Independent MLA Robyn Lambley has blasted Treasurer and Chief Minister Michael Gunner for seeming to claim he fixed the previous CLP government’s debt trajectory during a fiery budget estimates hearings at Parliament today.
The Opposition also took Mr Gunner to task over his new $15 billion debt ceiling, which they say is “ridiculous” and ineffective because it can be over-turned at any time with no consequences.
Mr Gunner told the hearing his government had halved the forecasted debt that had been established in the 2016 Pre Election Fiscal Outlook (PEFO), that showed debt increasing and cuts to the NT’s GST share over the four years to 2020.
“The [PEFO] in 2016 showed net debt growing under the ‘business as usual’ settings of the CLP,” he said, adding he had made “deliberate decisions” to rein in spending after coming to office to help fix the NT’s budget woes.
But Ms Lambley quoted the actual numbers back to him, which showed the 2016 PEFO had forecasted the debt to hover around $3 billion in 2019-20, a figure that now stands at $7.7 billion and is forecasted to increase to $9 billion by next year.
Those figures are up significantly from the $1.6 billion net debt left by the previous CLP government in 2016 – a significant increase in net debt.
“What are you saying when you say you’ve halved the debt set by the CLP, because in the forward estimates [from 2016, the debt] was only pushed out to a tiny bit over $3 billion – we’re sitting at [$7.4] billion in 2021,” she said.
“What are you talking about Chief Minister? It’s not making any sense to me.”
Mr Gunner again claimed debt was forecasted to grow before he was elected and that he was able to stop it by introducing the Langoulant Budget Repair report. But that did not happen until two and a half years after his government was first elected.
“That meant we had to put in place a new fiscal strategy that recognised the changing revenue streams of government,” he said.
“So those are the two things we’ve had to take on board and we’ve done and as a result, if you look at the net debt projections that were done public by [John] Langoulant, we’ve been able to halve that because of decisions we’ve made.”
Ms Lambley said Mr Gunner was “twisting things around here”.
“I’ve got an open mind here, but saying that you’ve halved the debt left by the CLP is simply not true. Unless you want to direct me to a page I’m not looking at, it clearly doesn’t reflect what you’re saying in terms of halving the net debt,” she said.
“It had nothing to do with the CLP, it’s your fault. You overspent from day one, you’ve mismanaged the finances of the Northern Territory and we’re all having to suffer as a result.
“I’m not gonna sit here and be lied to by the Chief Minister.”
Mr Gunner repeated his previous comments about the 2016 Pre Election Fiscal Outlook debt forecasts and the same discussion continued at different times for hours.
CLP Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro questioned Mr Gunner about the new $15 billion debt ceiling, which she said was not going to curb out of control spending and could be breached with no consequences.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “You’ve made it a little bit [above] what you will be borrowing.”
Mr Gunner defended the debt ceiling.
“In the event you … breach the debt ceiling, the Treasurer is compelled to go into parliament within 16 days to provide a detailed explanation of the circumstances that contribute to that breach,” Mr Gunner said.
“That’s why the debt ceiling won’t be breached.”
Ms Lambley and Ms Finocchiaro both said Mr Gunner had nothing to celebrate about the NT’s increasing net debt.
“That $7.7 billion [net debt] is an extraordinary amount of money and some $4 billion more than what the  PFEO showed the forward estimates would be,” Ms Finocchiaro said. “How many generations of Territorians will be burdened by your ‘business as usual’?”