Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (15:22):
You might indulge us a little if we are a bit suspicious of this government when we receive advice, as we did, from answers to questions on notice-forensic questioning by Senator Cormann-that the estimates for the sale of nonfinancial assets include expected sale of assets from the Future Fund. The reason for our suspicion is this. You might recall there used to be something called the Higher Education Endowment Fund-gone. There used to be a thing called the Health and Medical Infrastructure Fund-gone. There used to be a thing called the telecommunications fund-gone. That is billions of dollars set aside for investment in community assets and infrastructure gone, squandered by this government. They basically did a smash-and grab raid on those three funds.
Those of us on this side of the chamber actually take the squandering of those assets a little bit to heart, because when we came to office we inherited a $96 billion debt. People forget this, but it actually took us 10 years to pay down every cent of that debt. It was not until the middle of 2006 that all of that debt was gone. We balanced the budget, we repaid all the debt and we cut taxes. But in that situation, when you find you have a surplus, it is important to lock away Australia’s good economic fortune into a fund. We set up the Future Fund. It is a sovereign wealth fund. I hear all this talk about how we should set up a sovereign wealth fund in Australia. We have one! It is called the Future Fund and you can only put money in it if you are running budget surpluses.
We have heard, we have seen and we have read that this government, with their sticky fingers, want
to take $250 million away from the Future Fund. That is galling in itself, but, when you think that this
government have not put a single dollar into the Future Fund, it is even more galling. We have heard the excuse from Senator Wong-in fact she could not even bring herself to admit that they had not put a dollar into the Future Fund-and it was, ‘Well, you know, the global financial crisis; it is really tough.’ But we have been hearing from this government how Australia is the envy of the world, how our economy is booming and how great we are doing. You cannot have it both ways.
You cannot say the economy is booming but that we cannot run a budget surplus and we cannot find money to put into the Future Fund. You cannot have it both ways.
All I can think is that this government are just really unlucky. They were unlucky in 2008-09-unlucky budget deficit. They were unlucky in 2009-10-budget deficit. They were unlucky in 2010-11-budget deficit. They are going to be unlucky in 2011-12 as well-budget deficit. They are the unluckiest mob that you will ever come across. If you are in a lightning storm, do not stand next to any of these guys-you are not going to see the day out.
There was a salutary warning from a very insightful gentleman, the Hon. Peter Costello, in his 2007-08
budget speech. He made this observation:
If you rob capital or earnings from the Future Fund, taxpayers will have to make up the difference.
I think he foresaw a day when we might have a government like this in place. It is also worth recounting the very reason for setting up this fund in the first place. Mr Costello said at the time:
The Fund is established and is well on its way. It will help pay entitlements to our soldiers, navy and air force personnel which must be honoured after they have retired and finished their service to the nation. The Fund operates as an accumulation fund and reinvests its earnings. It aims to meet its target by 2020.
We want to see that target met by 2020. We expect this government to honour that commitment. We expect this government to defend the fund as much as we did.
There is an important additional thing that the government must do in defending the fund-the term
of the current chair of the Future Fund Board of Guardians, Mr David Murray, expires in six months
and the government needs to outline the process of consultation the government will undertake when
appointing a successor to Mr Murray to ensure the ongoing independence and integrity of that fund. It
needs to recommit to protect this fund and it needs to make sure that the next chairman is someone who will stand up for it.