“We put 70 billion in the Future Fund, and we paid off $96 billion worth of debt, mate. That wasn’t bad.”
Nick Minchin has called me mate. I’m Nick Minchin’s mate. Well, not quite.
Mateship can come in many forms, but something in the tone of your voice suggests the deserts of Wake in Fright rather than the trenches of Gallipoli.
It all started so promisingly, in the brightly lit Ultimo studio for this week’s edition of Q&A. “I’d like to thank Graeme for his question,” you opined as you rubbed your hands together at the prospect of inflicting yet more pain on Penny Wong, as if she hadn’t suffered a bad enough week already.
We shared smiles as the Minister for Something We’ll Come Back To In Three Years Maybe If The Polls Back It declined to offer an opinion on whether a sovereign wealth fund was a good idea or a bad idea for Australia. Paul Howes, the National Secretary of the Australian National Worker’s Union certainly thought putting something away for a rainy day made sense. Christine Milne, deputy leader of the Greens, gave it the tick, confirming it as Greens policy after the show. Aussie Home Loans’ John Symond was nodding in approval. And Nick, you were a “great fan” of long-term reserved funds, citing the Future Fund, which you put together with your other great mate, Pete Costello.
Where did our mateship turn sour? There was so much to look forward to. We could stop smokers in the street, thanking them for voluntarily shortening their lives for the good of the nation. We could stand in a sealed room with an open canister of carbon dioxide to prove once and for all that it is perfectly safe, just like tobacco smoke. We could make Malcolm Turnbull incant “I don’t believe an ETS is an effective way to stop climate change” 500 times before we let him back on the team. Many good times ahead. But no. It was my fault.
Yes, Penny’s team is hoping to use the mining boom to fund an election win that, as a first-term government, it seems to think it’s entitled to. Infrastructure in marginal seats, and the crucial tradies vote given a nod with concessions for small businesses. But it’s all so tame next to the gear your team once served up with mining booty.
Tax cuts worth tens of billions, served fresh before each election. The first home-buyers’ grant, which bumped up housing prices by more than the value of the grant. Ditto the private health insurance rebate and insurance premiums. The baby bonus. Little gems to sneak across the line in marginal electorates, like the fishing hall of fame in Hinkler.
So humbug. The Future Fund was only adopted when your team realised it could help to justify the ongoing privatization of Telstra. The Future Fund arose from the sale of a government asset that was eminently renewable, quite unlike the ore which is wending its way north, occasionally bumping into a reef or two, to be part of the massive urbanisation programs of China and India.
The rocks are never coming back, and unlike Telstra, they will not pay dividends over time. So we are talking about setting up a very different sort of sovereign wealth fund. And next to tiny Norway’s sovereign wealth fund of US$474 billion, the Future Fund’s US$60 billion looks anemic.
And yet, your team wins. For while Penny’s team watched your team buy game after game with rivers of gold, now that it’s their turn to bat, the ball will surely be taken away. The punters are wise to the game. Neither team will ever again waste the wealth of future generations on something as cheap as an election. Spare me a sovereign fund, mate?