Saul Eslake says Tasmanian Government should sell off some of its companies

Saul Eslake
Saul Eslake

The state’s political parties have rejected considering the sale of any of the state’s government-owned businesses, recommended by Tasmania’s top economist.

Saul Eslake made the pitch during the release of his third Tasmania Report; a document that closely examines the state’s social and economic climate.

A big concern for the state’s finances for years has been its unfunded superannuation liability for retiring public servants.

Mr Eslake said while the state’s debt is low, the liability has prevented Tasmania from accessing the low-interest loans for infrastructure projects.

He said the state’s superannuation liability was three times the national average.

Mr Eslake said the debt would rise from $280 million a year to $400 million a year over the next 10 years.

"Tasmania will not be able to do what other states are doing which is to borrow at record-low interest rates in order to fund worthwhile investment projects," he said.

"The only way of offsetting that is by running bigger budget surpluses, which defeats the point of spending more on infrastructure, or by selling assets and depositing the proceeds in such a way that the income from them can grow to pay for the superannuation liability.”

Mr Eslake said Hydro Tasmania, Metro, TasRail or TasWater, if it came under government ownership, should be quarantined from future sales.

"Consideration should be given to others: TasNetworks, Aurora, TasPorts, and MAIB," he said.

"It is possible to write rules that the pricing behaviour of a regulated utility, like TasNetworks, can be controlled by government.”

Mr Eslake said the challenges the state faced over the next four years and beyond could not be tackled by a future government that has a mandate of "minding the store"

Premier Will Hodgman said all publicly owned companies would remain so under the Liberals as they assisted in providing budget surpluses and delivered a social benefit with a financial benefit. 

"We aren't planning any assets sales because we believe state-owned companies are best managed by the state," Mr Hodgman said.

Deputy Labor Leader Michelle O'Byrne said a government needed to retain control over its state-owned businesses to ensure it could manage and control services provided to the community.

"It is never in the interest of a government in the long-term to sell of an entity for short-term gain," she said.

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said the party did not support the privatisation of public assets either.

“Inevitably it leads to higher costs for consumers and once public property is sold off, you just don’t get it back,” she said.

The new residential housing market declined sharply in Northern Tasmania in the past financial year.

The 43-per-cent decline in new residential approvals was more than double the drop witnessed in any other region, despite the North being the only region to see an increase in approvals in 2015-16.

The Tasmania Report, presented by economist Saul Eslake on Monday, tested the health of the state in the key areas of economics, housing, employment and education.

It found overall that housing activity had declined around the state in 2016-17 by 28 per cent after a 17-per-cent fall the year before.

Mr Eslake said there was forecasted growth in housing activity for this financial year but reiterated his position that cash incentives for first-home buyers and builders did not work to sustainably lift this activity.

"All they do is create temporary peaks which are followed by subsequent downturns,” he said.

The reported showed jobs had grown in the North by 3450 over the past financial year.

This had caused unemployment to fall by a percentage point, largely because most of the newly-created jobs went to people looking for work, Mr Eslake said.

He said North’s unemployment rate on average still remained the highest of Tasmania’s three major regions. Mr Eslake said most of the recent employment growth over the past three years had been in part-time work. "And while that is a trend across Australia, it is more pronounced here than in any other state," he said

Mr Eslake said underemployment figures remained much higher than other states.