Hockey wants to look at debt's bigger picture
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says he plans to be judged on the level of Australia's gross debt, rather than net debt, if his party forms government in September.
Mr Hockey also plans to sell $10 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in an attempt to remove debt from the balance sheet of the Australian Office of Financial Management.
The shadow treasurer said in a speech on Tuesday that gross debt — now above $265 billion — was a good target to focus on because it was easier to measure.
"Getting a handle on gross debt has clear advantages," Mr Hockey told a Master Builders Association lunch.
"It encapsulates the effect of all spending decisions and gets around the 'above the line', 'below the line' debate, it is less easy to manipulate through money shuffling between years, it is the one budget parameter that is subject to a legislative limit," he said.
But economists said net debt was the standard metric by which governments measured themselves, and it made little sense to use gross debt as a measure of performance.
They said gross debt was highly manipulable, because if a government focused on gross debt, it could easily sell assets, such as Medibank Private, and its gross debt would fall sharply. However, this would mean little because the government would also have lost an asset.
"I don't know whether that's a sop to Barnaby Joyce," Saul Eslake, chief economist of Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, said.
"The opposition has chosen to talk about gross debt throughout the time it's been in opposition, I suspect because the numbers have been bigger and must have better suited their political purposes," Mr Eslake said.
"But [Peter] Costello never talked about gross debt. He always talked about having paid off Labor's net debt. But he never paid off gross debt, in part because he was persuaded that it was worthwhile to keep the bond market alive."
Meanwhile, fund managers said the market should support the sale of the Australian Office of Financial Management portfolio.
"The government is not a natural investor in those assets," Glenn Feben from Perennial Fixed Interest said.