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Discussion on the Governor-General's rhetoric, the value of political surveys and the Prime Minister's strategy on the GST

RICHARD ACKLAND: What do you think of all that, Brian?

BRIAN TOOHEY: I'm very puzzled why people in the Opposition - and I notice the Financial Review editorial this morning huffing and puffing about the need to have bureaucratic limits imposed on lending. I thought in the free market you could borrow whatever you liked, and if you didn't have sufficient discipline you had interest rates go up on you, or you went broke or got tossed out at the election. RICHARD ACKLAND: That's what the market sets.

BRIAN TOOHEY: That's the purity of it all.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Brian, thanks very much for coming in, Brian Toohey, for our regular Monday spot. But I just think - look I know you've been involved in a huge spat with the Governor-General, Brian, on a few Haydenisms, and I thought we'd try and glean out ....

BRIAN TOOHEY: That's the wrong word, Richard. I mean, this sort of dialogue.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Dialogue, dialogue.

BRIAN TOOHEY: Discourse.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Try and flesh out the meaning of some of them. I notice he's been quoting Hans Kung in relation to anarchic atheism. Did you manage to divine what that meant, Brian?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, people will wonder who's got less to do - me or the Governor-General. But I noticed in the speech that he gave last week to launch Paul Kelly's new book, he threw around all sorts of jargon and phrases and very arcane sort of language, so I popped off a few questions to him as to exactly what he meant. And, while the money markets thought he was cooling his heels waiting for Paul Keating to come out and to grant Paul an early election, in fact he was penning this mighty missive to me in which he explains all these things. And a while back in the colour magazine with the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald it said that he was what Hans Kung calls a nihilist athiest.


BRIAN TOOHEY: .... someone who would like to believe but they can't. And I was somewhat surprised that Kung had defined a nihilist that way, so I asked him to give me the quote. And instead I got back the sort of atheism that anarchists don't believe in - and a very interesting and worthy quote, but it didn't seem to have anything to do with nihilistic atheists and so forth. I also asked, he ....

RICHARD ACKLAND: Is there a difference, Brian, between anarchic atheism and nihilistic atheism? Could we go into that in a little bit more detail?

BRIAN TOOHEY: I think we'll move on immediately to the other wonderful aspects of his speech. He announced that he was a 'soft determinist' ....


BRIAN TOOHEY: And it turns out that he believes in Government intervention to help those who are disadvantaged because ....

RICHARD ACKLAND: But only softly.

BRIAN TOOHEY: He's a soft determinist. It was an amazing speech. It was full of all this incredibly flowery language that, unless we have market discipline and so forth we'll be condemned to flounder forever in a sea of economic backwardness. He can't call a strike a strike or say that it happens often. It's not an aberrated occurrence. And what it is, it's the muscular manipulation of the industrial system by certain industrial representatives.

RICHARD ACKLAND: And I think at one point he said he finds it hard to accept the punitive and dismissive judgment that the poor remain poor through the exercise of free will.

BRIAN TOOHEY: That's how he explains what he means about soft determinism. It was interesting. About three quarters of the speech was sort of celebrating the triumph of the free market in the 1980s, and at the end he says: Look here, I'm a soft determinist and I think, I mean, I think it's a perfectly reasonable point, that people don't really have the chance to exercise free will if they're ....

RICHARD ACKLAND: I thought he was under the iron-like discipline of Tony Hill, the speech writer.

BRIAN TOOHEY: Tony is a lovely writer. This is definitely written by Bill Hayden.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Brian, and I suppose it means that Bill's got a fair bit of time to do a bit of reading now.

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, he obviously has. Hans Kung's being thumbed through.

RICHARD ACKLAND: .... philosopher, quite apart from throwing big dinners for members of the Press Gallery on Saturday nights, lonely Saturday nights at Yarralumla. Brian, what's happening ... remember the Sydney Morning Herald - when was it, it must have been last week - came out with a big story on Hugh Mackay's alleged research into the public perception of Dr John Hewson, the Opposition Leader, only to be discovered that it wasn't by Hugh Mackay at all but by some other researcher.

BRIAN TOOHEY: It wouldn't possibly have mattered that much, except it was very damaging to Dr Hewson, and it was given tremendous prominence.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Right across the top of the front ....

BRIAN TOOHEY: Of page 1. It turned out that there'd been a confusion by the political correspondent, Peter Hartcher, and he'd mixed up who had produced this research and as a result there were, I think, legitimate heavy complaints from both Hugh Mackay, obviously. He didn't want to use that sort of extreme and strong language and didn't want to be associated with it. It wasn't his findings, obviously; and, of course, from Dr Hewson.

The Sydney Morning Herald after, you know, some time interval has responded by putting Mike Steketee, a former bureau head in Canberra, in as the head of the Sydney Morning Herald bureau in Canberra. He'll be called Political Editor, which is a title that other papers are now using - the Australian.

RICHARD ACKLAND: The Australian's got one.

BRIAN TOOHEY: I think the ABC News uses it, too. And Hartcher will still be the political correspondent, but he'll be under Mike Steketee.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Is this a sort of disciplinary move?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, I think it's some gesture of goodwill, I mean, I think that had to make some gesture towards the Opposition that, you know, that had to show that some corrective action was being taken.

RICHARD ACKLAND: There wasn't what you might call a fulsome apology, even an apology at all to Dr Hewson over this ....

BRIAN TOOHEY: No. At the end of their correction they apologised to Hugh MacKay but not to Hewson. I mean, I don't think the problem simply lies with Hartcher. Hartcher's had the whip over him to be different, to come up with different stuff, and he's certainly been trying to do that. But I think there's also a problem about the judgment of where you place these stories. I think these surveys have to be treated with far more care. After all, they're conversations with very small groups of people.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Yes. The qualitative survey.

BRIAN TOOHEY: What they call the qualitative research. And the researchers are supposed to be so sensitive that they don't lead the discussion in any way, that they're able to work out what people really think, that within the groups people aren't dominated by others. You well know from your work in the law how juries can get dominated by a couple of people. Anyone who's had much to do with market research - I can remember in newspapers, people wanting these groups to come across as serious, say the sort of things that they're expected. If you believed them you would have had earnest foreign stories on the front page every day of the week. Of course, when you put that on you lose sales. So you do wonder about the accuracy of some of this qualitative research and about the wisdom of banging it all over the front page.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Brian, we've just got a few moments left, but I just wondered if you'd thought about the cleverness or otherwise of Mr Keating's strategy in relation to the Senate?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, what he's doing is taking a rather purist approach that the Government will have a mandate. We know why he's doing it. It's, I think, quite a clever thing if it works, and that is to try and say: Look, a vote for Hewson is definitely a vote for the GST. You can't wriggle out of it by hoping the Democrats and we will knock it off. But it is nice to see him taking the high principled stand about a mandate, although people who look back probably can't remember any mandates to float the dollar or cut Government spending by 7 percentage points, and so forth.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Or deregulate the financial sector, or anything. Yes, and I suppose the odd sort of ... look, yes, we should have mentioned that. We've just got a second. I was, just in the context of the Fairfax discussion about the huge round of share options and salaries to the senior executives of the organisation.

BRIAN TOOHEY: The Australian Shareholders' Association, I notice, has written to the Chairman of Fairfax saying what's going on here. Here's a company supposed to be in dire financial straits - they're cutting back on bus fares and all sorts of things for staff, yet they're going to give a free option of 3.5 million shares to the Chief Executive, two million to the person under him and 500,000 to the person who used to be there, the Acting Chief Executive, Dan Colson, and a heap of options to other people. They'll be able to exercise them at a buck and, given the share price is $1.44 at the moment, that's a pretty good handout.

RICHARD ACKLAND: Yes, and a sensible sort of measure in the market economy, Brian. Thank you very much indeed.