“Where is the evidence that this can actually be a commercial venture?” asks Malcolm Turnbull.

“The chance of getting this through the current Senate is just about zero,” says economist John Quiggin.

“Part of the proposal involves the issuing of infrastructure bonds, which will take net federal government debt up from our current estimate of 5% of GDP to 7.8% of GDP. This is quite a turnaround from the positive net asset position of the federal government less than 12 months ago,” says Goldman Sachs.

“An historic act of nation-building,” says Kevin Rudd.

Things are changing in Australia’s public debate — and the lavishness, the sheer stupendous scale, of Rudd’s NBN and the inevitability that it will largely be a publicly funded, debt-driven endeavour is proof.

We have moved beyond the Tweedledee and Tweedledummer of recent political posturing. To be a market-first economic conservative no longer suits the flavour of harsh economic times when private money is scarce and running scared. Big government spending is back in the frame as a legitimate policy option, favoured by everyone except the French.

In Australia the GFC and has redrawn the lines of engagement, pushing Liberal and Labour back into colours last seen in the great debates of the sixties and seventies, before the narrow free-market orthodoxies of the late twentieth and new 21st century drew both parties to within a hair’s breadth of each other.

No longer. Welcome back to the possibility of a contest. We now have a suite of real issues to debate: in particular the role of government in an age of systemic market failure. The Government seems well enough equipped to pursue this new course with Whitlamite relish. We can only hope that the opposition has the dexterity to keep up and challenge it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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