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The Opposition focuses on the ALP leadership issue through a number of matters raised in Parliament

JENNY HUTCHISON: The theme of the week was leadership - the continuing tussle between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating - and through questions, matters of public interest debates, speeches on the Appropriation Bills and eventually a motion of censure, the Opposition spent the week highlighting dissension within the Government. The specific focus varied from changes to Medicare announced in the Budget, to Labor policy on media ownership, to interest rates and the latest unemployment figures. But the core concern was the still unresolved Labor succession. On Tuesday, Mr Hawke easily lobbed a question from Deputy Opposition Leader, Peter Reith, about the Labor leadership.

PETER REITH: Prime Minister, I refer you to an interview with your former deputy, Mr Keating, that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, last weekend. In this interview, Mr Keating is quoted as saying - is quoted as saying: `I won't serve a person who can't keep their word'. Prime Minister, if your close colleague of eight years does not trust you, why should the Australian people?

UNIDENTIFIED: Hear! Hear!

SPEAKER: The Honourable, the Prime Minister.

BOB HAWKE: Mr Speaker, all I can say is that sometime in '93, the Australian people will be given the opportunity of deciding whether they trust me, or you, if you're still there. I mean, there are not many certainties in Australian politics, not a great deal of certainties in Australian politics.

SPEAKER: The Member for Gilmore.

BOB HAWKE: I'll be leading the Government in the election in '93. I'm not sure - I'm not sure whether Dr Hewson will be leading the Opposition. It's even less sure whether you'll be the Deputy Leader.

JENNY HUTCHISON: In the Senate, Liberal, Amanda Vanstone, pursued the Hawke-Keating leadership rivalry and received a more whimsical answer from Senate Leader, John Button.

AMANDA VANSTONE: My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Button. And I remind the Minister that Mr Keating has indicated that he will not return to Cabinet while Mr Hawke is Prime Minister because he will not serve a person who `cannot keep their word'. Do you and your Cabinet colleagues accept that Mr Hawke is a man of his word ....

MR PRESIDENT: Order! Order!

AMANDA VANSTONE: .... and if not, do you continue - why do you continue to support him as Prime Minister?

MR PRESIDENT: The Leader of the Government, Senator Button.

JOHN BUTTON: Mr President, I mean, the short answer to that question, Senator, would be something like: Mind your own business, but I wouldn't give such a terse answer to a person of Senator Vanstone's guile and charm. Let me say, I certainly note the Member for Blaxland's view which is perhaps based on some personal experience of his, but I have no comment to make on that insofar as whether this Government or members of the Government believe that the Prime Minister keeps his word - the answer to that question is: yes.

MR PRESIDENT: Order!

JOHN BUTTON: The subject I have to say - the subject I have to say, Senator, that the usual political qualifications which apply to all political leaders and political parties, namely, that when circumstances change dramatically, then it is frequently necessary for a policy change.

JENNY HUTCHISON: On Wednesday, the Committee debate on the Appropriation Bills provided an opportunity for former Liberal Treasurer and Opposition Leader, John Howard, to comment on economic policy, and also on the Labor leadership.

JOHN HOWARD: The current preoccupation of many people opposite, and the media, with interest rates as an issue directly relevant to the current level of unemployment, is absolutely ridiculous. If interest rates fell by 3 per cent tomorrow, it would make not one jot of difference to the level of unemployment over the next six or nine months. Anybody who has any elementary understanding of the Australian economy will understand the enormous leads and lags that are involved so far as levels of monetary policy are concerned. The unemployment we are now suffering is the product of the high interest rates of late 18 - of late 1989. Well, the leads are often - I might say that slip almost had some relevance, Mr Jenkins, but you have a lead time of something like 15 to 18 months.

And in that context I cannot but remark that the contribution of the former Treasurer, the Member for Blaxland, to this debate is nothing other than cheap, political grandstanding. He says he's interested in jobs, jobs, jobs. I think he's interested in votes, votes, votes, within his Caucus. On the subject of interest rates, to suggest that unemployment over the next few months is somehow or other going to be affected by whether the Reserve Bank drops the interest rates by one or 2 per cent, or half a per cent, or leaves them where they are over the next couple of months, is absolute economic nonsense. And he, better than anybody on his side, ought to know that, and he really oughtn't to be linking current levels of unemployment with current levels of interest rates. It's an absolute absurdity in economic terms, and he knows it, and it demonstrates that it is nothing other than a political ploy for his own internal party purposes.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Every Opposition question in the Representatives on Wednesday was on the subject of Medicare, although there was no targeting of a single Minister. The Prime Minister was still cocky, as his answer to Liberal backbencher, Michael Ronaldson, demonstrated.

MICHAEL RONALDSON: Is the Prime Minister aware of the changes to the Budget imposed by Caucus in the dying days of the Whitlam Government? Has the Prime Minister drawn any lessons from Mr Whitlam's experience or is he determined to follow the same downward path?

ACTING SPEAKER: The Honourable, the Prime Minister.

BOB HAWKE: That's a deadly one - that's a deadly one. Mr Speaker, I have been - I have been around in politics ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order!

BOB HAWKE: .... for a long time, and as ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order! Order!

BOB HAWKE: .... and as an intelligent person, Mr Acting Speaker ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order! Members of the Opposition.

BOB HAWKE: As an intelligent person, Mr Acting Speaker, yes, I've tried to draw lessons from the past. You would be a damn fool if you didn't, and Mr Speaker, it is true, it is true, I've drawn some lessons from the period of the Whitlam Government; I've also drawn some lessons from the period of the Liberals and National Party in government. And I've made sure, in looking at what happened between 1975, after you came to government with the clearest mandate - the clearest mandate in the post-war period - where you had provided to you an opportunity to undertake ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Gippsland.

BOB HAWKE: .... significant reform in this country and there has never been - there has never been a government in the history of this country ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Mitchell.

BOB HAWKE: .... which has so fluffed its mandate. Now, it doesn't happen to be - it doesn't just happen - it doesn't just happen to be my judgment ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order! The Member for Flinders.

BOB HAWKE: .... but I noticed that this potential Prime Minister, this current Leader of the Opposition, is a man who shares that judgment, because the other day, you accused Mr Fraser, Mr Malcolm Fraser, of lacking in courage. Now, Mr - it's no good mumbling about the unemployed. The fact is that ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order!

BOB HAWKE: .... Mr Speaker - no good ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Members of the Opposition.

BOB HAWKE: ....mumbling about the unemployed because I'll take you right up on that - I'll take you right up on the unemployed. You - you ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order!

BOB HAWKE: Mr Speaker, this - this gentleman here, was the economic adviser to the successor government of the Whitlam Government, and that government produced something that's never been before produced in the history of this country, with your advice. With your advice - you produced simultaneous double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment. That was your achievement. No wonder you want to turn your back on it because that was your achievement. And of course, what does he do? What does he do when he's faced with the fact - when he's faced with the fact of that unique record - simultaneous double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment when he was the economic adviser. He now tries to ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Leader of the Opposition.

BOB HAWKE: He tries to crawl away.

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Mackellar.

BOB HAWKE: He tries to rat on Mr Fraser by saying: of course, it wasn't my fault - the economic adviser - I gave him the right advice but Malcolm Fraser didn't have the courage. What a performance!

JENNY HUTCHISON: The Medicare muddle continued throughout Thursday, leaving Liberal Senator, Shirley Walters, to produce this summary of the internal Labor politicking.

SHIRLEY WALTERS: The Government's health policy is a complete shambles. Of today, they have no health policy. Two months ago, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer said there would be a $3.50 co-payment for bulk-billed patients. And the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were rolled by their own members. Mr Hawke is a pathetic figure. He's been rolled by his Caucus; he's incapable of making any tough decisions because he's a prisoner of the Keating challenge. He's weak and pathetic, and not a leader's bootlace.

We noted in the mid-day news that the Cabinet has come up with a new decision - $2.50. Well, for heaven's sake, tell me the difference. If you're going to make a co-payment, then you've ruined your bulk-billing exercise anyway, and you have acknowledged that the Opposition and the AMA have been right from the very beginning, that bulk billing will only create over-servicing, and you've stuck by that to such a degree that you have created the biggest debt that is possible in the health care system. We have queues so that 75,000 people are waiting to get in to hospitals. The whole thing is a shambles and, at last, you are attempting to back off.

But you're not willing to go the whole way; you're not willing to get rid of bulk-billing except for the pensioners and those disadvantaged, which we all agree should have access to bulk billing. You want to give the Bonds and the Packers of this world the ability to go and get bulk billing, and now you're saying: but we'll charge them $2.50 for the effort. The injustice of the whole thing is unbelievable. While you continue to tax the ordinary wage earner on $20,000 a year 38 cents in the dollar, and you allow Packer and Bond - Bondy, me mate, Bondy, as far as Mr Hawke is concerned - to go and get his bulk billing and only pay $2.50, then all your credibility is shot.

JENNY HUTCHISON: But in Question Time in the Representatives on Thursday, the focus was on the latest unemployment figures, topping the 10 per cent mark for the first time in eight years. The Opposition Leader asked Mr Hawke:

JOHN HEWSON: I remind the Prime Minister of his statement to this House, less than one year ago, when he said - and I quote - `The truth is this: unemployment will not reach double digits'. I ask the Prime Minister did he deliberately mislead the House or has he simply lost control of the economy, or is it yet another example of his lack of integrity and of his general economic incompetence?

ACTING SPEAKER: The Honourable, the Prime Minister.

BOB HAWKE: Well, Mr Speaker, as I have said on a number of occasions recently, all of us in the Government - certainly including myself - deeply regret the fact that the recession has been deeper and longer than we expected earlier, and I have said that frequently. I take this opportunity, on the release of today's figures which have the unemployment rate going over 10 per cent, to express, again, the deep regret - the deep regret ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Gilmore.

BOB HAWKE: .... of the Government, that those ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Mayo.

BOB HAWKE: .... that those figures have now been reached. Mr Speaker, I have in this House, previously - I could easily do it again - referred to the assessments made by the Leader of the Opposition, at the beginning of this year and last year, about what was going to happen in this country to inflation and interest rates as a result of the implementation of the Accord. Now, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition made quite unequivocal assertions, last year and at the beginning of this year, that as a result of the operation of the Accord ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Dundas.

BOB HAWKE: .... as a result of the operation of the Accord ....

ACTING SPEAKER: The Member for Flinders.

BOB HAWKE: .... that we would have massive increases in inflation and further increases in interest rates, and we know, Mr Speaker, the fact is that the Opposition got it absolutely wrong. The fact is - the fact is, Mr Speaker ....

ACTING SPEAKER: Order! The Member for Ballarat cease interjecting.

BOB HAWKE: .... in regard to the question of economic predictions, the Leader of the Opposition doesn't come with clean hands.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And the Treasurer, Mr Kerin, noted:

JOHN KERIN: Today's number of 10.2 per cent on a seasonally adjusted basis, is within the Budget forecast which, as Honourable Members know, was for unemployment to peak at 10.75 per cent in late 1991, before beginning to fall in the first half of 1992. That events have confirmed our expectation that unemployment would rise above 10 per cent brings no joy to me or any other member of the Government, and I certainly don't want to understate the cost to those people who've been directly affected. There's a lot of chatter here, today, about other unemployment figures and, of course, '82-'83, and one of the statistics is that the employment ratio, now, is still well above 1982-83, and that's indicative of the very strong employment growth that this Government gained through the 1980s.

JENNY HUTCHISON: In both Houses, the Opposition highlighted the unemployment figures, with a matter of urgency debate in the Senate and a motion censuring the Prime Minister in the Lower House. On Thursday evening, Caucus resolved two of the long-running matters of contention. Minister Howe reduced the co-payment by a dollar and introduced a one dollar efficiency transaction fee to attract GPs to bulk billing, and announced a $4 million campaign to counter the Australian Medical Association's latest initiatives against bulk billing. Whilst the Minister got majority support, in spite of traditional opposition to any tampering with the principle of universal access to health care, the bitterness expressed in faction meetings may take time to heal.

Similarly, those most concerned about keeping the media in Australian hands were not happy with the Caucus resolution for a 20 per cent maximum foreign voting equity. That decision had to be taken urgently because the bids for Fairfax close on Tuesday, and because, whilst Parliament sits next week, both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer will be out of the country.

To summarise some other events of the week, the Government took a decision in principle for the introduction of pay TV from October 1992, but details, such as cross-media ownership limits, are yet to be settled.

Cabinet put off, yet again, a decision on whether to drop the controls on imported recorded music; the Deputy Clerk of the Senate has a new uniform; and Parliament House has now been equipped with energy saver light globes, at the same time as the annual invasion of bogong moths has led to calls for turning off the lights.