Australia's economy slows ahead of election


Sydney (AFP)

Australia's economic growth ground to a near halt in the second-half of 2018, official data showed Wednesday, thrusting the issue to the front and centre of an already contentious general election campaign.

The figures released by Australia's statistics agency showed growth for October to December at 0.2 percent, after a 0.3 percent reading in the previous three months.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has based his re-election campaign on stewardship of the economy and allegations that a centre-left Labor party government would spell an end to 28 years of continuous growth.

The figures showed annual growth last year at 2.3 percent, but with growth slowing considerably in the second half of the year as consumer spending weakened and storm clouds gathered in the long-booming housing market.

Morrison has opened his chequebook ahead of the election, which is expected in May, announcing funding for a slew of community programmes. That appears to have been just enough to stop growth from grinding to a complete halt.

Public expenditure jumped by 1.8 percent for the period and contributed 0.3 percentage points to GDP growth, while household consumption came in at a soft 0.4 percent.

The central bank on Tuesday kept interest rates at a record-low, but markets are increasingly expecting up to two cuts by the end of 2019.

"We believe the Bank will be increasingly uncomfortable with the 'growing tension between strong labour market data and softer GDP data' as the weakness in household spending appears to be more persistent than it forecast," National Australia Bank economist Kaixin Owyong said in a note to clients.

"Should the progress in the labour market falter over the next few months, the Bank will likely be forced to cut rates to support households."