How Peter Costello got rid of government debt

Tue, 12 Aug 2014  |  

I originally produced this research at my old website in 2012.

Given the kerfuffle over asset sales and Treasurer Joe Hockey's flailing with the budget and former Treasurer Peter Costello's suggesting that the government redo the budget, I thought it useful to up the debate on debt, asset sales and the fiscal follies of the Howard government.

There are a few updates from when this was initially published.

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Australia's net Government debt was $96 billion in June 1996. By June 2007, Australia had net financial assets (negative debt) of $29 billion. The Howard Government and the current Liberal Party point to this turn in the finances of the Government with pride and say it is a sign of good economic management.

To be sure, this is a significant turnaround but there are some interesting facts behind the issue of Government debt in the past 30 or so years

The first point to note is that the $96 billion of debt inherited by the Howard Government from the Labor Party in 1996 comprised around $39.9 billion of debt accumulated by the Fraser Government under the Treasury-ship of Mr Howard and left to the Hawke Government in 1983! See Table 3 of Budget Paper 10 for more details.

As I discussed a while back, https://alturl.com/4o973 , when the Coalition talks of the $96 billion of Labor debt that it inherited, recall that just under half of it was in fact Liberal Party debt that was a hangover from the Fraser era that ended in 1983.

That slightly embarrassing issue aside, let's look at how else the Howard Government "got rid" of that debt.

Asset sales loom large in that discussion. The list of government assets sold by the Howard government is here: https://alturl.com/bjhqk . This table shows the asset, the time of sale and the price.

To get an accurate indication of the true dollar impact on debt of those asset sales, I have converted them into June 2007 dollar terms. Take the sale of DASFLEET, for example, which was sold for $408 million in July 1997. In June 2007 terms, this was worth $536.8 million. Or perhaps the first tranche of Telstra is interesting. Sold for $17.2 billion in November 1997, that converts to $22.6 billion in June 2007 terms.
The value of all asset sales under the Howard Government totalled a very hefty $71.8 billion in June 2007 dollar terms. This means that around three-quarters of the pay-down of the $96 billion of government debt was simply from selling assets to the private sector. Nothing more, nothing less.

To summarise the above facts:

The $96 billion "Labor debt" inherited by the Howard Government in 1996 comprised $39.9 billion of Fraser Government debt that carried through the Hawke/Keating period meaning that the true level of Labor debt in 1996 was $56 billion. To pay that $56 billion off, the Howard Government sold almost $72 billion of Government assets meaning the move to negative net debt was not really due to any miraculous and bold fiscal settings, but owed everything to a series of asset sales.

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