Australia’s foreign aid to be slashed under Abbott government

SYDNEY - Australia's likely next government said Thursday it would massively slash the foreign aid budget to pay for infrastructure projects as it pledged Aus$40 billion (S$46.8 billion) of savings if it wins office.

The economy has been a key battleground ahead of Saturday's election and the Tony Abbott-led conservative opposition, which polls suggest is heading for victory over Kevin Rudd's Labor, said it would pay down Aus$16 billion of debt.

It announced Aus$33 billion in proposed spending over four years and said the budget would be Aus$6.4 billion better off.

The figures were part of the opposition's long-awaited policy costings, which Rudd has slammed for being released just two days before the election.

"We will put in place the tools necessary to grow the Australian economy, to give Australian families job security. Importantly, give them more control of their lives," a visibly nervous opposition finance spokesman Joe Hockey said.

"We are going to do this by improving the budget bottom line, by over $6 billion.

"And we're going to start paying down Labor's mountain of debt by more than $16 billion. The coalition has already announced over $31 billion of savings (over four years). Today I'm announcing a further $9 billion of savings."

Abbott's key policies include repealing a corporate pollution tax and another on mining profits. He would introduce a paid parental leave scheme which would cost Aus$5.5 billion per year.

Part of the savings include cutting the foreign aid budget by Aus$4.5 billion, with Hockey saying "we can only be a more generous nation to the rest of the world if we have a strong Australian economy".

"And so we are reducing the growth in foreign aid by $4.5 billion over the forward estimates to fund essential infrastructure here in Australia." UNICEF, World Vision and Oxfam were all quick to react, saying the cuts would come at the expense of the world's most vulnerable and cost lives.

"The overseas aid budget is Australia's commitment to the world's poor and vulnerable, and is not an ATM for political parties in search of cash to prop up their bottom line," said Oxfam Australia chief executive Helen Szoke.

More than Aus$1 billion in savings over four years is forecast to come from the party's "Stop the Boats" policy, referring to its plan to turn back asylum-seeker boats and force those arriving on to welfare-for-work programmes - a key election issue.

The conservatives said they would save an additional Aus$1.2 billion by axing Australia's humanitarian refugee intake by 6,250 places to 13,750. It would find Aus$5.2 billion by sacking 12,000 public servants.

Last month, the government revealed that its budget deficit has blown out to Aus$30 billion and revenues were shrinking as the mining-driven economy grapples with a slowdown in China that has seen commodities prices tumble.

The opposition has maintained that after six years of Labor "waste", the conservatives would be better managers of the economy - something Rudd denied Thursday.

In one of his final election pitches, he championed what Labor had achieved, pointing to reforms in disability care, education, health and climate change, while steering the country through the global financial crisis.

He said Labor was "in the business of building the nation's future whereas Mr Abbott is in the business of cuts, cuts and more cuts for Australia's future".

"Based on their history I genuinely fear for what the Liberals would do in office," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese added: "They're not policy costings, they're a farce.

"They've been hiding their costings and we know why. There's some shockers in this document," he told Sky TV.