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Opposition Leader launches the Telstra Reward Fund; remains non-committal on the issue of repealing the Government's native title legislation.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD:   The ALP today launched its answer to the Government’s full sell-off of Telstra and the ensuing social bonus, announcing the creation of a new Telstra Reward Fund, as the Opposition calls it.  Instead of selling off Telstra, the research and development fund would be financed by earmarking 35 per cent of the annual Telstra dividend to pay for things like new railways, science and technology research, and disaster insurance.


Kim Beazley, who spent the day campaigning on home territory in his marginal seat of Brand, says selling off Telstra as the Howard Coalition wants to do would be like selling Kalgoorlie before the gold rush.


Our chief political correspondent, Matt Peacock, who’s travelling with Mr Beazley, reports that the Opposition Leader also came, though, under pressure to further explain Labor’s policy on native title.


MATT PEACOCK:   Mr Beazley even found time to catch up with Kim Senior, his dad, today in his electorate as he met with the elderly in Brand - a seat that’s finally starting to look a little less unsafe in the polls for the Labor leader.  But it was what he called ‘a better plan for Telstra’ - the Telstra Reward Fund - which dominated his day.


KIM BEAZLEY:   Commencing next year, and for every year after that, a Labor government will put 35 per cent of Telstra’s dividend to the Government into our Telstra Reward Fund.  We have chosen that 35 per cent figure deliberately.  Under John Howard, up to 35 per cent of Telstra’s dividends will flow into the hands of foreign shareholders.  But under Labor, the Australian Government will invest 35 per cent of its dividends from Telstra to make us more innovative, develop our regions and, above all, to create Australian jobs.


MATT PEACOCK:   It’s a nationalistic spin by Labor - the end game, says Mr Beazley, to save Telstra.  Nor, he says, will this be funny money, nor pork-barrelling like the Government’s Heritage Fund.  It’ll provide a guaranteed income flow, he says, and out of it Labor will next year spend $113 million on new railways.  Add an additional $17 million to insure the uninsured in floods and other natural disasters and, apart from these regional projects, it will also inject nearly $180 million next year into the National Health and Medical Research Council.  Co-operative Research Centres will get $140 million and there’ll be a new marine science resources institute.  And what of the argument that the Government puts that Labor can’t spend the same money twice - that it’s already going into consolidated revenue to pay for other things?


KIM BEAZLEY:   They will say the money is already there in the budget papers.  Now let me save them the trouble - that is precisely the point:  the Telstra Reward Fund money is not new money.  It is money in the hands of taxpayers, but money that will be lost to the long-term task of developing this country if Telstra is sold.  We certainly believe that Telstra is an asset for the long term and that an analysis of its likely future earnings show it is worth far more to Australians in public hands than it is in the hands of foreign and private interests.  But the Telstra Reward Fund does not rely on such assumptions.  It is a concrete expression of our commitment to keeping what we still own of Telstra as Australians, and using that money to build our nation’s future.  It’s also there to guarantee funding for the kind of programs that will build our nation and that accordingly deserve the funding security of a dividend stream.  We believe that as part of our commitment to nation building, we must make a commitment to funding the programs we believe in on more than just an annual basis, susceptible always to the annual budget round.  We have designed this Telstra Reward Fund to give long-term funding security to our priority nation building objectives.


MATT PEACOCK:   The slicing of the Telstra salami must stop, says Mr Beazley.  Vote Labor and it stops here.  But the Opposition Leader was less clear today on the vexed issue of native title when he was asked specifically if he’d repeal the Government’s existing legislation.


KIM BEAZLEY:   There’s a range of legal challenges out there to it now.  I’d be silly to even think about that until you saw what those legal challenges produced.  There’s a process out there now where State governments are legislating.  I know this that whatever is out there, it’s going to create at some time a point in which people are going to be asking government to do something that will produce good will.  And what we’ve got to do on native title, as in any other area, in one sense the law is important;  but in another sense, whatever procedures are put in place, the various parties to it, be it those with an economic interest or those who are title holders, find it a slow process to work through.  Now what we have got to do is to build on the successes that some mining companies are now having with being able to sit down with the Aboriginal community and arrive at agreements.  We’ve got to get good will back into native title.  If we do not get good will back into native title, it will fail the economic needs of this nation.


MATT PEACOCK:   But with respect, that’s the sort of woolly answer.  I mean, you haven’t actually said whether or not you’d even want to change the legislation.


KIM BEAZLEY:   I don’t sit on the High Court, old son.  I don’t sit on the High Court.  So, we have to look at what the High Court is going to produce.


MATT PEACOCK:   So wait and see?


KIM BEAZLEY:   We have to look at what the High Court is going to produce because we’ve learned this:  that the High Court is quite capable of changing the ground rules in this area with quite decisive effect.  A bit of common sense says that what you do is wait around….


MATT PEACOCK:   Isn’t that a recipe for uncertainty in the future, though?


KIM BEAZLEY:   Well, if the Government thinks the legislation is all that certain, it wouldn’t worry.  The Government knows darn well that there are going to be problems there.  But the only way you give certainty … look, in the end, the only way you give certainty is these two-fold things:  firstly, you implement the law as you know it - and I’m not sure the Government has actually managed to achieve that, but we’ll find out - you implement the law as you know it, but that is less important than the issue of good will.  You will not solve native title problems in this country until those with an economic interest and those with a potential title are comfortable with each other in making agreements between them.


JOHN HIGHFIELD:   Kim Beazley in Western Australia today.