Is Demography Destiny?

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Australia had a bonanza of major reports handed down in the past week commissioned by the Federal government on the challenges and opportunities for the nation to retain its position as one of the most liveable places on earth.

The Intergenerational Report points to the extraordinary expenditure required to support an aging population; while the Re:Think Tax Discussion paper confirmed yet again the tax revenue system is not fit for purpose; and Review of Competition Policy suggests deeper and wider competition could serve the nation better.

Is there any common ground between these reports and what does it mean for Australia’s infrastructure future? Over the coming days, I will comment briefly on each report, starting with the Intergenerational Report now.

Many skilled analysts have fallen into the trap of overplaying the importance of demography by going so far as to argue: demography is destiny for nations.

The thought provoking Equity Guilt studies from Barclays reported in The Economist is a case in point. In 2005 based on population predictions, they expected bond yields would rise 5 percentage points per decade, making them about 9% now. Of course, the prediction has been wildly wrong, not because of a major demographic shift but rather there have been multiple other factors like, GFC, Europe’s debt crisis and quantitative easing.

Interestingly, from an infrastructure perspective the most recent Barclay study has identified another demographic theme, the aging population and its impact through de-accumulation of national savings. The upshot is an expected strong head wind for asset prices in coming decades.

Time will tell whether that is the case,; so far there is only evidence to the contrary when it comes to infrastructure assets.

Recent prices paid for major infrastructure (like Port Botany, Port Newcastle in NSW, Australia) by global pension funds fully exposed to these demographic trends are paying historical highs (+25 times revenue) for the privilege of ownership.

Over playing demography is one risk but the bigger risk is to ignore it altogether.  Demography can still tell an awful lot about the future. It is for this reason that national infrastructure planning should be more closely linked to, and informed by the Intergenerational Report if the authors went one step further in their analysis.

Australians have peculiar land settlement patterns where vast bulk of the population cling to an 80km littoral ribbon running from Brisbane to Melbourne.

The missing link in the Intergenerational Report is for the demographic outlook to be given some basic spatial detail. It would be very helpful for all levels of government to have a basic understanding of the expected settlement patterns and population size that will evolve as we track towards the 22nd Century. But too many politicians deem this type of scenario-based information as too sensitive; they do so at the cost of the nation.

Population projections at postcode level can be extremely valuable, especially over the next 20 years to inform transport and land use planning. It also provides a firmer foundation to reason about what decisions should be made today to ensure future policymakers have good options to deliver the services demanded tomorrow by the community.

Creating and preserving land corridors for transport and utilities is critical. Without it the costs of basic services will be harder to deliver and certainly more expensive. The simple acceptance that land use planning and transport planning is the same thing, would save the nation billions of dollars every year.

Instead there is a lack of willingness to engage the community on the types of questions and issues that go to the heart of championing a sound infrastructure governance process.

Community consultation and trust with our policymakers is very important, and unfortunately trust is trending down. Population and demographic trends provide one of the few evidence bases that can be relied upon to inform better infrastructure decisions.

The Federal Treasury recently stated that the long-term fiscal outlook for Australia is that we can expect to not produce a single ‘budget surplus’ for the next 40 years on current policy settings.

Could it be that too many of our current policy settings are feeding back, contradicting one another and exacerbating the fiscal, economic and social challenges we are trying to fix in the first place; calling for even more taxes and more expenditure.

Can we stop this unvirtuous cycle?

I will revisit this question shortly when I look at the Re:Think Tax Discussion Paper next time.

Asset Recycling, a smarter way for Australia?

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Asset Recycling, a smarter way for Australia?

This is my opinion piece that appeared in the Australian Financial Review today, 18 March 2015.

I welcome your opinions and observations.

The decision to sell poles and wires in NSW is extraordinarily straightforward.

The real questions lie elsewhere. How to unlock the community’s permission to do asset recycling (AR), and what safeguards exist to ensure proceeds of asset sales are spent wisely. These issues are covered in SMART’s discussion paper released today, Asset Recycling, a smarter way for Australia? Available at www.smart.uow.edu.au

An avalanche of independent opinion and analysis shows it is unambiguous that electricity consumers will be better off with more reliable power at a cheaper price under private ownership. The AR model proposed by the NSW Government, and supported by the Commonwealth, involves the sale of public assets and directing the proceeds to meet the unrelenting demand for new infrastructure.

While not new, AR is again a product of its time. There has been a rapid deterioration in the Federation’s fiscal balance, borrowings increased 250 per cent between 2007-08 and 2012-13 in real terms, yet economic growth increased by only 12.9 per cent in real terms over the same period.

AR is intended to work like an accelerant. It enables governments to set a higher trajectory for infrastructure investment, doing more sooner than might otherwise be the case, without recourse to higher taxes or the burden of debt.

If the projects are chosen wisely, the state gets a significant uplift in benefits as new or renovated infrastructure kicks into action, driving new investment and jobs. Deloitte Access Economics, in work undertaken for the NSW State Infrastructure Strategy, has forecast that the strategy will lead to an improvement in GSP of 3.6 per cent by 2035 (above the base case), creating over 122,000 additional full time equivalent jobs.

NSW does not need an expert to tell citizens that it has a shortage of infrastructure, and that building better infrastructure sooner is a priority. Yet, AR is perceived as a controversial act by government.

Funding options other than AR to boost infrastructure investment are limited. Resorting to higher user charges would help in some areas like funding public transport, but IPART has linked this to an improvement in service quality so the process will be slow.

The potential loss of its triple AAA credit ratings and lack of growth in traditional tax revenue, coupled with significant demand for new government services and infrastructure (health, aging, education and transport) has put NSW in a fiscal straight jacket.

Significant expenditure cuts have taken place to drive better efficiency but options to do more are limited. Raising taxes, especially from the narrow state tax base is highly destructive to efficiency, growth and innovation.

So without other clear alternative funding options, AR is an attractive and important avenue for government to pursue.

Previously government’s did not need to do AR on a wide scale. The response to the GFC and the end of the mining boom has changed the landscape for all governments including NSW, especially recourse to more debt no matter how cheap it may appear now.

However, while AR is beneficial it alone is not a panacea for NSW or any of the states towards ensuring a more sustainable long-term footing to fund infrastructure. That involves facing up to better managing demand via direct user charges and stronger infrastructure governance processes.

The Productivity Commission has highlighted that AR must separate the two elements that make it up; the sale of an asset and the decision to invest in infrastructure. The cost benefit analysis must be done separately for each. Linking the two decisions must not reduce the evidence threshold on which those decisions are made.

Community engagement is critical, and rebuilding trust is the oxygen that will sustain an AR program over the longer term. To do this requires a strong governance process, where prioritisation of projects is based on a fixed fiscal envelope linked to the forward estimates process.

Transparency and strong evidence is critical along with an acceptance that infrastructure planning and land use planning is the same thing. While ever land is used inefficiently, governments will be committed to building inefficient infrastructure. This unvirtuous cycle has gone on too long and is in need of reform. INSW has rightly recognised this flaw and is seeking to redress it, but there is much more reform required.

NSW has put in place a sophisticated institutional structure to guide the AR process. Restart NSW and INSW should ensure a high quality investment and administrative oversight.

AR done well has the potential for a smarter infrastructure future for NSW and Australia.

Welcome

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Hello, and welcome!

This blog is intended as a step forward in sharing my professional ideas and frameworks on issues that are important to the way business, public policymakers and the community can work together.

My experiences have been shaped from being involved in Australian public policy,  international diplomacy and most recently infrastructure. While I may touch a number of areas, most of my comments will be anchored to an infrastructure theme,  particularly planning, selecting, prioritising and funding of infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the life blood of modern societies. Yet we use it, benefit from it and our cities and economies are shaped by the decisions of those that went before us.  Too often however, we fail to maintain our public assets and fall well short of the mark on long term planning capabilities. This acts as a brake on our society’s development.

We have a responsibility to make wise decisions. To do that we need to ask wise questions like what sort of cities and regions we want to live in, and how we can shape them so they are better places for the next generation.  Most of us are beneficiaries of very sound decisions taken well before we were born. For example, as a resident of Sydney, Australia the decision to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge in early 1900s has given Sydney an enormous intergeneration gift that has helped to underwrite its outstanding liveability and success on any global comparison. Sydney’s place in the world would have surprised even Bradfield and other early visionaries. All of whom had very high expectations for the future success of the city.

Intergenerational responsibility and infrastructure decision making go hand in hand, because these assets and networks of transport, energy, telecommunications, water and waste together with the schools, hospitals and parklands impact directly on our current and future quality of life and economic prosperity.

However, there is a very real risk that if society today breaks the long line of intergeneration philanthropy we have experienced with too many short sighted decisions, then we risk losing this gift forever!

Its very important to remember that infrastructure is much more than just an engineering artefact, its an agent of change that drives the economic and social fabric of our societies. I am looking forward to sharing with you my perspectives about the ‘bigger’ issues confronting our society. 

We must do better in all aspects of infrastructure decision making. A good starting point is committing to a proper home for recording our nation’s institutional memory, that captures the lessons from past projects, and their successes. I also hope to create a network of people from many professions and walks of life that want to understand, critique and share their learning in this journey.

My next blog will be focussed on Asset Recycling. That is selling public assets to fund infrastructure; it is of particular interest as governments in Australia are grappling with how to fund infrastructure in a very tight and self imposed debt constrained environment.

I hope you will join me in taking a step forward to contributing to a more informed and responsible infrastructure debate.