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Builder Barry's bonds for all

IT IS not quite an offer to sell us the Harbour Bridge, though we've bought it more than once from the same vendor. But the O'Farrell government's plan for Waratah Bonds to help fund infrastructure such as the suburban rail extensions, motorway expansion, rail freight capacity and light rail lines may find willing takers. It is a financing option that has come in and out of favour for many decades, and now could be a good time to test the interest of investors.

IT IS not quite an offer to sell us the Harbour Bridge, though we've bought it more than once from the same vendor. But the O'Farrell government's plan for Waratah Bonds to help fund infrastructure such as the suburban rail extensions, motorway expansion, rail freight capacity and light rail lines may find willing takers. It is a financing option that has come in and out of favour for many decades, and now could be a good time to test the interest of investors.

IT IS not quite an offer to sell us the Harbour Bridge, though we've bought it more than once from the same vendor. But the O'Farrell government's plan for Waratah Bonds to help fund infrastructure such as the suburban rail extensions, motorway expansion, rail freight capacity and light rail lines may find willing takers. It is a financing option that has come in and out of favour for many decades, and now could be a good time to test the interest of investors.

These bonds will be pitched particularly at small investors - those who might in previous times have put part of their retirement nest eggs into blue-chip shares such as Telstra or into the higher-yielding bank term deposits. With the wild gyrations of sharemarkets and the heavy hits to bank assets in the past three years, many of those investors may be looking for a steadier earner with a sovereign guarantee from a top-rated government such as NSW. If a bit of public spirit is part of the decision - putting your money into helping fix the transport mess we all bitch about - well and good.

For the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, and the Treasurer, Mike Baird, it is still borrowing - but probably a shade more expensive than they can get from wholesale lenders and just as repayable. It will add to the total of borrowing that has to be maintained within a certain limit before the state's AAA credit rating is put at risk. The government will have to explain to taxpayers why paying a little more in debt-servicing costs might be justifiable for the sake of more inclusiveness in infrastructure building.

However, more borrowing is certainly on the cards because the public-private partnership alternative model is not always applicable. It works best when a predictable income stream is attached to a particular piece of infrastructure. Even then, income can fall far short of predictions, despite deliberate measures to close down or choke customer choices, as we saw with the Cross City Tunnel. Suburban rail, for example, rarely finances itself except over a very long term, unless the developer is in a position to capture the spin-offs from urban development.

In Sydney's case, there may be ways to exploit redevelopment along new rail lines and extensions, but in existing suburbs increased land values will benefit the present owners rather than the state or the railway. The public benefit will then be in faster, cheaper accessibility to the city, and reduced road traffic. In his first budget next week, Baird must show how state finances can be trimmed to sustain this public investment.

The bar still needs raisingIT SEEMS like a new trend. As we reported yesterday in Raising the Bar, our series on women in the economy, the number of places on company boards now filled by women has jumped. The Australian Securities Exchange altered the rules in 2009 to ensure more women were appointed - and lo! they have been. Those appointed were found, unsurprisingly, among the top-ranked female executives. It is a welcome trend, as far as it goes. The trouble is, it does not go very far.

What seems like something new is in fact a continuation of the same old glass ceiling for most women in a slightly different guise. After the sudden spate of promotions to boards, companies are finding the senior executive ranks have correspondingly fewer women. That suggests Australian business remains male dominated at its core. The familiar male-centred culture which has long worked against women continues to do so. Despite their qualifications and talent, women tend not to move up the corporate ladder as fast, or as far, as men.

There is a cost to this inequity beyond the lack of fairness. As we reported on Saturday, a Goldman Sachs study has found economic activity since 1974 has been boosted 22 per cent by higher female participation in the workforce. Increasing women's participation further could boost production another 13 per cent. But despite the advantages their promotion further up the career ladder might bring, most women remain stuck in lower-status, lower-paid jobs.

Many things militate against women's participation - some inevitable, some not. Women need at least the option to take time off to bear and raise children. In doing so, some women find the reality of family life crowds out their former enthusiasm for their careers. That can be good or bad, depending on the individual. It is simply to be expected, and it may imply that absolute equality is unlikely ever to be achieved. But that should not be an excuse - as it still appears to be - for society routinely to sideline women's talents and accept that their entire careers will be curtailed.

Biology may be unavoidable but other obstacles are not. The culture of workplaces, in which behaviour typical of males tends to succeed, and female behaviour tends to be sidelined, needs to change. Part of that change will come when men accept more of the burdens of domestic life, including childcare, which still fall more heavily on women. The liberation of women has brought tangible benefits it should be encouraged to bring more.


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