CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A new government prepared to take control of Australia on Sunday, with policies to cut pledges in foreign aid and to wind back greenhouse gas reduction measures in an effort to balance the nation’s books.
Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott also plans to visit Indonesia soon in part to discuss controversial plans to curb the number of asylum seekers reaching Australian shores in Indonesian fishing boats.
Abbott’s conservative Liberal party-led coalition won a crushing victory at elections Saturday against the center-left Labor Party, which had ruled for six years, including during the turbulent global financial crisis.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s latest counting early Sunday had the coalition likely to win a clear majority of 88 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor appeared likely to secure 57.
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,” Abbott told reporters. “There’s a lot of work that will be done later today.”
The coalition announced last week that if elected it would plan to save 4.5 billion Australian dollars ($4.1 billion) over the next four years by reducing increases in its aid spending to the Australian inflation rate, which is currently less than 3 percent.
The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.
The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”
“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “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 country’s 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 cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. 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 jeopardize the long-term standing of our country while he is at it,” Greens leader Christine Milne said last week.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said on Friday that cuts to planned spending will strain small Pacific island nations, a major beneficiary of Australian aid.
“These are countries that need a lot of support and help, so if there is less money coming their way, they’ll obviously feel that over time,” Key told reporters in the Marshall Islands, where he was attending the Pacific Islands Forum. “It will certainly make the money that we spend here even more valuable.”
The coalition also aims to save money by stopping the AU$10 billion government-run Clean Energy Finance Corp. from investing any more money on low-pollution power generation technologies.
It is unclear whether the collation can fulfill that election promise before it passes legislation.
The coalition appears unlikely to win a majority in the Senate. But the election could deliver some conservatively minded senators for minor parties that Abbott could deal with.
Abbott also needs Senate support to fulfill his promises to repeal a deeply unpopular carbon tax on Australia’s biggest industrial polluters and a 30 percent tax on coal and iron ore miners’ profits.
One of the biggest former donors to Abbott’s coalition, eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer, withdrew his patronage to bankroll his own political party, Palmer United Party, to target conservative voters who distrust Abbott, whom opinion polls show is an unpopular political leader.
Palmer, who is currently building a replica of the ocean liner Titanic — which will be named Titianic II and make its maiden voyage in 2016 — 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.
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.
Labor argued that both policies could damage Australia’s relations with Indonesia, its closest neighbor after Papua New Guinea.
Saturday’s election likely brought Australia’s first Aboriginal woman to Parliament. Former Olympian Nova Peris is almost certain to win a Senate seat for Labor in the Northern Territory, but the final results will not be known for days. Less likely is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bid for a Senate seat in Victoria state.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.