Gunner using COVID-19 pandemic to ‘shift blame’ for financial figures: Senator

by | May 2, 2020 | News, NT Politics | 1 comment

Chief Minister Michael Gunner is “misleading” Territorians about his inability to present a clear picture of the Territory’s finances before the August election, and is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse, CLP Senator Sam McMahon said Friday.

Senator McMahon told the NT Independent that while there is uncertainty around the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the federal budget, “there is enough data available for Mr Gunner to publish a financial statement, with the caveat that some changes will likely follow as the full economic impact is realised”.

The Senator’s comments follow concerns raised by Territory MLAs that the NT could be bankrupt and calling on the Gunner Government to reinstate estimates hearings and produce a rough budget for the year ahead.

Senator McMahon said Mr Gunner was using the pandemic to hide the figures.

“Shifting the blame for the NT’s (pre-existing) financial state onto COVID-19 is akin to placing a feather on a building and blaming the feather for the building falling down,” Senator McMahon said. 

Mr Gunner has stated he cannot produce a budget before the election due to unknown future revenues for the Territory and because of its heavy reliance on federal funding that will be affected by the pandemic.

But Mr Gunner raised the ire of crossbenchers and the Opposition by cancelling estimates hearings scheduled for June – which provides oversight of annual departmental spending – and the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook for the year.

Mr Gunner told the Public Accounts Committee hearing into COVID-19 spending this week that because 70 per cent of the Territory’s revenue comes from the Federal Government, a budget was out of the question before November.

“We have asked at national cabinet for some kind of insight into what the GST pool may be, that has been a request that has been made. We don’t have that insight yet,” he said.

“The Federal Treasurer would find that hard to get that accurate data yet. I think in a matter of weeks and months we’ll get that clear view. That’s why they have chosen October for their budget. That’s the time frame they’ve indicated they think we can work to, to get that accurate data.”

But Senator McMahon said that was “misleading”.

“When Mr Gunner says he has no insight into the GST pool and that he can’t possibly produce a budget or any sort of financial statement, he is deliberately misleading Territorians,” Senator McMahon said.

She pointed to ongoing federal monthly snapshots of GST data provided by the federal government to assist states and territories in developing estimates for what to expect when the federal budget is handed down in October.

“It’s not ideal but it would be a lot more honest than to send Territorians to an election when they won’t have the opportunity to review Labor’s fiscal performance,” she said.

“Open the books. Let’s not forget Chief Minister Gunner is wholly responsible for decimating the NT economy prior to the recent advent of COVID-19.”

Senator McMahon’s comments come on the heels of Territory politicians suggesting this week that the Territory could be bankrupt, after continued negative economic reports and Mr Gunner’s refusal to allow estimates hearings or the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook statement.

Former Labor-turned-independent MLA Scott McConnell said earlier in the week that the government’s failure to release financials was alarming and a worrying sign the Territory might be trading insolvent.

Mr Gunner did not offer any glimpses of what the current fiscal position of the NT is at the PAC hearing on Thursday, but did say that the government will release a year-end financial report in due course.

“There will be an end of financial year document we can release, which normally comes out six weeks after the end of a quarter,” he said.

That would mean the government would release its yearly spending report just a week away from the general election, but Mr Gunner said Treasury officials would attempt to bring it out in July.

An earlier financial statement is expected later this month to the end of the March quarter, which would show spending before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Territory was last projected to be running a $6.2 billion debt this year, according to the last budget, while borrowing $4 million a day to continue general operations.

That debt figure is now expected to balloon even further this year, given the COVID-19 pandemic, but also due to hundreds of millions in un-budgeted spending by the Gunner Government in just the first few months following last year’s budget.

The 2018 projected debt of $35.7 billion by 2029-30 looks quaint by comparison to what the “new normal” will be, economists predicted.

Mr Gunner’s office was contacted for comment.

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