THE backlash against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh's plan to privatise $16 billion worth of state assets is strengthening, with 19 influential economists branding it ''economically unsound''.
The group of economists, which include Reserve Bank director Warwick McKibbin, Henry Ergas and a host of academics, said in a joint statement yesterday the Queensland Government's case for selling road, rail, port and forestry assets was based on ''spurious claims''.
''The people of Queensland deserve a robust and well-informed public debate over the costs and benefits of privatisation. So far they have not received it,'' the economists said.
Their criticisms echo a union-commissioned report on the privatisation. University of Sydney professor Bob Walker found that the Government had overstated how bad the state's finances were and made misleading claims to justify the asset sell-off. Treasurer Andrew Fraser dismissed the report as ''hogwash''.
University of Queensland fellow in economics John Quiggin hopes the economists' joint statement will add credibility to the widespread public criticism of the Bligh Government's privatisation rationale.
''I would be very surprised if you could find a senior independent economist who would endorse [the Government's privatisation justifications],'' Professor Quiggin said.
Ms Bligh's plan - not revealed to voters until after she was re-elected in March - has sparked public anger at the Government. Polls suggest 80 per cent of Queenslanders oppose the asset sell-off and the ALP's support has tumbled.
The depth of public opposition has called into question Ms Bligh's future as Premier, with rumblings of a leadership change by mid-2010 if the Government's polling doesn't improve. Some say Ms Bligh will bow to public pressure and scale back the privatisation, retaining rail and port assets. An improving economy in Queensland could provide the justification for the back-down.
The Government has spent $2 million on a campaign to garner support for its privatisation agenda, mailing a booklet to every Queensland household.
But the group of economists yesterday rejected the Government's key claims that the asset sale would free up $12 billion to spend on roads, hospitals and schools over the next five years, and save the state $1.8 billion a year in interest repayments.
They called on the Government for a debate based on ''discussion of the economic and social costs and benefits of privatisation, and not on the basis of spurious claims that asset sales represent a cost-less source of income to governments''.
Ms Bligh yesterday defended her privatisation plan, citing the support of the Australian Industry Group, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, the Property Council of Australia and the Tourism and Transport Forum for the strategy.
''These four groups represent people who are … real-world players,'' Ms Bligh said. ''They are not academics, sitting having an interesting debate about this way or that way.''