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Opposition Leader responds to the review of the Liberal Party leadership issue shown on 'Four corners'

JOHN HEWSON: I don't give the Four corners program the time of day.

REPORTER: What about the Members of your own Party, Dr Hewson?

JOHN HEWSON: Look, I can cite you a survey last week where the Herald Sun phoned 47 or 50 people and nobody would criticise my leadership. I mean, I just think it's typical Four corners nonsense.

REPORTER: Is it acceptable to you that you've got Members of your own party on national television canvassing your leadership?

JOHN HEWSON: Look, as I say, it's a hatchet job by Four corners, nothing more, nothing less. Why don't they run Labor in power, that series, over and over, and show people just what the Labor Party was really like? Why don't you guys give that equivalent time.

ELLEN FANNING: The embattled John Hewson, attacking the continuing media focus on his leadership. On the Four corners program last night, Liberal backbenchers lined up to publicly air their dissatisfaction. One, Queenslander Bill Taylor, said he didn't think his current leader could deliver victory at the next Federal election. The ABC television program also focused on the continuing popularity of Bronwyn Bishop and reported on the form of the Melbourne Cup field of leadership hopefuls.

And while some Liberals warned of the dangers of backing a populist like Senator Bishop, she gained notable support from a former machine man. One time Victorian Liberal President, Michael Kroger, came out strongly in support of Senator Bishop as a member of the Liberals' front-bench team. He's joined A.M. now and to speak with him this morning our chief political correspondent, John Shovelan.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Michael Kroger, welcome to the program. Does John Hewson have the authority in the Liberal Party a leader requires?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well yes, I think so. The point I was making last night was that there's absolutely no benefit for the party in people running around attacking Senator Bishop - nor John Hewson for that matter - and it's very important to have someone as popular as her on the front-bench team. And that's the point I'm making and I think it's absolutely right.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Last night, though, we saw one MP say Dr Hewson's authority had been immeasurably diminished; another said the Liberals couldn't win with Dr Hewson; another said John Howard was the best option. And in between we saw the polls that show, relative to Bronwyn Bishop, John Hewson's not even rating. This whole leadership issue, it's surely reached a crisis point, hasn't it?

MICHAEL KROGER: Yes, well he's six points in front of Labor so I don't think you can say he's not rating. But obviously you're going to have a period of dissipation after an election defeat as bad as the last one was and I don't think that's unhealthy, given the fact that we haven't just lost one, we've lost five. But, of course, there were plenty of people in the Labor Party that said they'd never win with Paul Keating and they were wrong. And these things just have to be played out.

JOHN SHOVELAN: But it is true, of course, to say that outside of the parliamentary party a lot of Liberals now believe that you can't win with the present leader, and that was shown last night again, wasn't it?

MICHAEL KROGER: Yes, but that's politics. I mean, people have different views. It's one of the things about our nation. As I said, you could find tens of thousands of people who said Labor would never ever win with Paul Keating, and that proved to be incorrect. And it's a long race. It's only a year since the last election and there's up to two years to go. So, I mean, I don't get too fussed by those things.

JOHN SHOVELAN: MPs are publicly acknowledging there will be a challenge to Dr Hewson. Do you believe that's inevitable?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well look, they're matters for the parliamentary party, not for me. And it's a matter for the parliamentary party to work those things out themselves.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Of course Dr Hewson could resign, but that would seem unlikely.

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, I've never heard anyone suggest that. But I suppose in relation to the parliamentary party, I just repeat the point I made last year which was that one of the reasons you have this dislocation is that the branches in the Liberal Party have absolutely no say or no authority over the Federal team, and it's just another reason why the Federal Executive ought to have been given power to have some control or influence over the events in Canberra. The fact is that motion was lost at the Federal Council last year, as it gets lost every time we have a Federal Council, and, you know, one day the party might be smart enough to give the branches some authority so that, you know, we can do something about dislocation.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Well, what could the branches be doing about the current situation if they had that power?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, they can't do anything now because they have no power.

JOHN SHOVELAN: But if they did have that power?

MICHAEL KROGER: It depends on what power they're given and you cannot speculate about that because it could be minimal power, it could be extreme power. So the outcome of what they might do depends on that. But the point I'm simply making is that, you know, once again you see a reason why branches should have a greater say in the party and the rank and file have been ignored, were ignored again at the Federal Council, as predicted. I mean, it was no surprise to me to see that motion defeated and for as long as the Federal parliamentary party retain 95 per cent of the power in the party federally you're going to have these things continue.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Mr Kroger, just as a measure of how serious the whole issue is getting, the Leader of the Nationals, Tim Fischer, yesterday indicated that he'd even consider breaking up the Coalition if the leadership issue continued to burn.

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, I don't think that will happen. You know, political parties go through difficult times and the National Party are not adverse to having had a few difficult times themselves over the years and I certainly don't think that'll happen and I think they'll go to the election together.

JOHN SHOVELAN: One of the Shadow Ministers last night, Amanda Vanstone, and one of the Liberals not so enamoured with Senator Bishop, warned that the Liberals had a tendency to latch on to popularity as their sole concern. Is she right?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well look, I must say the points Amanda's been trying to make since the election have been lost on me. I think they're obviously too sophisticated for me. I don't know how you can talk about having a more inclusionist party - which is what Amanda's been saying since the election - and then want to exclude the most popular Liberal in the country. And I think, secondly, I saw some of her remarks last night, and I'd say this to Amanda and to anyone - in Liberal, Labor or whatever - who wants to continually make references to their colleagues or other Australians as akin to Hitler or as popular as Hitler or as unpopular or whatever. I mean, I think those types of references to Nazi Germany and the holocaust are the types of insensitive remarks we can do without in Australian politics. I mean, they're just not a funny throw-away line and people that use them ought to desist.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Well, is there a down side to Senator Bishop? After all, according to the polls that we saw last night, she's now picking up 17 per cent of Labor voters.

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, I mean, everyone has ....

JOHN SHOVELAN: Dr Hewson can't claim that, can he?

MICHAEL KROGER: Everyone's got their faults and I'm sure Bronwyn does, as John Hewson does, as Paul Keating does. The point I'm simply making is that she's an important part of the team, an important part of the front bench. I don't think senior Liberals ought to go round denigrating any longer. We've heard all their views; very interesting; they should get on with the job of attacking the Government and defending the faith and policies of the Liberal Party, and not commenting day after day after day on their colleagues. I mean, that's why we elect them into Parliament, to do that job and not to continually sort of, you know, play radio announcer.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Of course, there's been suggestions that you would like to see Senator Bishop as leader?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, they were the suggestions on the P.M. program last night and that was wrong, of course. I am quoted invariably as being a close friend of Peter Costello, John Howard, Bronwyn Bishop, Petro Georgio, everybody. I mean, the bottom line is the leadership question has been decided. I'm simply saying don't go around denigrating Bronwyn Bishop any more. We've heard all those views. I think the team ought to get on with the job of attacking the Government, bringing them down. They deserve to lose office and it's about time our team, you know, put their nose to the wheel and got on with the job.

JOHN SHOVELAN: You might say the Government deserves to lose office but, of course, other people would argue that the Liberal Party doesn't deserve to gain office because of all this problem.

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, you're always going to have arguments after a fifth election defeat. I mean, Labor had a great schism after their fourth election victory when they threw out Labor's most popular leader ever and installed their most unpopular leader. They still won the next election with a million people unemployed and in the middle of a recession. I mean, that was an achievement, whether we like it or not. So we're not the only party that's had difficulties between elections and we'll come out of it.

JOHN SHOVELAN: You don't think that this matter needs to be dealt with urgently?

MICHAEL KROGER: No, I don't think so, no.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Some within the party, like Chris Puplick, believe if Senator Bishop was to become leader then it would split the party - almost seem to be indicating that it would be an end to the Liberal Party. It could be a divisive move if that happened in the future, couldn't it?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, as I said, I think the leadership question is resolved, but I don't think the Liberal Party is going to split; I don't think it's the end of the Liberal Party. I mean, people predict the end of the Liberal Party every five minutes. I mean, they're a dime a dozen comments. And you look around Australia. We're in government in every State except Queensland and Wayne Goss is hardly a friend of the Federal Labor Government. I mean, he's more an opponent than many of ours are. So the Liberal Party is in a very strong position around the States. And Chris's views are discounted. I mean, Chris is known to be a long-time opponent and critic of Bronwyn. She beat him for the Senate preselection and he reminds us of that day after day.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Is John Howard a possible option?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, I mean, I've dealt with the issue of leadership and they're not matters for people in the organisation to deal with. If you're asking whether I think John Howard is a strong member of the team the answer is absolutely yes. And he's made an enormous contribution. He won the industrial relations debate in this country which is one of the major policy achievements of the last decade in Australia. I mean, that is largely John Howard's work.

JOHN SHOVELAN: But that was one of the issues that you lost the last election on.


JOHN SHOVELAN: Said a lot of people.

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, there's not a single, not a skerrick of polling to indicate that. That's one of the problems the Liberal Party has, that we have all these views about why we lost the election, many of which have not even a nodding acquaintance with reality. The election was lost, if you need reminding, because of the GST; to a smaller component because of the health policy. The other factors all rated less than 10 per cent - GST rated 53, health rated 17. So people that run around saying we lost because we excluded certain groups, if the party listens to that type of advice we're headed for number six.

JOHN SHOVELAN: All right. Just briefly, Michael Kroger, will John Hewson lead the Liberal Party to the next election?

MICHAEL KROGER: Well, I believe that matter has been resolved in his favour, and ultimately they're matters for the parliamentary party to decide, not for the organisation.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Michael Kroger, thank you.

ELLEN FANNING: And the influential Michael Kroger was speaking there to John Shovelan.