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South Australian Liberal Senator supports John Hewson for Liberal Party Leader and says there is no point in looking for a Messiah

PETER THOMPSON: Now, to the Liberal side of the Coalition. We are joined in our Canberra studio by the South Australian Senator, Amanda Vanstone, who is a party moderate. Over the past week of soul-searching on the conservative side of politics, Senator Vanstone has stressed that it would be futile for the Liberals to look for a Messiah figure to lead them out of the wilderness. To talk to Senator Vanstone, here's our chief political correspondent, Maxine McKew.

MAXINE McKEW: Senator, when you walk into the party room this morning at 10 o'clock, who will you be voting for and why?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I'll be voting for John Hewson for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that we lost the election - and I think that's because we had policies heading in the right direction but we went too far, too soon - he put in a fabulous effort. He's provided the party with greater unity than it has ever had before. I came in, in 1985, and it was just intellectually and emotionally draining to have those divisive years under Howard and Peacock, and I just do not want to return to those. I think he's brought the party together. He has - despite having some economic policies that I think go too far to the right - introduced some very good moderate policies to broaden the policy base of the party, and I think that deserves some support. And I also think that it's just not on to pretend that this lurch to the right was simply a function of John Hewson.

MAXINE McKEW: What has John Hewson said, since the election, in terms of policies, that has convinced you that he's deserving of your continued support?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, he hasn't convinced me since the election. I've just had a look at what I know of both John Howard and John Hewson. It's a difficult choice because they both have some very great capabilities to offer to the party, and I made my decision and I'm sticking with it.

MAXINE McKEW: If John Hewson is re-elected today, will he be more than just an interim leader?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Oh, I think he'll be more than an interim leader, yes, because there will no longer be the veneer of consultation that there really has been in the party room in the last three years. The party room will take a much stronger role and the leader will have a much shorter leash, and therefore, I think, the answer is as I've given it.

MAXINE McKEW: Why are you confident about that, that things will be different if John Hewson is re-elected today?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Because the party put an enormous amount of effort and discipline into presenting itself as a unified party. I mean, in a sense, these people who wanted to lurch to the right asked for unity and got it. They said they knew the way, and they didn't, and there's a lot of anger about that, and I'm quite sure that that anger will reflect itself - not in bitter recriminations - but in a determination to never, ever let that happen again.

MAXINE McKEW: A lot of people would say, though, that John Hewson finds it temperamentally almost impossible to be consultative.

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I don't know that that's the case. If people are in Parliament who simply want someone as a leader who comes and says 'Well, what do you think, what do you think?', and be treated like schoolchildren, well, my view is they should get out. If you haven't got the guts to give your view to the leader, irrespective or whether he likes it or not, you should get out yourself.

MAXINE McKEW: In fact, is that the challenge for both party members and Shadow Ministers, to be a bit braver about speaking up?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Oh, I think there is a challenge to the Shadow Cabinet, Shadow Ministry and to the party room to really do what we're paid to do, and if we don't agree, speak up.

MAXINE McKEW: Senator, what would you say to those Liberals who, since the election, have been disappointed, though, by Doctor Hewson's failure to either accurately assess the reasons for the election loss, or to articulate a way forward for the Liberal Party?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I don't know that he has not properly diagnosed the cause of the loss. When I spoke to him, he clearly seemed to me to understand the view that I put, namely, that it wasn't so much that the basics of the policies were wrong; it was a case of them going too far, too soon. He seemed to understand that in his conversation with me and I was happy about that. I'd be horrified if either John Howard or John Hewson came out today and said: Well, now I know what was wrong and I've got the path forward. The path forward lies in the party room and all the skills that are there. I'm not looking for a Messiah. I wouldn't vote for him if he said: I know the way, follow me; you can just do what I want. That would be a reason to rub him out rather than to support him.

MAXINE McKEW: Aren't you worried, though, about the mauling that John Hewson is likely to get from Paul Keating when the Parliament resumes?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I suppose there will be a bit of a mauling but I'm not worried about that. You see, some people say: Well, parliamentary performance is the beginning and end of a leader. I don't think that's the case. John Howard was our leader in part of the 1980s. He is, without a doubt, our best parliamentary performer, but nonetheless, didn't win. So that's no sure path to victory, putting your best parliamentary performer forward, at all. I don't think that's the key to winning or losing at all.

MAXINE McKEW: And equally, you are convinced that if John Howard were to be successful today, then we would see a return to the bitter rivalries between Peacock and Howard that we saw in the '80s?

AMANDA VANSTONE: I don't know about a return to the bitter rivalries between Peacock and Howard, but I've had an experience of Howard in the '80s and it was a divisive experience and I'm not prepared to give it another go.

MAXINE McKEW: Senator, thank you very much indeed.


PETER THOMPSON: South Australian Senator, Amanda Vanstone, was talking to Maxine McKew.