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Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Italian government calls confidence vote on austerity Add to ...

The Italian government on Thursday called for a vote of confidence on an austerity package aimed at persuading bond markets that the country can get it finances under control and emerge from the widening debt crisis.

The tactic seeks to ensure passage of the €30-billion ($39-billion U.S.) package of tax hikes and spending cuts that have been hotly contested by lawmakers and unions, which announced a second day of strikes on Friday to demand greater safeguards for workers.

The package, which also calls for reinvesting €10-billion of the savings to spur growth, goes to a vote in the lower house of Parliament on Friday and then to the Senate, which is expected to vote by Sunday.

Despite opposition to the measures demanded by the European Union and the European Central Bank, they are expected to pass.

Premier Mario Monti was tapped last month to head a technical government tasked with reducing public debt, which stands at 120 per cent of GDP, and improving the economy’s competitiveness. Mr. Monti will face big challenges in January, when Italy once returns to the bond markets to raise money and the government seeks another round of even tougher measures.

Italy’s borrowing costs spiked again in its last bond auction of the year on Thursday when the debt-ridden nation paid a yield of 6.47 per cent for investors to lend it €3-billion over five years. The rate was up 0.17 per cent from the last such auction a month earlier and was the highest paid by Italy since the euro was introduced in 1999.

The vote of confidence was announced in the lower house, where the speaker earlier suspended the session and ejected two lawmakers from the unruly right-wing Northern League who held up banners against the resurrection of a tax on primary residences. The Northern League caucus, the only party not to support Mr. Monti’s government in a vote of confidence confirming the new Cabinet last month, also whistled in protest of the measures before the chamber.

“Shepherds whistle, not lawmakers,” a clearly agitated Gianfranco Fini told deputies as he sought to bring order.

In the Senate on Wednesday, members of the Northern League, an ally in the previous government led by Silvio Berlusconi, had also protested with signs saying “Enough Taxes” and calling the austerity program “robbery.”

Discontent over the painful measures has been spreading. Hundreds of firefighters demonstrated outside Parliament on Thursday, saying the measures would put some 20,000 firefighters without long-term contracts out of work in January without any safety net. A nationwide transport strike was set to begin Thursday evening and run most of the day Friday.

At the same time, investors clearly remain worried about the future of both Italy and the wider 17-nation euro zone despite an EU deal last week to tighten controls on spending. While that deal will boost longer-term budget discipline, experts say it does little to lower current debt and exposed deepening political division.

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