Opinion- 22 September 2004
What, apart from the title Prime Minister, goes on inside Treasurer Peter Costello's head these nights? Or rather, these dark hours about 3 am when the questing mind turns to life, self, destiny and all that stuff?
We shall never know but we can imagine a scenario of what he might say to himself. He wouldn't be his usual crisp self, he might even get a figure or two wrong, he would have to struggle with his thoughts. Cue Peter Costello:
"Eight, nearly nine years and what have I done? I can say without kidding myself that I have kept house for Australia and I've done it pretty well. Goddamit, I've done the housekeeping superbly! Nobody better in living memory.
"When we got the bastards out and took control in '96 the nation's house was a mess. Unemployment was something above 10%, interest rates were coming down from that infamous 17% but they were still outrageous, the budget looked like ending up with a $10 billion deficit and, worst of all, the national debt was heading north from $80 billion.
"Of course, I revive that horrendous set of figures these days for journalists, the House, men in suits and anyone else who will listen. Course I do. It makes a nice springboard for the position I can talk about now -- unemployment below 6%, interest rates at a 30-year low in the 5% range. The budget is in fat surplus and, best of all, the national debt is down to a very modest $25 billion or so -- not even 5% of GDP.
"I like to talk about that low percentage of GDP loud and often. It gives me a kick to remark that the US is running a national debt of 45% and God knows where it will end if Bush continues to run up mammoth deficits. What does that really mean, a low national debt? It means we don't have to pay out a fortune in interest -- ask Alan Greenspan how much interest Uncle Sam has to pay on his national debt and you'll go crazy counting the noughts.
"It also means we are in fine form to borrow more national debt if something really terrible happens -- a real war, not one of these toy wars we are having now -- or maybe a monster global depression or a meteorite or God knows what.
"We are in good shape, I have tidied up the house, cleaned out the mess and made the great nation called Australia into a plump middle class citizen of the world."
(Watch your language, Peter. No need to kill yourself with bombast.)
"That's bloody good service, if I say so myself."
A digital clock at the Costello bedside reads 3.29. He turns over to sleep but can't find the channel of drowsiness. At 3.40 he opens his eyes and resumes his stream of consciousness.
"All right, life is never all hunky dory. There's always a fly in the ointment, a glitch, a red blob in the accounts. To be frank and open and honest with myself, we have one bad figure in our national accounts. One big bad figure. An alarming number. Nobody has raised it yet in the election campaign -- well, what do expect of journalists? They spend their lives chasing the obvious and missing the meaningful. Why the Opposition hasn't tumbled I don't know and I don't care so long as they go bumbling along their own way.
"The bad figure, the nightmare figure, is the current account deficit. It isn't a national government deficit, it has nothing to do with the national debt as such, it is a commercial debt. O goddlemity! It's been growing and growing and now it is somewhere around $450 billion. A big slice of the GDP.
"Every month the figure comes out and it is like an additional $20 - $25 billion. Lucky for us, the journos always come up with an explanation -- the drought -- unusual purchases of things like aircraft, dips in world commodity prices, always an explanation which acts as a smoke screen for us. Allah be praised for smoke screens.
"I have to admit I know why we are running up this huge commercial debt. Our exports simply don't pay for our imports. Never mind the explanations, the excuses. Take Australia as a business on the world scene and we are a losing enterprise. Month after month we lose money.
"Why? With all that coal and oil and gold and wheat and meat and all the rest sailing away from our ports, we're selling a lot of stuff and still we lose money? The truth is we sell heaps of low priced merchandise and we drag our feet in the high tech, brain, thought stuff -- intellectual property or, as they say, intellectually-intensive goods and services. Stuff like measuring systems, computer games, telecommunication systems, lasers of tomorrow. All that insubstantial, can't-see-it, can't-touch-it stuff. It's not stuff at all. Not material stuff. It's brain waves, mind games.
"Anyway, that's why we run up commercial debt month after month. We work hard at digging and harvesting -- yesterday's work which brings yesterday's income. The world wants tomorrow's products. Our exporters are selling themselves short.
"Not everybody. Some of our bright and ambitious companies are on the thought-wagon. Little EOS of Queanbeyan exports gear and services to the world, gear that tracks targets in the sky or space ... Pretty secret a lot of it but brings in export dollars without owning anything except some intellectual concepts. There are the Cochlear Implant people, exporting like mad and hardly a thing to be seen. Then there's Visual Systems Ltd selling medical instruments, design systems, smoke detectors and such and bringing in $140 million from exports. And the guy I met from North Canberra who dreamed and invented and wrote computer games and marketed them in the US. He made himself a seven figure income and brought it home, brought the loot back into our financial accounts. Didn't cost Australia a cent either.
"We've been cheating ourselves and we are paying the price every month with our current account deficit. Not to mention the interest we pay on the accumulated debt."
By now it is past 4 am and the Treasurer is looking haggard. But in our imaginary scenario he makes a big effort to complete the soliloquy.
"What's the answer? Big globs of government investment? Politically impossible and a financial disaster. We could, though, make the Brain Way attractive to go-ahead companies, let them do the initial investments, carry out the work, produce the science and engineering for export income. There's the Research and Development tax concession. Used to be 150%. We dropped it to 125% and the amount of R&D fell badly. We could put the concession up to 150% or even 160%. In no time we'd have bright idea goods and services on the world market.
"You gotta be careful. Remember 10ba? To boost the Oz film industry the government offered 150% tax rebates on all money spent on films. The shonks came rushing in to get the rebates without ever troubling to exhibit a film. Make a bit of cheap rubbish and get a slab of tax rebate. Sheer fraud. Gotta be careful, target tax concessions so they only come into operation after the company has exported and earned returns.
"Lotsa ways we could encourage aggressive brain people ... exempt science degrees from HECS ... exempt science and maths and engineering from HECS. The nation would get increased intellectually-intensive income instead of student loan repayments.
"But how to get those tweaks and tricks through cabinet?
"Guess I'll have to wait till I am prime minister .... "
That's all folks, there isn't any more to the Robinson imaginary scenario of Peter Costello's sleepless stream of consciousness.
Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.