TJ Ryan Foundation Board member, John Quiggin, comments in The Guardian (14.11.17) that the debt linked to ownership of a profitable public enterprise is not a problem – but the LNP’s focus on debt and asset sales obscures another important point.
‘The current Queensland election is the first in many years in which the sale of public assets is not an issue. All parties have ruled them out. The reason is obvious enough: in the last three elections, Queenslanders have demonstrated their overwhelming opposition to privatisation.
‘In 2009 Anna Bligh won by promising not to sell assets, even at the price of forgoing a AAA credit rating. Once re-elected, she promptly discovered that the AAA rating was vital after all, and that selling assets was the only way to get it back.
‘Assets, including ports and railways, were duly sold, but Bligh did not regain the AAA rating, or retain her job at the next election in 2012, when Labor was almost wiped out by angry voters. (The Australian Bankers Association took a more positive view, appointing Bligh as its CEO in 2017).
‘The LNP government of Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls kept its promise not to sell assets in its first term of office, but tried hard to set the stage for privatisation. Following a familiar script, former treasurer Peter Costello led a “Commission of Audit” which predicted dire consequences if large scale privatisation was not undertaken. The Costello Commission focused in particular on the ratio of net financial debt to state revenue, then running at about 84%.
‘Once again, Queensland voters were unimpressed. Despite an expensive, publicly-funded marketing campaign, awkwardly named Strong Choices, the 2015 election produced another unequivocal rejection of asset sales.
‘Based on the Commission of Audit analysis, spelt out in the Strong Choices campaign, the result ought to have been a disaster with ballooning debt and an inability to fund basic services, amplified by the end of the mining boom.
‘In reality, nothing of the kind has happened. The Palaszczuk Labor government has maintained budget surpluses despite replacing many of the public sector workers sacked under the Newman-Nicholls government. The biggest criticism the LNP opposition has managed to offer in its campaign is that Labor is a “do nothing” government that has undertaken few bold initiatives.’