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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4324


Senator WILLIAMS (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Treasurer, Senator Sherry.


Senator Cameron —I have a question for Eric. Why doesn’t he explain himself?

Honourable senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Order! Senator Williams is entitled to be heard in silence.


Senator WILLIAMS —Thank you, Mr President. What is the current federal government gross debt?


Senator SHERRY (Assistant Treasurer) —I shall find the appropriate figures for you. Thank you for your question. First of all, I make the point that the reason why government has debt in this country, and it is increasing, is a consequence of the world financial and economic crisis.


Senator Joyce —I raise a point of order, Mr President. The answer to this question is a number, not a story.


The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.


Senator SHERRY —The reason why we have government debt in Australia is a consequence of the world economic and financial crisis. As I have pointed out on a number of occasions—and indeed yesterday Senator Coonan, the shadow minister for finance, referred to this—the Commonwealth revenues have been significantly affected by the global financial and economic crisis, to the tune of $210 billion. There are two forms of debt: gross debt and net debt.


Senator Williams —I asked about gross debt.


Senator SHERRY —Yes, I heard your question, but I point out that there are two forms of debt. There is gross debt and net debt. The Liberal opposition have lapsed into a bad habit of only referring to gross debt. When they were in government, they would refer to net debt generally. So in terms of the gross debt for the 2008-09 financial year, the estimates have shown $111.9 billion. That is the level of gross debt. In terms of net debt, in 2008-09 it is $4.7 billion.


Senator WILLIAMS —I have a supplementary question, Mr President. What is the current total state debt now underwritten by the Commonwealth?


Senator SHERRY (Assistant Treasurer) —First of all, this is the federal parliament, the Commonwealth parliament, and I would suggest that the Liberal-National Party opposition focus on providing positive solutions and positive responses to the current global economic and financial crisis, from which Australia is not immune.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Sherry, I draw your attention to the question.


Senator SHERRY —I was just going on to point out, Mr President, that in terms of state debts, and territory debts I assume you are talking about as well, the Commonwealth is not responsible for the level of debt. That is a matter for state and territory governments. Because of the world economic and financial crisis, the Commonwealth, with the support of—


Senator Joyce —Mr President, on a point of order, I draw your attention to standing order 194(1), where it says that a senator shall not digress from the subject matter of any question. The answer to this question is a number, not a story. You have got four seconds left. Can you give us a number?


Senator Ludwig —On the point of order, Mr President: those opposite obviously want to interject rather than listen to the answer that Senator Sherry is providing. Senator Sherry is being relevant to the question; he is not digressing. What we see again is a point of order being used as a way to restate the question to make a statement—to make a point. I accept that the opposition at first blush raised the relevance issue, but they then digressed again. There is no point of order, I submit.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Sherry, I draw your attention to the fact that there are four seconds remaining to answer the question.


Senator SHERRY —1.1 per cent of GDP.


Senator WILLIAMS —I have a second supplementary question, Mr President. Will the minister take that question on notice and report back to the Senate the total state debt underwritten? Further, given that it took the coalition government more than a decade of hard work to pay off Labor’s $96 billion debt, how will Labor’s new debt, heading for $315 billion, possibly be repaid by future governments in a little over a decade?


Senator SHERRY (Assistant Treasurer) —I gave the senator the figure for state debt—

Opposition senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! When there is silence, I will ask Senator Sherry to continue. The time for debating is post question time, for both sides.


Senator SHERRY —I did give the senator the level of state debt, which is 1.1 per cent of GDP. You asked for the level and I have given you the level.


Senator Williams —You are wrong.


Senator SHERRY —The figure is correct; the percentage figure I have given you is correct. If you want further information, you should certainly clarify your question in your supplementary, which you failed to do. In terms of deficit, this Commonwealth government has responsibly set out a pathway for restoring the budget to surplus over the next six to seven years. That is very important in the context of the global economic and financial crisis. (Time expired)