If there was one thing John Howard and Peter Costello could reasonably have expected as part of the historical judgement on their terms as PM and Treasurer, it was a positive assessment of their record as economic managers. But a game isn’t over until the final whistle, and the last few months have produced some unpleasant data. Howard and Costello have left higher inflation and (if you impute the whole of the current tightening phase to their policies) higher interest rates than they inherited from the Keating government. Given that the ratio of household indebtedness to income has grown massively, the effective burden of interest rates is far higher now than in 1996.
A judgement based on inflation and interest rates is unfair in some senses. The big achievement of the last 15 years has been to avoid a recession. While most of the credit for this outcome must go to the Reserve Bank (particularly for getting policy right in the Asian crisis of 1997) and some is down to luck, the government should at least be credited for not doing anything to muck things badly enough to derail the Bank’s economic management (I’m assuming here that the housing bubble, to which the government’s policies contributed greatly, will deflate gradually rather than popping us into a recession. That would be a really nasty legacy for Howard and Costello to leave).
Unemployment has also fallen quite a lot, though until quite recently, the improvement in headline figures masked a deterioration in broader measures of employment and unemployment, particularly for men.
The problem for Howard and Costello is that they chose the criteria on which they wanted to be assessed. They never cared much about unemployment, abandoned the whole idea of an unemployment target early on, and their occasional policy interventions were either focus-group driven exercises like “work for the deal” or ideological costcutting like the Jobs Network.
By contrast, they ran hard on “keeping interest rates at record lows” and now have to live with their failure.