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Federal Liberal Party Director has warned that those members undermining the Liberal leadership could face loss of preselection; former Liberal Leader, John Howard, responds

PETER THOMPSON: The Federal Liberal Party machine has warned its MPs against attacking John Hewson's leadership. The party's Federal Director, Andrew Robb, last night reminded MPs that they could lose preselection if they persist with their campaign to undermine Dr Hewson. The Hewson camp and the Federal secretariat are frustrated that the Liberal leadership has again become the focus of attention, and not the Government's performance. In a moment, we'll hear from John Howard. First, from Canberra, our chief political correspondent, John Shovelan, reports that the threats of discipline aren't being heeded.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Andrew Robb, the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, went on Channel Ten's Meet the Press program last night, with a blunt message for those in the Liberal Party undermining John Hewson's leadership. 'Pull your head in', Mr Robb told the dissenters. And in a threat that carries some grave risks for the Liberals, Mr Robb warned stripping undisciplined MPs of their preselection was the ultimate sanction that could be used against anyone continuing to challenge the authority of John Hewson.

The story behind Mr Robb's appearance on the program also gives some insight into the nervousness that now exists in the Liberal Party. Channel Ten had booked for last night's program the most outspoken MP on the Liberal back bench, Ken Aldred. On Thursday last week, Mr Aldred declared he'd be a candidate for the Liberal leadership and said there would be difficulties if the party continued on with the leadership it had at the moment.

On Friday afternoon, one of the press officers, from Dr Hewson's office, rang Channel Ten's Canberra bureau and inquired who would be their guest on Sunday night. 'Mr Aldred', the gentleman, was told. 'Umm' came the reply. One can only assume this information was dutifully passed on, because a half an hour later Andrew Robb phoned the program's producer saying he would be available. The offer was accepted. Another press release was issued, this time trumpeting Mr Robb as the subject to face the panel. You wouldn't be too far from the mark to assume the Liberal Party machine boss had had enough of the dissenters and decided to hit back. Of course, it hasn't taken the Liberal leadership out of the media, and if anything has given the issue more credibility than another outburst from Mr Aldred. And none of the high-profile dissenters, like Senator Bronwyn Bishop, who set herself the task of talking to 1,000 a day - and I'm told if she fails at that, rings a radio station - or Peter Reith, nor the secretive Peter Costello or the ever-watchful, John Howard, of course will be in any way intimidated by the word of Mr Robb.

For Mr Robb and Dr Hewson are in the unwinnable position of having no real target to lash out at. Apart from Mr Aldred's up-front remarks, no-one else has said anything that warrants punishments. That's why Mr Robb's comments were last night being seen as punching at shadows by Dr Hewson's detractors - MPs who won't stop their campaign and won't stop whispering - and threats of discipline may already be too late.

PETER THOMPSON: John Shovelan reporting. Well, this morning, John Howard wouldn't be drawn on Andrew Robb's threat over preselections, and Mr Howard denies that Andrew Robb's criticism of dissidents is aimed at him. He spoke to Michael Brissenden.

JOHN HOWARD: I don't believe that anything that I have said over the past couple of months could reasonably be construed in any way as spoiling or destabilisation, or is in any way working against the interests of the Liberal Party.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Who was Andrew Robb talking about, then?

JOHN HOWARD: You'll have to ask Andrew Robb that. I mean, that is the problem with these sort of statements - they are inevitably non-specific. But speaking of myself, I've really only done two things over the past couple of months. I made a speech analysing the reasons why we lost the election, and John Hewson actually said he agreed with everything I'd said. I also tried in that speech to indicate the sort of things we could do over the next two and half years in order to win, in 1996. And the only other thing I've done is that in the course of an interview, I stated the obvious and said that the leadership of the Liberal Party was a matter for the party room. Now, if people think that represents spoiling or destabilisation, then their understanding of the English language is quite different from mine, and we really ought to get out of the kindergarten.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, that speech was widely regarded or widely seen as a criticism of John Hewson's grasp of politics. Is that an unfair view of it?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I'll tell you this, Michael, he didn't see it that way and he said so. And secondly, I took the precaution at the beginning of last week of sending a copy of the speech to everyone of my parliamentary colleagues - something I don't normally do; they've got enough to read - and not one of them has indicated to me, as a result of receiving the speech, that he or she regarded it as being out of line or being in any way critical of the leader. The only responses I've had to the speech have been positive ones.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: You were fairly critical of his handling of the politics of the situation, though, weren't you?

JOHN HOWARD: I didn't mention John Hewson in the speech, but if we cannot as a party after having lost an election that most people thought we were going to win, if we can't have a little bit of honest analysis of why we lost and then focus on how to win in 1996, then I don't think we're being very political. I mean, this ogre of disunity that is raised by some whenever there's any kind of honest analysis of where the party is going .. I mean, what I said in that speech I stand by. It was a fair analysis. It made the obvious point and John Hewson agreed with it, and that was why I was surprised at some of the responses to it. It surprised me greatly, because he said he agreed with everything I'd said.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, even the Deputy Leader of your time says that somebody has been destabilising. Has he got a point?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, you'll have to ask him who he has in mind and, as I say, others can speak for themselves.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Should Peter Reith, Bronwyn Bishop and Ken Aldred pull their heads in?

JOHN HOWARD: Peter Reith, Bronwyn Bishop, Ken Aldred and, indeed, all other members of the party speak for themselves.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Does the necessity for Andrew Robb to come and say this undermine, in a sense, John Hewson's position?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't want to say anything on that. I recognise that the Federal Director of the party has a difficult job and I'm sensitive to that. It's not an easy time for the party. That is why it's important that the Liberal Party try and learn one lesson from our political opponents, and that is that the Labor Party has a great capacity to publicly analyse its policies and its sense of direction and its sense of political management and still go on to win elections. And maybe if the Liberal Party were a little less tense about the public examination of its sense of direction and some of its policy positions, then we might do a little better in the future.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is the Liberal Party too sensitive?

JOHN HOWARD: I think some members of the Liberal Party are too .. I mean, isn't it amazing that the Labor Party can have public brawls on policy and yet go on to win elections?

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is the party in danger of repeating the mistakes of the '80s, as Andrew Robb claims?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't know what mistakes you're referring to.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I presume he's talking about leadership problems and discussion.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, once again, I have to say that .. I mean, we didn't lose the last election because of a leadership struggle. I mean, the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the last election, unlike the Labor Party, was completely united.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is the Liberal Party completely united now?

JOHN HOWARD: I think the Liberal Party is united in a desire to win, and I think sensible people in the Liberal Party are united in a desire to ensure that the political shortcomings which characterised the last election and characterised the lead-up to it, won't be repeated.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Does a desire to win equate with united behind John Hewson's leadership?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I'm not going to get drawn into personality comment. I accept fully the decision that the party room made to re-elect John Hewson four and half months ago, and I believe I've tried to work as a part of team since then, and I'll go on doing that; but I'm not going to say any more on the subject of the leadership.

PETER THOMPSON: Former Liberal Leader, John Howard.