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Tuesday, 10 May 1994
Page: 483

Senator KERNOT —I address my question to the Minister representing the Treasurer. In the last two years the government has sold off $3 billion of its assets and reduced public investment in infrastructure by $2 billion. At the same time, however, there has been an increase in government debt of nearly $50 billion. Why does the government think it is responsible economic behaviour to keep selling off assets to fund not long-term spending but day-to-day spending?

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator KERNOT —That is the opposition's only solution, too. Should not the proceeds of any justifiable asset sales go towards paying back government debt?

Senator COOK —The government has sold over the years a number of government assets; that part is true. We have done so in order to add to the greater efficiency of the economy and because fundamentally we believe the assets that have been put up for public sale are assets that can function efficiently outside of public ownership. That has been a prime reason for making the decision in the first place.

  As far as the rest of the question is concerned, I think it falls into that category of questions related to the forthcoming budget. We have to wait only a couple of hours for that. I do not propose to answer it now.

Senator KERNOT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. This is a question about the approach to budgeting. I have got a stocktake here of what is left in public ownership. I have to ask the minister: what are governments—your lot and the other lot—going to fall back on when we have run out of this list? Are we going to sell the Reserve Bank and Parliament House, for example? Why is the government making a consistent choice to postpone rather than solve the real problem of needing to raise revenue?

Senator COOK —I know of no intention to sell the Reserve Bank or Parliament House, and on that I can be categorical. The question may well be one that can be answered only by reference to the particular philosophical view we have about what the role of government is in the economy. Senator Kernot may well have a different view of that from what we have, in which case I can respect her view whilst disagreeing with it. But our view is that those assets that we have put forward for public sale are assets that can function equally well or better in private ownership. It means that government can be more efficient.

  We have a very small public sector in Australia compared with other OECD economies. While we remain a mixed economy, and will always be so, nonetheless we are an efficient economy and have a lower tax rate as a consequence. All those things go to the efficiency of the economy and our ability to underpin the sorts of economic achievements which will, I believe, increasingly cause investment to flow into this economy. (Time expired)