Tycoon says Australia treating mining firms as ATMs

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's richest person Gina Rinehart on Friday accused the government of using the mining industry as an ATM, warning of an unhealthy reliance on the sector and unsustainable debt levels.

In a speech to be delivered at the Australian Mines and Metals Association conference, the outspoken tycoon, chairman of Hancock Prospecting, cautioned that without reform Australia risked the debt problems faced by countries like Greece.

"Let's not be too proud to admit that we're really just a large island with a small population with record debt," she said, according to extracts of the pre-recorded speech.

"Plenty of Australians know this in a casual way.

"What few seem to properly understand - even people in government - is that miners and other resources industries aren't just ATMs (cash machines) for everyone else to draw from without that money first having to be earned and, before that, giant investments are made."

Australia's economy has been driven by the mining industry but the boom is approaching an investment peak and a bumpy transformation lies ahead as alternative sources of growth are sought.

Mining projects have faced headwinds from depressed conditions in Europe and the United States, softening growth in China and increased competition from other producers as well as falling commodity prices.

Earlier this week, the government revealed a significant plunge in revenues due to sluggish corporate tax earnings and announced an A$18 billion (S$22 billion) budget deficit for 2013/14, having previously forecast a surplus.

Ms Rinehart said the government had been complacent in managing the commodities boom and its debt levels - which are forecast to peak in 2014/2015 at 11.4 percent of GDP - were unsustainable.

"It is incredible that after the last six years of record commodity boom times, we now find the once lucky country in record debt, with the budget tipped to deliver yet another deficit, to further increase our record debt," she said.

"Without mining and its related companies this country has no hope of repaying our record debt without facing the problems Greece and other countries faced with overspending and consequent debt traumas."

Ms Rinehart has been a fierce critic of the government's mining and carbon taxes, saying that along with red tape and high wages it had made Australia "cost uncompetitive".

According to the Australian Financial Review, she was also to use her speech to urge Australia to borrow from the economic policies of Singapore, using low taxes to encourage investment and development.

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