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Geoff Kitney discusses the motives behind John Kerin's reaction to Cabinet's decision not to mine Kakadu and Opposition's reaction to the Financial Review's report of same

PRU GOWARD: Primary Industries Minister, John Kerin, in an unprecedented move, has criticised Federal Cabinet's decision to hold up development and mining in the Kakadu National Park, particularly at the Coronation Hill site.

I've been joined now by Geoff Kitney from the Financial Review. The Financial Review itself under criticism this morning from the other side, from the Liberals, from John Hewson, accused of being `Pavlov's dogs' to the Treasurer, Paul Ivan Keating.

Geoff Kitney, good morning.

GEOFF KITNEY: Good morning, Pru.

PRU GOWARD: Well Geoff, let's deal first of all with John Kerin. You think this is the first time a Labor Cabinet Minister has ever done it?

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I can't recall a Cabinet Minister publicly criticising a Cabinet decision in the way that Mr Kerin has done. I mean, he's really gone - in the comments he made yesterday - to the heart of what we understood to be the reservations of the economic Ministers in Cabinet, in the comments he's made. I mean, he's said that he doesn't think the Government can afford to be scaring off investment capital in Australia. He doesn't think decisions should be influenced by environmental hype, and he believes that where projects are assessed, if they're assessed as being environmentally safe, then they should go ahead.

Well, of course, they're all arguments as to why the Government should have given the go ahead for the Coronation Hill project, and they were the arguments put by senior Ministers - senior economic Ministers - in the Cabinet and, of course, they were overridden by the Prime Minister and Senator Richardson on environmental grounds, purely - I mean, basically in terms of the Labor Party's hopes of capturing the environmental vote at the next election.

Now, I think for a Cabinet Minister to make those sorts of comments publicly is really quite extraordinary and, I think, unprecedented; and I think also, perhaps another symptom of the fact that the Government is unravelling a bit at the moment.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, it's getting a bit flaky; it's losing its nerve.

GEOFF KITNEY: Yes, that's right. I mean, the sort of imagery that this presents is very bad. I mean, it's .. we occasionally talk about a whiff of the Whitlam's around. Well, this was the sort of thing, of course, that happened all the time in the dying days of the Whitlam Government. It's not that bad with the Hawke Government. In fact, you know, this is a very rare instance for this sort of break-out, but coming as it does with the Government apparently under pressure, I think will make Mr Hawke very, very angry indeed, and will probably make other members of the Government very angry also, and it'll be interesting to see how Mr Hawke deals with it. I mean, he of course being out of the country, he may seek to try and just let it wash away and, in fact, it didn't get a huge coverage.

PRU GOWARD: No, it didn't. And the other thing is that Mr Kerin has perhaps had the good sense to refuse all media interviews.

GEOFF KITNEY: Yes, I'm sure it will. I don't think he'll be visible for a while.

PRU GOWARD: Why do you think he said it? I mean, if John Kerin had meant to make this an issue, you'd think he would be happy to continue the interviews?

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I think it was perhaps just letting people know how he felt. I mean, as you recall, he was overseas. He went on A.M. and almost pleaded with his colleagues to wait till he got back before they made their decision which, of course, they didn't do. So, I think he's probably very angry about that. I think he's angry about the decision.

Well, he's obviously angry about the decision. He reflects the anger of quite a few other members of the Government. I mean, this decision has really torn the fabric of the Cabinet, I think, to some extent. There is a lot of unhappiness and resentment about this decision. Now in the past of course, there have been decisions where people have been unhappy, but one of the great characteristics of the Hawke Cabinet has been its solidarity.


GEOFF KITNEY: I mean, Ministers will get in there and argue furiously about issues, but once decisions are taken, they all support the decisions. They just don't .. there is no sign of public conflict over those sorts of, you know, those arguments that go on in Cabinet.

PRU GOWARD: Well, so what? So, John Kerin's criticised this decision. Yes, we take it as a sign that the Government's under pressure. What does it imply for the rest of the Hawke Government's term till the next election?

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I guess the first thing is how do people respond to it? If they respond in kind and continue the debate, well, you know that would be more damaging. I think, secondly, it does show a level of frustration within the Hawke Cabinet about the way things are going, and that's dangerous. And if it's followed by other similar sorts of indications, then we do start to get the stronger whiff of the Whitlams. So, it's .. I mean, it's as I said, the Hawke Government's discipline has been quite extraordinary.

I mean, it's been the thing really that the great political strength of the Whitlam Government is its internal discipline and any evidence that that is starting to breakdown would be terribly damaging. So, I think the Labor Party's damage control systems are pretty good and given that this hasn't had a huge run today, I think the damage control systems will go into operation and we won't hear anymore of it. But it's just a symptom, I think, of the pressures that are there and that the dangers the Government is exposed to now that the pressures are growing.

PRU GOWARD: It's one transcript the ANIMALS won't make sure gets out.

GEOFF KITNEY: Yes, well, in fact it was only a handful of journalists involved in this briefing. It wasn't widely advertised that he was going to make these comments. So ...

PRU GOWARD: Ah! So that's why there's so little reporting of it?

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I know that a number of people had to scramble around to get hold of the text of what was said. So, maybe he thought he was just speaking to a small group of rural journalists and that this stuff wouldn't make the front page of the papers today. But, I mean, I'm sure it would have got much greater exposure but for the share market action overnight.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, and yet a lot of people would say, `Well, this is refreshing honesty. There should be healthy debate'. I suppose the issue is really Cabinet solidarity?

GEOFF KITNEY: That's absolutely fundamental and it's governments stand or fall on that solidarity, and once it breaks down you're in all sorts of trouble, and that's why John Kerin's comments are very important.

PRU GOWARD: Well, I seem to remember at the time, Environment Minister Richardson accused the media of being a bit pro-development which is why there'd been such harsh coverage of the decision. Now the media is under criticism again, this time from the Liberal Opposition accusing you, particularly the Financial Review, of being Keating's `Pavlov's dogs', responding to anything he suggested. I guess in a sense, well, not exactly fair, but you've got to wear it; it's part of the rough and tumble of Federal politics.

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I've been accused of all sorts of things in the 14 years I've been reporting politics. I mean, these things come and go. I think .. I mean, it's interesting that on the weekend we copped a serve from Paul Keating who said, you know, that we hadn't analysed the Opposition's policy correctly and was very, very critical, I think, particularly the headline on the Financial Review which said the Opposition's policies were clever. So, it's coming from both sides.

PRU GOWARD: Well, it must tell you you're doing something right?

GEOFF KITNEY: Yes, probably. I think it's probably a sign that this coming election campaign - in fact, we're in the campaign mode now, obviously - is going to be pretty rugged. I think, you know, it's going to be a close election. It certainly appears at the moment it's going to be a close election and, therefore, I think the media is going to have to be on its guard. I think we're going to cop a lot of this sort of stuff between now and election day.

PRU GOWARD: Well, there are suggestions that it reflects on Dr Hewsons's political judgment, but surely the media is more grown-up than to now be difficult about Hewson and the Liberal's Opposition policies because they resent the criticism.

GEOFF KITNEY: Well, I don't think that we'll react in that way. I mean, as I said, this has come in all sorts of forms over the years and, I mean, you just have to accept that that's part of the game. I mean, I think personal attacks are certainly unusual. It tends to be generic sort of stuff that you cop, but you just .. I mean, you just have to set that aside and get on and do the job, and I think most professional journalists would do that.

PRU GOWARD: Thank you very much for your time this morning Geoff Kitney.