of last year. Predictably, the April budget took this to be little more than a blip on the onward and upward trajectory.

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:SMH

But all the economic indicators we’ve seen since the budget – weak inflation, no improvement in wage growth – suggest the weakness is continuing.

Another respect in which the economy has been behaving strangely is that employment – particularly full-time jobs – has been growing much more strongly than the modest growth in the economy would lead us to expect.

It’s this that Morrison and Frydenberg trumpeted during the election campaign as proof positive of their superior management of the economy. Fine. But the rate of growth in employment is slowing and the rate of unemployment, having fallen slowly to 5 per cent, seems now to be going up, not down.

With the election out of the way, the Reserve Bank won’t wait long before it cuts interest rates to try to give the economy a boost. The $1080-a-pop tax refund cheques after June 30 will also help, provided Morrison can get them through Parliament in time. More earnest prayer required, I think.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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