Wednesday 21 February 2018

Australia’s new leader vows to cut foreign aid and curb asylum seekers

Tony Abbott speaks to supporters in Sydney
Tony Abbott speaks to supporters in Sydney
Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott (centre) stands with his wife Margaret (second left) and daughters (left to right) Frances, Louise and Bridget as he claims victory in Australia's federal election

A NEW government prepared to take control of Australia today with policies to cut foreign aid in an effort to balance the nation's books.

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott also plans to visit Indonesia soon to discuss controversial plans to curb the number of asylum seekers reaching Australian shores in Indonesian fishing boats.

His conservative Liberal party-led coalition won a crushing victory in yesterday's election against the centre-left Labour Party, which had ruled for six years, including during the turbulent global financial crisis.

The Australian Electoral Commission's latest counting early today had the coalition likely to win a clear majority of 88 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labour appeared likely to secure 57.

Mr Abbott, a supremely fit 55-year-old, began his first day as prime minister-elect with an early morning bicycle ride from his Sydney home with friends.

"It was a very big night, but this is just the start of another normal day and there's going to be a fair bit of solid work this morning," he said.

The coalition announced last week that if elected it would plan to save AUD$4.5bn over the next four years by reducing increases in its aid spending to the Australian inflation rate, which is currently less than 3%.

The outgoing Labour government said in May that Australia's long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labour's commitment to reach the 0.5% target "over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget".

Mr Abbott told reporters last week: "I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities" than reaching the 0.5% target.

"The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy."  The money saved will be reallocated to road projects in the three biggest cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation's image of global co-operation, particularly in light of Australia's recent appointments to presidency of the UN Security Council and the G20 in 2014.

"I think it says a great deal about the man, Tony Abbott, and his principles if he is prepared to attack the poor - home and abroad - and is prepared to jeopardise the long-term standing of our country while he is at it," Greens leader Christine Milne said last week.

The coalition appears unlikely to win a majority in the Senate. But the election could deliver some conservatively minded senators for minor parties that Mr Abbott could deal with.

He also needs Senate support to fulfill his promises to repeal a deeply unpopular carbon tax on Australia's biggest industrial polluters and a 30% tax on coal and iron ore miners' profits.

One of the biggest former donors to the coalition, eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer, withdrew his patronage to bankroll his own political party, Palmer United Party, to target conservative voters who distrust Mr Abbott, whom opinion polls show is an unpopular political leader.

Mr Palmer, who is currently building a replica of the Titanic, is close to winning his own seat in the House of Representatives. A Palmer United Party senate candidate, former football star Glenn Lazarus, looks even more likely in his home state of Queensland.

Mr Abbott's new government wants to discuss with Indonesia plans to have the Australian navy turn back Indonesian fishing boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters.

The coalition has proposed that the government buy old fishing boats from Indonesian fishermen to prevent them falling into the hands of people smugglers.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's bid for a Senate seat in Victoria state appeared doomed today.

His Senate running mate for the newly founded WikiLeaks Party, Binoy Kampmark, said Mr Assange was unlikely to win a seat after attracting just a little more than 1% of the votes in Victoria. The Senate count won't be finalised for days.

Mr Kampmark, who would have taken Mr Assange's Senate seat had Mr Assange won but been unable to travel to Australia, said the WikiLeaks Party was upbeat about its first campaign.

He said Mr Assange had joined party celebrations in Melbourne last night via Skype from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he is hiding out to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex crime allegations.

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