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Democrats Leader stands firm on her opposition to John Howard's plan to partially-privatise Telstra to fund environment package

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Democrats' leader, Senator Cheryl Kernot, is standing firm on her opposition to John Howard's plan for the partial sale of Telstra to fund his environment package. Several conservation groups have come out in support of the plan, in particular a former Queensland environment Minister, Pat Comben. Mr Comben has even offered to take the Senator on a guided tour of national parks to underline the monetary needs of the conservation movement.

Patrick Condren asked Senator Kernot how she reacted to conservationists' support for the partial sale of Telstra.

CHERYL KERNOT: Hang on, you're talking about one person, Pat Comben, and a Gold Coast branch person from the ACF. I think Jim Downey from ACF head office actually said: 'The Democrats have the right to make up their own mind on this issue and they have the right to consider more than just the environment package.'

So there's a long way to go on this issue and I just say to everybody who is out there weighing up the pros and cons, that there are a couple of principles involved. One is, the Democrats are not a single-issue party. We care about the jobs of Telecom workers, about telephone consumers and about the environment, and we won't cross-trade. I mean, it's Mr Howard's environment commitment that's under question here and we have to say to him: Isn't the environment important enough to fund in its own right, and why not?

PATRICK CONDREN: John Howard says only governments get mandates. Where's your mandate coming from?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, we've had a lot of discussion about what constitutes a mandate. Not everybody agrees with John Howard. Hugh MacKay, for example, and I think he is a respected and objective commentator, says that, yes, John Howard has a mandate to do anything that will improve the financial position of families or encourage new employment initiatives by small business, because they were persistent themes, but, he says, to suggest that it has a mandate to sell part of Telstra to finance its environment policy would be sheer nonsense.

That nexus was the most heavily criticised aspect of Coalition policy and it would be outrageously insensitive to the mood of the people to pretend that this was not abundantly clear to all concerned before the new government took office.

I think that's clear. I think it's clear in the Senate vote. I think it's definitely clear in the number of telephone calls my officers are getting and my colleagues' officers are getting all over Australia.

A significant number of Australians took out political insurance in the Senate. There was a vote on to change government but enough of them said: 'Yes, John Howard, you can have government but we are going to put the Democrats in balance of power to keep an eye on you.' And look, all of the polls preceding the election said quite clearly that the environment-Telstra nexus was the big downside of the Coalition's campaign.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: And yet they still voted for it?

CHERYL KERNOT: How do you know what people voted for?

HAMISH ROBERTSON: You're saying it was the downside of their campaign and yet they gave John Howard 100 seats in the Legislative Assembly. How can you say that they didn't vote for that mandate?

CHERYL KERNOT: Because you can't say that they did vote for the Telstra part. You can't say anymore than anybody else without having an exit poll on everybody in this country. When people go in to vote you can't say that they give 'Yes' to government and 'Yes' to every single thing....

PATRICK CONDREN: But can't we then use that argument against your suggestion....

CHERYL KERNOT: Yes, you can.

PATRICK CONDREN: ...that you've got a mandate?

CHERYL KERNOT: Well, you can except that you can say: 'Why did 3 per cent of those who voted Liberal in the Reps then go on to vote Democrat in the Senate? What were they seeking there?' They were seeking political insurance and, in many instances, against the sale of Telstra.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Democrats' leader, Senator Cheryl Kernot.