Former prime minister John Howard has rejected the idea his government was a "profligate spender", following showing Australia's most wasteful spending in recent decades took place under his leadership.
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper has examined the financial records of 55 countries, drawing upon what it claims to be the "most comprehensive" database currently available.
It has identified just four periods between 1913 and 2011 during which it identifies "fiscal profligacy" in Australia's financial policies, and only two of those have occurred in the past five decades.
According to the analysis, both happened during John Howard's prime ministership - in 2003, and from 2005 to 2007.
The next most recent occasion was in 1960 under the leadership of former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies, although it adds that the Menzies government was noticeably prudent in 1950.
While the paper acknowledges there is no "precise" definition of prudence or profligacy, it has looked at government spending, revenue, interest repayments, government debt and gross domestic product (GDP).
The findings have drawn the ire of Mr Howard, who has rejected the idea that his government was a "profligate spender".
"Government spending as a percentage of GDP declined during the Howard years," his spokesman told ABC News Online.
"According to none other than the governor of the Reserve Bank, Australia's fiscal position is the envy of the developed world.
"The reason Australia dodged the global downturn was due to the strong fiscal position of the Howard government." The working paper makes clear that views expressed in the document are those of the authors and not necessarily the IMF.
The paper has been prepared by staff in the IMF's Fiscal Affairs Department.
The Rudd government's stimulus spending during the global financial crisis escaped criticism, with the report noting that it is sometimes appropriate to have a "profligate" fiscal policy to avoid a deep and prolonged recession.
'Missed opportunities' Finance Minister Penny Wong says the research shows the Labor government has made responsible spending choices, unlike the previous government.
"The study shows the Howard government clearly missed opportunities to effectively use the mining boom and strong global economic conditions to invest in Australia's future," Senator Wong said in a statement.
"And it debunks the myth spouted by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey that the Howard government exercised spending restraint." But shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has pointed to a that noted Australia's "exemplary macroeconomic management", which it said was "widely recognised as being at the forefront of international best practice".
Mr Hockey says any accusations of profligacy should be levelled against the current government.
"It was not John Howard and Peter Costello who wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and maxed-out the nation's credit card on dangerous pink batts and overpriced school halls," he said in a statement.
"The Howard-Costello government was not only among the most responsible in Australia's history, it was also praised by the IMF as at the forefront of international best practice." Avoid censure Gough Whitlam's government also avoided censure, despite repeated criticisms from the Coalition that it was one of the most wasteful in Australia's history.
According to the authors of the IMF working paper, which was released this week, the terms fiscal "prudence" and "profligacy" need to be considered in a medium-term context.
"Neither prudence nor profligacy is built up overnight," the authors wrote.
"One or even a few years of expansionary fiscal policies do not necessarily cause a fiscal crisis, if a government's initial position is sufficiently strong.
"Conversely, one cannot expect that, in real life, people will wait until infinity to check whether the intertemporal budget constraint is met.
"A few years of sustained deficits could well suggest that the intertemporal budget constraint is at risk."