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Democrats' leader discusses the Senate inquiry into foreign ownership of the media, Mabo legislation, and grants to sports clubs -

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QUENTIN DEMPSTER: Did our political leaders offer secret deals to Fairfax newspaper chief, Conrad Black, in the run-up to the last Federal election? In the end, we may never know, but it's now clear that a parliamentary committee will try to find out. Today the Democrats and the Opposition agreed on terms of reference and Democrats' Leader, Senator Cheryl Kernot, agreed to discuss the controversy with Paul Lyneham.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Senator Cheryl Kernot, welcome to the program. Now, the Senate Select Committee into media foreign ownership decisions, who's the target - Paul Keating or Dr Hewson, or both?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, not either of them, really. I mean, it's been prompted by the revelation of the conversations between Conrad Black and the Prime Minister, but along the way I think John Hewson's statements have become relevant as well.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, Dr Hewson says he's not the subject of the inquiry because he's done nothing wrong and he's been exonerated, yet you say questions need to be asked of him. What questions?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, he was the alternative Prime Minister at the time; he expected to win the election. I think we have a right to know what he said in his conversations with Conrad Black. Did he really say well, you know a hundred per cent's okay, open slather, that's the Opposition's policy? Did he make any comments at all about what sort of coverage he would expect? Now, he says he didn't; I welcome the opportunity for him to say that in a Senate inquiry.

PAUL LYNEHAM: How do you think a fair and reasonable person should interpret Mr Black's comment that Dr Hewson was 'very relaxed about what our level of ownership should be'?

CHERYL KERNOT: I think anybody who was very relaxed would be willing to entertain any level of foreign ownership. I mean, in the past the Opposition has said 100 per cent's okay. Andrew Peacock certainly wanted to abolish the Foreign Investment Review Board and let anything happen.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, at this stage Dr Hewson is still prepared to appear. You've no real doubts about that?

CHERYL KERNOT: No. I think he's made a genuine commitment to appear.

PAUL LYNEHAM: But Paul Keating says he won't be slumming it. Do you think he should slum it?

CHERYL KERNOT: I promise to treat him very gently, Paul. But it's not slumming it to appear. To be prepared to come along and say: This is what I said, this is the truth of the matter, there's no problem with it, here's your opportunity to scrutinise it. I mean, okay he's the Prime Minister of Australia but he's not unaccountable and it's not for him or for John Hewson or any other powerful man to sit down over dinner or in a closed room and say: Well, we're going to carve up media ownership in Australia. It's a matter for Parliament, and Paul Keating is a Member of Parliament.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well if, in the end, Dr Hewson does appear it may surely be more politically damaging for Paul Keating to stay away than to turn up.

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, I think that's a very difficult choice he's going to be faced with. The thought of an empty chair, the thought that the Leader of the Opposition was willing to do it, will make an impression in the public mind.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, in a newspaper article today Mr Black says Paul Keating promised to support his bid for 25 per cent - promised to support it - 25 per cent of the Fairfax stock. And moreover, he claims the PM said that if Black wanted 35 per cent, then the PM 'might be disposed to support such an application'. Now, before I ask you to respond to that scenario, let's first see how Paul Keating responded to it today.

PAUL KEATING: Well, I responded very well to the last sentence of his piece where he said it will be the Prime Minister's accusers who end up in trouble here. That's what he said. See, the key point in all this is, there are only two simple points in this: The first that the Government has limited Mr Black's ownership of John Fairfax and Sons to 25 per cent, and it did so four months after these conversations. The other key point is that Mr Black has said that Dr Hewson promised him unlimited stock in John Fairfax and Sons, that he would move restraints on ownership. So therefore it is the Government which has said 25 per cent and no further; it is the Opposition who have said you can have it, a foreigner can take control of our major broadsheet newspapers.

REPORTER: Why do you think Mr Black was claiming that you offered to consider 35 per cent?

PAUL KEATING: Well, I don't know, and people have fuzzy recollections of these conversations. But, I mean, I've been Prime Minister for nearly two years and I was Treasurer for nine. I've collected conversations with media proprietors like other people collect stamps. I remember them very well.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, do you think we might, in the end, get down to something as innocent as fuzzy recollections, I mean, rather than any pre-election bid to get so-called balance out of the Fairfax papers?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, it worries me that we might have to, but then why should you believe the word of Conrad Black any more than John Hewson or Paul Keating? We're relying on hearsay at the moment. I welcome the opportunity to ask Conrad Black questions under oath in front of the Senate committee. That might put an end to all of this: He said this; no, he didn't really, he said this, and then I said that. That's not good enough.

PAUL LYNEHAM: The Mabo debate. Do you believe that any significant proportion of the Aboriginal community has been left out of this process?

CHERYL KERNOT: Not a significant proportion, no. ATSIC is the representative democracy of Aboriginal people. Those people are elected by Aborigines who choose to go on the roll and elect them. The Land Councils represent a broad range of Aboriginal people, particularly in the States where land management is a crucial issue. And in the negotiating group at the beginning were some representatives of the Eva Valley working group, which brought all those groups together. So no, I think there are some disgruntled individuals and groups but they are not significant.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, what then do you make of the Greens' proposal to refer this to a full Senate Select Committee inquiry reporting back in February?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, I see that as an extension of the Greens' desire to consult every Aboriginal man, woman and child in Australia and to be certain in themselves that every Aboriginal man, woman and child in Australia knows about the existence of the native title Bill and understands it. Now, I just don't think that that is possible.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Is it naive?

CHERYL KERNOT: It is naive. But it's not even a standard we apply to white Australians. How many white Australian men, women and children understand the details of the Bills that we pass in Parliament? Okay, wouldn't it be great if we did, but the fact of the matter is it's impossible. We live in a representative democracy and ultimately those of us who are elected have to make the decisions and face the consequences. But I believe this Bill has been debated extensively, the principle of this Bill, and now we're looking at some of the technical details. And we always do that in Senate committees after the Bill's introduced.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Do you think the Greens are becoming a bit hooked on political grandstanding?

CHERYL KERNOT: I think that when you're thrust into the limelight unexpectedly it takes a long time to get used to it.

PAUL LYNEHAM: This week's also seen the so-called 'sports rorts' affair. Do you agree with Kim Beazley that Ros Kelly's been the victim of Opposition sexism?

CHERYL KERNOT: No, I don't at all. I think that we are entitled to make judgments of Ministers' behaviour totally independent of their gender. And the fact of the matter is that Ros Kelly looks to have done something which is questionable.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Thanks for your time.

QUENTIN DEMPSTER: Democrats' Leader, Cheryl Kernot, with Paul Lyneham.