, CANBERRA, May 14 – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott Wednesday defended his tough first budget which saw swingeing cuts to health and education spending in an attempt to slash the country’s massive deficit.
The moves triggered anger and claims of broken election promises, but conservative Abbott said his administration was being upfront with the public about the state of the nation’s finances.
“This budget is not about making the government popular,” Abbott said.
“This budget is about doing the right thing by our country and that, in the end, is what the voters want.”
The plan released Tuesday aims to bring the deficit down from its current Aus$49.9 billion (US$46.6 billion) to Aus$29.8 billion next year, with the government planning to reach a surplus around the end of the decade.
It includes federal cuts of Aus$50 billion to health funding and Aus$30 billion to education over the next 10 years, leaving state governments to pick up the slack.
A new tax will be levied on high earners while welfare and family benefits will be tightened and young people will have to wait six months before claiming unemployment benefit.
The pension age will rise to 70 by 2035 and people will have to pay a modest fee to visit the doctor, with some of the revenue raised directed towards a medical research fund.
– ‘Kick in the guts’ –
Abbott faced a barrage of questions in parliament about whether he had broken a pre-election promise of no new taxes as he attempted to sell the policies on Wednesday.
“This is a fundamentally honest budget,” he said.
“The most fundamental commitment I made was to get the budget back under control.”
The cuts to health and education have prompted a furious reaction from state governments, who now face shortfalls from the winding back of the commitments promised by the previous Labor government.
“What we saw last night from Canberra was a kick in the guts to the people of New South Wales,” state Premier Mike Baird, a fellow conservative, told reporters in Sydney.
“What services would (they) like us to cut here in New South Wales on the back of the funding cuts that we’ve seen overnight?”