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Shadow Minister discusses wool industry, declining political party support and resignation of Neil Brown

PRU GOWARD: Joining me is our regular political commentator on matters federal, John Howard. Good morning. Well, John Howard, your support for the wool policy and for various government economic policies like the freeing up of the dollar have, according to former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, sent him to the point where he is opening his gardens for paid tours. Now, would you agree that the bush is hurting and it's hurting your own supporters?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes. Well, I don't think it's got anything to do with the policies that I've supported. In fact, it's got to do with the very reverse. It's got to do with the clinging on to policies that should have disappeared ages ago. If there are culprits - if there are human, Australian culprits for the plight of the wool industry, it is those in the industry who've clung too stubbornly to a system that was failing - an intervention system - that turned what was meant to be a genuine support price into an intervention price, and, of course, coupled with the collapse of world markets. But to blame what has now befallen the Australian wool industry to policies associated with market signals and a recognition that ultimately supply and demand determines the price of something else and not government feat, is really putting your head in the sand.

PRU GOWARD: Were you interested to hear Malcolm Fraser, though, talk about the extent of disillusionment with the parliamentary process that's now being suffered in the bush, and according to his article in the Stock and Land, he's really encouraging people to support candidates who might give sitting members in country seats a bit of a fright.

JOHN HOWARD: There's always, you know, a great desire to sort of have a populist reaction in a particular area when things are difficult. I mean, in a sense, that was the foundation of the crazy `Joh for PM' campaign, and look what that did. It gave us another three or four years of a government - the last government they wanted - namely, a Labor government. And what the Coalition parties have done on the wool issue, as they did on the wheat issue, is to tell the truth, and that is that, ultimately, it is market signals that determine the price of something, and not some kind of phoney interventionism. The collapse of demand from Europe because of an exceptionally warm winter; the diffidence of the Japanese to enter the market; the reluctance of the Chinese; the shortage of foreign exchange by the Russians - all of those things really undermined what was fundamentally an unsound system, and that is the system that says the price is not what you can get for your commodity; it is what we, the Government say, or we, the industry, say you ought to get.

PRU GOWARD: Do you or your party, though, have any sense that anger and disillusionment in the bush is to the point where not only might you get independent candidates, but you might - some way down the track - get another rural party?

JOHN HOWARD: Pru, all around Australia, not only in the bush, there is a general unhappiness, a loosening of bonds, if you like, with mainstream political parties. It's happening on the Right, and it's happening on the Left. It's got something to do with the fact that people don't think the differences are as great as they used to be. It's also got something to do with the fact that people think we have almost insurmountable problems. I am very sensitive to, and I'm very understanding of what has happened to the incomes of people in the bush. What has happened to the wool and wheat industries is curable. The point I simply make is you can't blame it on the fact that the Liberal and National parties had the honesty to say that the reserve price scheme was dead. That's the point I'm making.

PRU GOWARD: And a consumption tax wouldn't help the rural scene either, would it?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, in the long run, if a consumption tax can be introduced in a way that reduces excise - and that is our policy, excise on fuel - it certainly would, quite the reverse of what you say.

PRU GOWARD: Right. Now, the resignation of Neil Brown from the seat of Menzies.

JOHN HOWARD: A loss to the Parliament - a very good parliamentarian.

PRU GOWARD: Yes. Are you disappointed that Michael Kroger has been pressured not to run?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't think Michael's been pressured. I, in fact, had lunch with Michael yesterday, and he's taken the view that he has a commitment which will carry him past the next Victorian State election, which is a very important election to the Liberal Party, not only in Victoria but around Australia.

PRU GOWARD: Oh, yes, but other State secretaries have managed the two.

JOHN HOWARD: ... He is State President ....

PRU GOWARD: State presidents.

JOHN HOWARD: ... and he is a very beneficial influence on the Victorian division. He was very responsible for getting a lot of very good candidates to run at the last Federal election, and that helped our prospects no end in Victoria.

PRU GOWARD: Do you think, though, that he'll ever get a seat as good as Menzies?

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, politics is very unpredictable. I'm sure that Michael wants to go into Federal Parliament, and I'm sure, given the energy and agility he has as a political operator, he'll get there and he'll get there in a very safe seat, but don't ask me to nominate which one because that would be very, very dangerous and foolish of me.

PRU GOWARD: Ah, but it would be fun.

JOHN HOWARD: It would be great fun, Pru, and I'm not tempted.

PRU GOWARD: John Howard, thank you for joining us this week.

PRU GOWARD: Thank you.

PRU GOWARD: John Howard, Liberal commentator on federal politics.