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Prime Minister states his position on the Gulf crisis; his purchase of a new house; external powers of the Commonwealth; Aboriginal land fund; the prospect of an early election

MONICA ATTARD: Well, the Prime Minister's position on the crisis in the Gulf dominated both Houses of Parliament today. That was, of course, prompted by Paul Keating's comment yesterday that they should have finished off the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, the first time around. Well, the Opposition has questioned Mr Keating's commitment to the American decision to keep Iraq out of Kuwait using former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke's claim in his memoirs that Mr Keating didn't support Australian involvement in Desert Storm back in 1991. The Prime Minister flatly denies Mr Hawke's account of that time and has branded him a liar and a weak leader.

In this interview with Fran Kelly, Mr Keating has also attacked Alexander Downer's capacity to lead and has described the Opposition's attack on his purchase of a $2 million Sydney home as parliamentary filth.

FRAN KELLY: Prime Minister, in his book, Bob Hawke recounts how at the time in 1991 you weren't interested in sending Australian troops to the Gulf war, yet now you say at the time that you were saying that they should go after Suddam Hussein and finish him off. Did you support involvement in the Gulf war or not?

PAUL KEATING: I did. That is just a straight lie, a straight distortion. There was only two Ministers at the original meeting - this was about whether we committed people to Desert Shield - that was Hawke, Michael Duffy who was Acting Foreign Minister, and me. Without any notice, I was asked around, and he said I might get a call from the United States: What do you think we'll do? Typically Bob Hawke, he didn't say: Look, I think this is what we should do, now what do you think? The question always is: What do you think we should do? You know, will the real leader please tell us what we can do here? And I said: Well, I think that we're going to continue to see this sort of criminal activity from this regime, and I think we should be in a position to respond positively to a commitment on the interdiction role in the Gulf. That was the first meeting.

Of course, Gareth was away and Michael Duffy was there as his Acting Minister. The second was whether we committed troops to Desert Shield and it was a meeting between Hawke, Button, Robert Ray and the Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, and me. Robert had just been to Washington; Gareth had been in touch with the United States, and had also been in touch with other UN members. And we had a discussion, and Bob Hawke was encouraging a discussion which meant that we .. which was some advice from Robert and Gareth that maybe it would be better if we leave the four ships .. take the four ships up to the top of the Gulf and commit a squadron of FA18s. And they said their piece; Hawke sat back again, not indicating a position; John Button was then asked what he thought; he gave a very negative response, well generally negative response. And they said: Well, what do you think? I said: Well, look, I'm just listening to what .. you people are the experts. And Hawke said to me: Come on, come on. And I said: What, you mean I should say again what we should do here? Well, I'll tell you what we should do. I don't agree we should put a squadron of FA18s there, but I do believe we should commit to Desert Storm, but I'd leave two ships up the top of the Gulf and bring the other two home.

Now, that's what happened. To that, he's reworked all that to say because I didn't want to put a squadron of FA18s in and leave four ships up there, because the Americans wanted a commitment both moral and material. The two ships were enough. We didn't need to expose needlessly Australian planes or Australian ships. But at no stage was there any recommendation from Hawke. He sat there while Gareth and Robert spoke, and the decision was made when I said: Look, I believe we should put two ships up the top of the Gulf and let the other two come back.

Now, Bob Hawke parades himself around as somebody who sort of backed the Americans in. Well, he wanted to put them there. I don't deny that. But like a lot of things Hawke wanted to do, he never had the courage to say so when it mattered, and he didn't on that occasion and he hasn't since.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the comments you made yesterday have caused some stir. When you say that Saddam Hussein should have been finished off the first time around or we wouldn't be where we are again today, what do you mean? I mean, do you mean that he should have been assassinated?

PAUL KEATING: No, no, politically. Just his regime should have been essentially rendered inoperative, defunct, I mean, call it what you like. I mean, defeated.

FRAN KELLY: The other attack the Opposition ...

PAUL KEATING: No, I don't mean personally, I mean, politically.

FRAN KELLY: The other attack the Opposition's been making on you, Prime Minister, is about this purchase of the new house.

PAUL KEATING: Hang on. Before we get on to that rubbish, let's just stay on the main thing. I mean, look, the lot of the Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites in this country has been a very sad and dismal one in all the period since. And there was a position and there was a strategic capacity to finish this regime off, and that wasn't taken up. Now, I said in the Cabinet room at the time: I think we should do that. So did Kim Beazley. And Gareth Evans said: Well, that's not part of the UN mandate. It wasn't. But there was still a strong body of opinion that thought that around the world, and what I essentially .. I did the other day was repeat that.

FRAN KELLY: Back to the house and the play the Opposition's been making of that. They say it's ironic for a Labor Prime Minister to be buying a $2 million house in inner Sydney. In the game of politics, that's a fair enough point to score, isn't it?

PAUL KEATING: Oh, look, Alexander Downer - he's not going to make it. I mean, the poor, silly thing, he's wandering around tied up now with Michael Baume, you know, as a piece of essentially, you know, parliamentary filth. I mean, look, the thing is .. that's what he traffics in - filth, under privilege. Now, let Alexander Downer cut his own cloth. I mean, look, I've got a house in Sydney I've had for 12 years; I'm moving one mile away to a larger house. That's the full story.

FRAN KELLY: But for them to make a play of it, isn't it similar to what you've done in the past with John Hewson buying and selling houses and ....

PAUL KEATING: No, I've never referred, I've never said to John Hewson ever: Where did you get money for this or where did you get money for that? We've said, look, he lived in Bellevue Hill and had a Ferrari, but nobody said: Well, listen John, hang on, you paid this for that, and what deposit did you put down here, and what margin did you have there, and where did you .. I mean, that's never been done. I mean, at the time John Hewson was embarrassed with his family affairs, not a word came from me or the Government; at a time when Mrs Downer absolutely put her foot in it about the passports of her children, not a word, other than a reference from .. an oblique reference from Gareth Evans which he apologised for. These people never stop, and the thing about it is this, Fran, they must think I live under a rock. I know all about them, about their personal lives, about their finances, but I never use it.

FRAN KELLY: Is this sale going through in 18 months time, is that a sign that you are considering resigning from politics?

PAUL KEATING: No, just that it suited the vendor and it suited me. I've got no particular purpose at this point in living in the house and I won't have after then. So what I'll basically do is sell the one I have and rent it. And that suited .. I mean, the cheek of these characters is just unbelievable, but the gutlessness of Downer not to raise this in the House of Representatives when I was there, but to go and get somebody like, without any credibility, a person with his reputation in tatters, Senator Baume, Michael Baume, to go and do it in the Senate with a couple of other Senators, on the instructions of Alexander Downer, is just sort of .. you know, look, we've all got to make our political bed in life and then lie in it. Well, the public's making a judgment about him.

FRAN KELLY: In the House tomorrow, the Government's privacy Bill comes up, the Opposition will vote with the Government but they're planning to move an amendment calling for consultation with the Federal Parliament, State governments and the community about the implications of international treaties before they're signed on to. Do they have a point? Should there be more discussion about these kind of treaties before Australia signs on?

PAUL KEATING: No. Well, when you say, do they have a point about international treaties, no. Do they have a point about discussions? Well, we already consult with the States' industry groups and community groups, and we do it extensively. But what's their point of objection? They're snaky on the external affairs power of the Constitution. They're saying .. I mean, how dare these Commonwealth governments usurp the roles of the States? See, this gets back to this old debate: Was the federation an act of creation of the nation or was it basically a set of arrangements for States? Well, it was the former, not the latter. But the Liberal Party, 50 years after its birth, going nowhere, still messing around with States' rights and still trafficking in that nonsense.

FRAN KELLY: Well, there's some confusion still, I gather, in the Coalition about whether some MPs will call for a vote on the Bill. If they don't, is the Government tempted to call for a vote to try and force those ones who don't support the legislation to cross the floor?

PAUL KEATING: But which legislation are you speaking about now?

FRAN KELLY: This is the privacy ...

PAUL KEATING: Oh, the privacy legislation. I thought you were talking about the treaties. On the privacy legislation, look, Alexander Downer said .. remember he had his great coming out press conference a week or two ago: I've got the Coalition to agree not to oppose the Bill. I mean, you could hardly bring yourself to announce it, could you? We've agreed not to oppose. Not to support, but not to oppose the Bill. He sacked John Hewson for arguing that the Coalition should support the Bill. He fired him because Hewson had the temerity to come out and say he supported the Bill. Now, the National Party are going to stand him up, they're directing their members to vote against the Bill. What's he going to do? Sack them or look like the turkey he has become? I mean, what .. how does he look on this? He's come out and said: I've got the Coalition to agree to not oppose the Bill. Wrong. He got the Coalition to agree to nothing because the National Party are now saying: We'll do what we like. I mean, his leadership ...

FRAN KELLY: Though National Party MPs are still holding their cards pretty close to their chests on whether they'll actually force a vote and cross the floor. Would you like to see that demonstrated? Would you help them call on a vote?

PAUL KEATING: His leadership has no credibility and no strength, and that's apparent in the National Party thumbing its nose at him. And if it was up to him to fire John Hewson, if any frontbenchers from the National Party vote against the legislation, he should fire them, too.

FRAN KELLY: There's no sign though that frontbenchers from the National Party will be the ones voting against it, only those on the backbench.

PAUL KEATING: Doesn't matter, his authority is shot to pieces whichever way it goes. He made an announcement on behalf of the Coalition that the Coalition wouldn't oppose the legislation. They are going to oppose it, some of them.

FRAN KELLY: The land fund also, it goes into the Senate this week - the Aboriginal Land Fund. The Greens are saying they won't support it unless it's amended substantially. They've called your legislation a hoax and a hall of mirrors, paternalistic. Is there going to be another agonisingly drawn-out debate like we had with the native title debate over the land fund?

PAUL KEATING: Well, there shouldn't be because this is a most highly consulted .. I mean, this has been a very consulted over piece of legislation, and there's no notion here that the Aboriginal community, certainly not the big representative bodies I've met, believe this is some paternalism on the part of the Commonwealth. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that Senator Chamarette made a submission in the Budget context proposing certain details about the fund. It wasn't apparently so paternalistic then.

FRAN KELLY: Will you be talking to the Greens about that?

PAUL KEATING: Well, I don't mind to talk to them about it. I've sent them a letter; they've written to me; I've communicated back to them trying to cover the points off, and I'm happy to talk to them. But I don't .. I mean, look, this is .. right from the start, I said, when we introduced the native title legislation, that there would be a land fund to cover off the interest of indigenous Australians who couldn't avail themselves of the Mabo native title legislation, that couldn't establish that connection with the land. It's been part and parcel of everything the Government said. It's even in the first Bill, that is a land fund is in the first Bill.

Now, it's being amplified in this Bill and it was on that basis that we .. you know, the Aboriginal community expected us to proceed with it, which we have, after extensive consultation. So it's very high-handed for the Greens to say: Oh, no, well look, we know better what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Australians, need best here. We know better, and you know, we're going to exercise our prerogatives in terms of our own view. I mean, I just think that the Greens should do a bit of consulting too, but a bit of broad consulting, not just with particular groups with an axe to grind.

FRAN KELLY: So you don't sound as though you're too interested in their amendments.

PAUL KEATING: I'm not really interested, to be honest, no.

FRAN KELLY: Prime Minister, just finally, the polls are looking very good for the Government. There's much talk about the Government setting up trigger legislation. Are you tempted to pull on an early election?

PAUL KEATING: Now, did you write this question out, Fran, or did you work yourself up to it.

FRAN KELLY: I've been working up to it, Prime Minister.

PAUL KEATING: No, nope. N.O.P.E., nope.

FRAN KELLY: So we won't be going to the polls early?

PAUL KEATING: Nope.

FRAN KELLY: Prime Minister Keating, thank you.