Australian Treasurer Says Strong Dollar Delays Return to Surplus

The strong Australian dollar gave an “unprecedented whack” to tax revenue the government needed to return the nation’s budget to surplus, Treasurer Wayne Swan said.

Spending on disability payments and a program to improve schools are the “big-ticket items” in the budget to be announced on May 14 for the year through June 2014, Swan said yesterday in his weekly economic note.

“Our economy has outperformed the developed world over the past five years,” he said. “But it’s true too that this strength has also resulted in a sustained high dollar, bringing with it a set of new challenges, and contributing to an unpredictable and unprecedented whack to our revenue base.”

The local dollar’s resilience has slashed government earnings, spurring Prime Minister Julia Gillard to drop plans to boost help for low-paid families even as her Labor party trails in polls before elections due in September. The party’s credibility was damaged after the government in December backtracked on returning the budget to surplus this fiscal year.

“The responsible course of action when faced with that is to support jobs and growth,” Swan said yesterday in an interview on Channel Nine. “I’ve taken the responsible course. I’ll take my medicine. I accept the politics are very uncomfortable.”

Labor fell a further 2 percentage points behind Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition and is trailing by 12 points on a two-party preferred basis, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on May 7.

‘Pathway to Surplus’

The spending plan will outline a “pathway back to surplus,” Swan said.

Gillard’s government faces revenue writedowns of about A$17 billion ($17 billion) in this week’s budget, Swan said.

The government plans A$580 million of public service cuts in the budget, with the reduction to occur over four years, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported yesterday on its website.

The Australian budget will target multinational corporations that funnel investments through the country to eliminate their domestic tax liabilities, the Australian Financial Review reported on May 11.

The government plans to close a loophole allowing companies to load up their Australian operations with debt and claim large tax deductions, the newspaper said.

‘Substantial Clampdown’

“There needs to be a very substantial clampdown on tax havens, on high-wealth individuals hiding their money in tax havens and profit shifting, which occurs for many multinational companies,” Swan said yesterday.

Australia will revise a tax treaty with Switzerland for the first time since it was signed in 1980, helping to strengthen ties between revenue authorities in the two countries and overcome “bank secrecy provisions,” Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

The Australian dollar dropped below parity with its U.S. counterpart for the first time in more than 10 months on May 10, three days after the nation’s central bank cut interest rates to a record low.

The so-called Aussie’s stretch above parity, the longest since exchange controls were scrapped in 1983, sparked calls for policy action from union leaders and businesses including Orica Ltd., the world’s biggest producer of industrial explosives.

A decline in the Australian dollar is needed to help manufacturers compete with cheaper imports, Orica Chief Executive Officer Ian Smith said in an interview yesterday with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s ‘Inside Business’ program.

‘Hollowed Out’

The Reserve Bank of Australia should do “everything in their power to get it down,” Smith said. “The overall state of the economy is being hollowed out.”

Three of Australia’s four major lenders, including National Australia Bank Ltd., on May 7 passed on in full the central bank interest-rate cut for the first time in 17 months, sending benchmark home-loan costs to the lowest since 2009.

NAB, the country’s largest lender by assets, sees scope to cut mortgage rates regardless of central bank decisions as the country moves into “a more benign funding environment,” Chief Executive Officer Cameron Clyne said in an interview broadcast yesterday on Channel Nine’s Financial Review Sunday.

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