For most of us, the cost-of-living crisis is a moral panic, not an existential threat

Posted on 27 Nov 2023

By Denis Moriarty


There's no doubt many Australians are struggling financially. So why do the nation's poorest citizens remain seemingly invisible, asks Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty.

We are, I’m told, in the throes of a cost-of-living crisis. Bullshit.

We are in a situation where people with an objectively reasonable amount of money would prefer to have more money. Call me a wild-eyed prophet raging in the wilderness, but I’m sure I remember several other moments in, say, the last half-century when this was also true.

The unemployment rate is as low as it’s ever been – and that’s absolutely the most important factor in determining the economic health of the population. The current inflation rate is in no way dangerous. Objectively, we’re just fine. Glancing briefly at the morning paper I see that Australians are

  1. overwhelmingly choosing obese expensive monster trucks over fuel-efficient minis
  2. paying tens of thousands to reserve places for their children in antisocial private academies
  3. enthusiastically tearing down old houses to build much larger ones with home cinemas and plunge pools

Some people are doing it tough – that’s undeniable. But – and this is the point that Australian media seem determined to obscure – the people who are doing it tough are the same people who were doing it tough last year and the year before and, if you’ll excuse this tiresome repetition, the year before that. That is to say: poor people. And it is not poor people whose plight is trembled in front of the cameras.

People on unemployment benefits are stretched to breaking point, and have been for decades, and nobody cares. First Nations people are appallingly disadvantaged, and we’ve just had a chance to see how many people cared about that. There are far, far too many children living in poverty in one of the two or three richest nations in the world. Or, to put it another way, dog bites man.

The nameless horror from beyond the stars that is threatening our very existence is an elevated mortgage rate. Higher interest rates penalise those who have $600,000 mortgages on houses that cost an average of nearly a million dollars. We are thus mainly talking about people who have, taking a wild stab, several hundred thousand dollars in equity and are thus, however hard done by they may feel, not poor.

I’m not saying that the needs of poor people should be our only policymaking concern (primarily, yes, but not exclusively). I’m just pointing out that accepting the special pleading of middle-class welfare makes it impossible to look clearly at the real issues.

"The world is soon to become inhospitable for human life. To prevent that, we’ll have to spend lots of government money. We can’t do that if we continue to pretend that we’re all individually teetering on the brink of penury."

The bushfire of moral panic sweeping suburbia about this illustrates perfectly why this discourse is not only misguided but actively pernicious. When people can’t afford their mortgages on million-dollar homes there plainly is a problem, but the problem is not that the mortgage is too high. They’re going to be paying extra, after all, for a house that on current projections is going to be worth more. That’s the problem. Housing prices are inflated.

If these people had borrowed money to invest in gold bars or bitcoin, there would conceivably be less sympathy for their plight. Homes are, of course, essentials, while gold and bitcoin are mere speculative bubbles, and our problem is that we’ve inextricably wrapped up the niceness of housing our children with an enormous choking distorting speculative bubble that has caught every government this century in the logical vice of wanting to make houses more affordable without lowering property values.

The poor don’t get much love. Householders feel strongly that their comparative prosperity is due to their own hard work and strong character, while their increasing costs are the fault of the government. Journalists are more sympathetic to homeowners than to Centrelink clients because, by definition, journalists aren’t unemployed. Politicians are aware that homeless people tend not to stay long in any particular electorate.

Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community.

Yes, the Australian home financing system is almost indefensible, and is particularly hard on young families starting out. But Australia has an almost limitless supply of misguided policies that make the average person worse off, and if we were totting up everybody’s hardships on a single scale I don’t think this is where our reforms would start.

There’s an old saying that goes something like “If we all came together and piled up our troubles in a common heap, at the end of it we’d probably settle happily for carrying away the ones we brought in.” Can I get my Apple watch to do that calculation, do you think? Would that help?

The world is soon to become inhospitable for human life. To prevent that, we’ll have to spend lots of government money. We can’t do that if we continue to pretend that we’re all individually teetering on the brink of penury.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise that helps Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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