'Australia, we have a debt problem'

The head of one of Australia's biggest banks has slammed the quality of debate about debt in this country, labelling it "very immature".

The head of one of Australia's biggest banks has slammed the quality of debate about debt in this country, labelling it "very immature".

National Australia Bank chief executive Cameron Clyne said we had a "unique window" as a AAA-rated country to issue more government debt to fund desperately needed infrastructure.

"Australia has a debt problem: we don't have enough," Mr Clyne said on Thursday.

"If we continue to have the debate that suggests that all debt is bad, and not a debate on the productive use of debt, we will simply not be able to fund the infrastructure this economy needs to thrive into the future."

Mr Clyne's comments came a day after the Business Council of Australia released a 10-year action plan for a stronger economy, calling on major political parties to focus on long-term rather than short-term policies.

It listed 10 things it would like the government to do, including developing a national infrastructure plan to ensure the right infrastructure was delivered at the right time.

"Dedicated annual funding and a clear policy on the use of debt for infrastructure will ensure that Australia's stock of infrastructure grows in line with our economic development and population growth," the report said.

The BCA's action plan should not be dismissed quickly, Mr Clyne said. "It should be analysed. Maybe not everything in it is worthy of implementation, but we can't let it fall to short-term populism," he said.

The NAB boss also called for Australia's political leaders to focus on long-term policies, rather than play day-to-day political games through the media.

"One of the reasons why the Australian currency has possibly been somewhat higher than what the technical or fundamental level would be is there is significant demand for what limited Australian government debt there is," he said.

"Most investors around the world are up to their eyeballs in northern-hemisphere government paper. We have a unique window, as a AAA nation, with strong demand for AAA debt, to issue that debt and divert it to productive infrastructure."

Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake said he had sympathy with that view.

"One of the more sensible ways of seeking to reduce the risk of recession when the mining investment boom starts to wind down in a couple of years' time would be for the government to do precisely that," he said.

"We could borrow up to 3 to 4 percentage points of GDP without imperilling our AAA rating, as long as it was for rigorously evaluated and well-targeted infrastructure spending."

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