Lawmakers reveal $9.7 billion discrepancy in Australian opposition’s election pledges

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Australian lawmakers reveal $9.7B hole in pledges

CANBERRA, Australia — New figures show that Australia’s conservatives overstated savings from their election promises by up to10.6 billion Australian dollars ($9.7 billion), in a blow to their chances of forming a ruling coalition after inconclusive elections.

Conservative leader Tony Abbot said Thursday that his coalition has the best economic credentials to govern despite the figures released late Wednesday by independent lawmakers, who are deciding which party to back in what will be Australia’s first minority government since World War II.

Abbott’s Liberal Party represents the conservative spectrum in Australian politics, despite its name, and vies for power against the Labor Party. Neither side won a majority in Australia’s Aug. 21 elections.

Senior Liberal lawmakers have stuck by the accuracy of their own figures and explained that the discrepancies with official calculations by government ministries were “a difference of opinion” on methodology and underlying assumptions such as future interest rates.

Abbott said the discrepancies did not compromise his negotiations with three nonaligned, kingmaker legislators, who plan to discuss the policies and budget costs with coalition lawmakers in Canberra on Thursday as they decide which side to back.

“There are a whole lot of issues in play here and an, at times, arcane argument about costings is by no means the most important,” Abbott told reporters at Parliament House. “The bottom line is that there are two competing economic records here.”

He said that when Labor was elected in 2007, it had inherited AU$60 billion ($55 billion) in assets, which it turned into AU$90 billion ($82 billion) debt through economic stimulus spending.

The three independents had requested briefings from Treasury and Finance ministry bureaucrats on confidential estimates of competing election pledges.

They said the questions of which party had the best economic blueprint, and which might have misled voters, were key factors in deciding whether to back a Liberal Party-led coalition or Labor Party government.

The trio released Treasury documents that contradicted Abbott’s claim that Australia’s bottom line would be AU$11.5 billion ($10.5 billion) better under his conservative coalition in three years, when both sides of politics have promised to return the budget to surplus.

Treasury found that the improvement could be as little as AU$900 million ($820 million).

Independent Tony Windsor said Thursday he would ask coalition lawmakers to explain the discrepancy before commenting on how it would effect the choice he will make as early as Friday.

“It’s not a good thing for the coalition,” Windsor told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. “They’re enormous numbers.”

Fellow independent Rob Oakeshott said he was inclined to believe the Treasury figures over the Liberals.

“The economy for all of us should be a deal breaker,” Oakeshott told reporters outside Parliament House early Thursday.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who heads a caretaker Labor government until a new ruling coalition can be formed, had urged the independents to make public the budget figures of the coalition and her own Labor Party, which has governed for the past three years.

Treasury found that Labor had understated the improvement to the budget position under Labor’s policies by AU$62 million ($56 million).

Deputy Labor leader Wayne Swan told ABC that the coalition figures were “either deliberate dishonesty, incompetence or both.”

Greens party lawmaker Adam Bandt on Wednesday became the first of five lawmakers from outside the major parties to announce which side he will back, saying he would back Labor.

His support gives the center-left Labor Party control of 73 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, the same as the conservative coalition.

Labor remains in charge of the caretaker government until Gillard or Abbott can strike a deal with independents to command 76 seats. If neither leader can command a majority, new elections will be called.

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