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Election '96: Democrats' Leader discusses preference allocation and the Deputy Prime Minister's warning of possible double dissolution over Telstra sale

ELLEN FANNING: First, to the threat of another election. And Labor's Kim Beazley is warning that the ALP would be prepared to force a Coalition Government back to the ballot box over the issue of Telstra. The Deputy Prime Minister told a rally in Perth yesterday, that the Government would combine with the Democrats in the Senate to block the legislation to partially privatise the telecommunications carrier and he predicts that could see a double dissolution. Well, the Democrats would be pivotal to any plan by Labor to block the sale of Telstra in the Senate.

Well, to discuss the threat of a double dissolution we're joined now by the Democrats Leader, Cheryl Kernot, and she is speaking to our chief political correspondent, Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Senator Kernot, Kim Beazley is talking about the possibility of a double dissolution over Telstra if the Coalition wins - will it get to that?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, it's entirely up to the Prime Minister of the day. I mean, the current Labor Government had three triggers for a double dissolution in their bottom drawer; it's not really up to Kim Beazley. And I'd be very surprised if Mr Howard was so ideologically rigid that he'd want to ram something like this through, contrary to the wishes of last least 60 per cent of Australians.

FRAN KELLY: Would you be surprised, given the strength of his rhetoric? I mean, he is determined to do it; they have based the funding of their environment package on it. They certainly show that they are very committed, ideologically and economically, to the idea.

CHERYL KERNOT: Yes, they have to say that in an election campaign. They are not about to change tack at this stage but I think that Mr Howard can read the opinion polls. He can see that he can't claim a mandate for this and that I think he'd be willing to look at other funding options which don't involve new taxes on Australians, and that is possible.

FRAN KELLY: But he's not looking at that and he is still .. the Coalition is still saying that they will get Telstra through the Senate.

CHERYL KERNOT: Of course, they have to otherwise they don't have an environment package. Are you going to tell me, that having waited 13 years for government, they are going to rush in and put their own futures at risk? I don't believe so and I think there is a long way to go on this issue.

FRAN KELLY: Well, Kim Beazley was telling voters yesterday, that it was wrong to assume that the Democrats' stated opposition to the Telstra sale would guarantee the legislation being held up in the Senate. Is he right or wrong to assume that?

CHERYL KERNOT: I think that's an absolute cheek from the people who went to the last election campaign saying they wouldn't sell the Commonwealth Bank and then turned around and did it. The only people with the consistent record on this are the Democrats. We are opposed to the partial privatisation; any privatisation of Telstra. We think it's a really important publicly-owned asset which should stay publicly-owned.

FRAN KELLY: If it does come to a double dissolution, though, and it does end up in a joint .. that the whole question does end up in joint sitting of Parliament, the Democrats won't be relevant to this decision, you won't be able to stop it, would you?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, that's a decision that others will take, but if that's the way they want to proceed, but we'll be true to our record, that's all that we have to do.

FRAN KELLY: Just moving along, you've directed Democrat preferences to the Liberal Party in Kim Beazley's seat of Brand in this election - that could cost him the seat. How do you justify that on two counts: one, the Government's shared position with you on Telstra and; secondly, Kim Beazley's personal intervention in Cabinet to save West Australian forests?

CHERYL KERNOT: How do you know that that's true? That's one of those nice little lines that get spun around after Cabinet meetings, which none of us can test, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: But, though, the stories at the time were very clear, weren't they, that Carmen Lawrence and Kim Beazley did combine to save the West Australian forests?

CHERYL KERNOT: You and I aren't in Cabinet and none of us knows what is the truth of what happens in Cabinet meetings. I can justify it very easily by saying that the Democrats believe that we were negotiating for a 50-50 split. We believed that reflected the true position of both the West Australian Greens and the Democrats in Western Australia. It was the Labor Party who moved away from that even-handed negotiating position. They forced us to go and talk to the Liberal Party with whom we were seeking a 50-50 split as well. It is Kim Beazley who made, in my view, a quite self-interested decision to say: We can get more from the West Australian Greens. I mean, it's as simple as that, and we'll be balancing up our preference allocation around the country.

FRAN KELLY: It really comes down to horse trading, with ideologies aside, doesn't it, this time when it comes to preferences? I mean, as Australian Greens candidate, Bob Brown, said yesterday, he accused the Democrats of making some unconscionable and indefensible preference deals. But he pointed out that some Democrat preferences are going to Fred Nile's very conservative Call to Australia Party and some to Australians Against Further Immigration - a group with links to the League of Rights. I mean, how do you justify that?

CHERYL KERNOT: I justify that very easily by saying that, in Tasmania, the Tasmanians made a decision based on Bob Brown and Peter Singer's support for euthanasia of premature babies and babies born with disabilities. That was the right of the Tasmanians to distinguish in those local circumstances.

FRAN KELLY: And in South Australia, where they've gone for Australians Against Further Immigration?

CHERYL KERNOT: South Australia, I understand, the South Australian division made that decision based on discussions with the candidate. He is coming at that issue on strict environmental grounds.

FRAN KELLY: But how can you justify that, I mean, looking at something on strict environmental grounds when a group is publicly happy to say that it does have associations with racist groups?

CHERYL KERNOT: Let me turn it around the other way - how can the Women's Party justify not giving preferences to the Democrats? There are....

FRAN KELLY: We're not talking about the Women's Party. I mean, that's what I am saying, has it just simply come down to horse trading really?

CHERYL KERNOT: In some respects it has, but if I can go back to Mr Beazley and talk about the issue of privatisation. I don't think you can just single out Telstra on this. I mean, the Labor Party is just similar to the Liberal Party. It's Kim Beazley, as Finance Minister, who has been involved with the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, with the sale of Qantas; for Kim Beazley as Communications Minister that cost Telecom 15,000 jobs. I mean, it's not much of a choice, you know, and that's what Australians are saying as well. So if you've got to come down to the issues, again, it's not much choice and, yes, you're right - since the West Australian Greens have been in the preference negotiations and been prepared to horse trade and to direct preferences - I don't know what they have got in return; I suspect 100 per cent of preferences everywhere they wanted it - since that's happened, the Democrats have been forced to move away from their even-handedness from their split ticket. But we will still be having a split ticket in 95 per cent of the seats in Australia.

FRAN KELLY: Cheryl Kernot, thank you.