In the weekend Australian Financial Review, 16-17 April 2011, columnist Brian Toohey writes under the headline Wealth fund an unproductive idea about the notion of the proceeds of the mining boom being invested in a sovereign wealth fund.
I agree with him, and by implication my former colleague Ted Evans, all the way on the sovereign wealth fund idea:
Westpac Chairman Ted Evans is one of the most persuasive critics of sovereign wealth funds. A former Treasury head, Evans told this columnist last week that he has not changed his view that the greatest contribution governments can make to the living standards of future generations is to ensure that today’s policies are directed towards maximising future production.
He argues one effective way to do this is to spend more on education, which he says “can yield a higher return than even good private investments”.
Later in the piece it is made clear that investment in research and development and transport infrastructure are included in this productivity enhancing approach – standard “new growth theory”, which dates from the 1960s but is still new to some of our policy makers including, I fear, the present government.
As noted above, I am with Toohey and Evans all the way on this, but unfortunately Toohey cannot resist having a swipe at the Department of Defence and the case for Australian designed submarines, in ways which do nothing to enhance his case against sovereign wealth funds and for productivity enhancing expenditure:
The ill-managed and profligate Defence Department should no longer be exempt from the overall cap on spending.
I am not going to enter into a protracted argument in this post as to whether Defence is or is not ill-managed or whether it is or is not profligate. Suffice it to say that, while I would regard some areas as ill-managed (it would be surprising if it were otherwise in such a large and complex organisation), I do not regard it as being nearly as ill-managed as it is alleged to be.
As for profligacy, I think that the Department and the Australian Defence Force are grossly under-resourced for the high technology capital stock that they are required to keep maintained in airworthy, seaworthy etc condition, and in which the members of the ADF are required to undertake inherently dangerous training.
Be that as it may, my main point here is that, even if Defence were guilty as charged by Toohey, any issues of mismanagement and profligacy should be addressed directly and rectified. Cutting expenditure is not an appropriate response: the size and shape of the ADF needs to be contoured around the Government of the day’s assessed needs for Australian defence, not whether or not Defence “deserves” the funds it receives.
On submarines, Toohey says:
Junking the proposed local production of 12 giant submarines to a unique Australian design would save $40 billion and let 12 proven, high performance German subs be imported for $5 billion.
Sure the German submarines are “proven”, but proven for what? German submarines are designed for short patrols in deep cold water. We want submarines that are suitable for very long patrols in warm shallow water – a totally different proposition. If we do not acquire submarines that are fit for purpose, an even better idea might be not to acquire submarines at all, but I am not going to sign up for that idea.
We need to get on with the Collins replacement with a greater sense of urgency than the Government is so far showing. We need to be cutting metal by 2016, and we have not yet settled a design or chosen a submarine builder. As I have commented before, we must be the only country in the world that would vacillate about whether to use its own submarine builder to build its submarines.