Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Federal Leader of the Opposition discusses the agenda for the National Conference of the Labor Party, including the national presidency, women candidates, the Asian meltdown, taxation and the role of Cheryl Kernot

MARIUS BENSON: We begin in Hobart where the Labor Party meets, today, for its national conference which will see the first shots fired in what could be a year-long election campaign. Nearly 200 party delegates are meeting, with the declared goal of reaching agreement on everything from taxing the rich to deciding if Barry Jones should be retained as party president.

The week-long conference will determine whether party leader, Kim Beazley, gets a flying start to the likely election year, or is tripped by factional brawling at the starter's gun. Kim Beazley is now in our studio at the conference hall in Hobart and he's talking to our chief political correspondent, Matt Peacock.

MATT PEACOCK: Mr Beazley, thanks for joining us. Just how new is your Labor Party really? I mean, this fight over Barry Jones, the president, for example-it seems to be the same old factions playing the same old games. Are they the same?

KIM BEAZLEY: For starters, we're not claiming a re-badging of the Labor Party. What we're talking about are policies that suit the needs of the times-that's what we're talking about ....

MATT PEACOCK: So it's not too different from Paul Keating's.

KIM BEAZLEY: ... restructuring our platform to do that, restructure our platform to do that. I mean, there are points in our past of which we're very proud and, indeed, I note out the other day, Paul Keating getting up there and making the obvious point that one of the reasons why we're not confronting the same problems the Asians now confront, the sorts of decisions we took in the 1980s. So it's pride in things that we've done but also there are new issues, new items on the agenda, the national agenda, and our policies are very much directed towards them.

MATT PEACOCK: Well, you've got a lot more people at the conference here, this time. Is that making the factions any easier to handle or less?

KIM BEAZLEY: That is new. There has been an expansion of the conference. This is the only political conference in the country that matters-the only one. I mean, the Liberal Party one is a cheerio show and so is the National Party one. Here we talk about serious issues that influence serious people, that influence all of us. And so there's a bit at stake when there's a conference on.

MATT PEACOCK: Okay. But is Mr Sword going to fall over, do you think, or this going to drag on?

KIM BEAZLEY: This, of course, is one of the less important issues at the conference-who happens to be the party president-and that's always been the case. Sometimes there are ballots for that position; sometimes there's a consensus on it. I hope there'll be a consensus on it.

MATT PEACOCK: You've been saying that for a few days now. Are the factions still squabbling?

KIM BEAZLEY: Sure, and I'll say it till Wednesday because that happens to be when the ballot is.

MATT PEACOCK: Well, now, apart from Cheryl Kernot here, you don't seem to have any more women. I gather you've been asked to see that there are more on the national executive seeing as how your promise-I assume you're dropping about setting a target for safe seats.

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, have a bit of a look around the conference. You're going to find there a very substantial number of women at the conference. And indeed, the changes we have put in place with affirmative action for women-oh, it must be the best part of a decade or so ago now-really have started to make a difference in the internal organisation of the Labor Party.

MATT PEACOCK: There are not too many more candidates, though.

KIM BEAZLEY: Many more candidates. I mean, be fair, Matt. Take a look at our caucus in South Australia. Remember this is a losing caucus. We're not still in government. We're not in government in South Australia though many South Australians now wish we were-45per cent women. I mean, there's no caucus of any political party in the country like that. And take a look at the safe seat selections, now, in New South Wales and Victoria. There's a huge number of women coming through.

MATT PEACOCK: Okay. Now, your platform talks about more government intervention and security but, realistically, how can anybody in Australia feel secure with the Asian meltdown happening all around us and people warning of a depression even?

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, I note the Government is at last having a meeting on it. I mean, they've been in a state of-firstly of denial and then of puerile self-congratulation. There are few things that we ought to be doing about it that do strengthen our competitiveness, but how can Australians feel insecure ....

MATT PEACOCK: Secure.

KIM BEAZLEY: Secure. How can Australians feel secure? They cannot feel secure if they do not have a government that's actively concerned about finding them jobs, getting them jobs; about ensuring that they can get jobs through their life-not jobs for life but jobs through their life.

MATT PEACOCK: But it blows away things like 4 per cent growth and things, doesn't it, this Asian situation?

KIM BEAZLEY: Well, what blew away 4 per cent growth-because it's not been predicted by this government since it came into office that is anywhere near our levels ....

MATT PEACOCK: But you've set that as a target, too, haven't you?

KIM BEAZLEY: ... get anywhere near our levels. We were doing 4 per cent standing on our head, and then this bunch came in and comatosed the economy. I mean, that's what we had.

MATT PEACOCK: Is it still achievable, though?

KIM BEAZLEY: And I think 4 per cent growth is achievable and it certainly ought to be an objective. It is obviously going to be hard with the situation that we now confront, but what the situation makes amply clear is that we need to have a government to take the issue, take the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and fight. This government has been in, as I said, a state of denial and puerile self-congratulation, and a whole lot of things that ought to have been done haven't been done.

MATT PEACOCK: But given the Asian situation and given the fact that you're committing yourself to more government intervention, surely you'll have to increase your tax over GDP levels at the moment, and it's not just a matter of soaking the rich is it? You had that chance before and you couldn't do it. You have to hit the middle class.

KIM BEAZLEY: No. We have made quite clear that we think that middle Australia is amply taxed. Now, we don't face the same burden that this government faces. This government wants to break its promise that it would never introduce a GST, and introduce one. To do that, they have to clothe it with a very considerable bribe. To get that considerable bribe together, they have to cut expenditure further; they have to spend their surplus on it; and they have to close an awful lot of tax loopholes.

Now, we reject the notion of further cuts in the spending area as a general proposition-which is the proposition that they're coming up with-basically, because all it means now, as every Australian knows, is they pay more for their health-and we've got a public hospital crisis; more for their education-I mean, public schools we've got a crisis courtesy of this government-but we're not obliged to do that.

MATT PEACOCK: So where does the money come from?

KIM BEAZLEY: What we are going to do is we are going to take a serious look at the taxation system. We're going to take a look at it on the basis of those principles, some of which you outlined in your question to me, and on the basis that middle Australia is paying enough tax, and start looking at some of those loopholes that the Australian Tax Commissioner drew our attention to shortly before we fell, and that the Government indeed itself is looking at. And we will be utilising that.

MATT PEACOCK: So soak the rich?

KIM BEAZLEY: We will be utilising that to have a decent look at ways in which we might improve the competitiveness of business and innovation. I mean, probably, of all the bad decisions the Government's taken-and they've taken many-oddly, one actually happens to be in a taxation area and that was killing the 150 per cent tax concession on RD. That has absolutely stultified innovation.

MATT PEACOCK: A quick final question: Cheryl Kernot is here. What policy role is she playing at the moment, particularly in relation to Wik, with, of course, Peter Beattie in Queensland warning you off the Senate position?

KIM BEAZLEY: Cheryl's got an interest in everything that we do. She's going to be a candidate for Parliament. I hope that the way we can use Cheryl best over the course of the next few months before she becomes a Minister-then, of course, she'll have her own responsibilities-the way we can use her best, I think, is to be a campaigner for us in the areas that concern middle Australia, and I'll probably say a thing or two about this as the days proceed. But we have got to get back on the agenda the health issues that people are concerned about, the education issues that people are concerned about. There are important issues ....

MATT PEACOCK: They're not concerned about Wik, are they?

KIM BEAZLEY: Wik is an important issue which we have to deal with; so is the republic; but the fact of the matter is that they are not the salient issues round the breakfast table. It's the education issues, the health issues, the security issues. Now, I hope Cheryl will play a role in getting that back on the table.

MATT PEACOCK: Mr Beazley, thanks for joining us.

KIM BEAZLEY: My pleasure.

MARIUS BENSON: And the Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, was speaking to Matt Peacock at the ALP Conference Centre in Hobart.