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Shadow Minister discusses changes to industrial relations policy and leadership speculation

ELLEN FANNING: John Howard is denying reports this morning that his supporters are marshalling for another tilt at the Liberal leadership. The Sydney Morning Herald reports this morning that allies of the Shadow Industrial Relations Minister are counting the numbers. Despondency at the prospect of going to an election with Alexander Downer as leader is said to be spurring them on, as is speculation about an early poll. While Mr Howard denies he's working against Mr Downer, he is preparing for a major change to the industrial relations policy he took to the last election. The provision which scrapped Federal awards to encourage people into enterprise bargaining is now under review. John Howard joins us in our Canberra studios this morning, and to speak with him, Lyndall Curtis.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Howard, under the industrial relations policy you took to the last election, people opted in to the award system. Why are you considering a change?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the only change in this area that is being looked at, and I stress that it is an option only, and I also stress that Mr Downer himself announced that it was an option being considered a couple of months ago. The only change we're considering is to provide a more transparent safety net by adopting what is called an opting-out rather than an opting-in approach. The reason is that although the existing policy does not - as Ellen's intro suggested - involve the scrapping of award conditions unilaterally; I mean, that was always a misrepresentation of the policy. Under the present policy, nobody can lose their current award conditions without their consent - nobody. But an opting-out procedure would provide a more transparent safety net, and therefore prevent the policy being misrepresented by the Government and by sections of the union movement.

I am disturbed at the headline treatment of this in the Sydney Morning Herald, not so much the body of the story. I think the Sydney Morning Herald has borrowed a headline writer from Fleet Street because to suggest that we're dumping our IR policy, as the early edition implied, or we're dropping our union shake-up, none of that will happen. I mean, the four great pillars of our industrial relations policy - firstly an absolute opposition to compulsory unionism; secondly, giving people a choice between awards and contracts; thirdly, placing unions beneath and not above the law, like the rest of us; and finally, giving people a choice of what type of union they want to belong to. Those four pillars remain, and there's no way they will ever be altered. But what has been under discussion, and it's an open secret it's been under discussion, is possibly making a change in relation to whether you opt out or you opt in, and in the name of providing a more transparent safety net, and I think that's obviously a sensible objective. But no decision has been taken. I mean, the party room will decide this, nobody else.

LYNDALL CURTIS: You say it's to make it more transparent. Is it also to make it more attractive, more electorally saleable?

JOHN HOWARD: I think everybody's interested in electoral saleability. I mean, the name of the game is electoral saleability consistent with principle. And I mean, we all know that major change in the industrial relations area is fundamental to Australia's economic modernisation, and the reason we have a huge foreign debt and interest rates are going up again is we haven't done the job domestically in freeing our economy. I mean, we did the financial deregulation and we've done something on tariffs, but it's come to a blinding halt after that. And the reason New Zealand is doing a lot better than Australia, and the reason why we have this huge foreign debt and we're going back to the problems of the '80s is that we haven't freed the domestic economy. And the big road block to that freeing is industrial relations, and the drive for industrial relations reform remains undiminished. If we can present it in a way which is more transparently protective, I mean, it was always protective of workers, but if you make it more transparently protective, you'd be a fool not to do so.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Howard, is speculation about an early election focussing Liberal minds on the question of leadership again?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, there's no doubt that the Government is thinking about an early election because they want to possibly get in before interest rates go up again. I mean, it is London to a brick that interest rates will go on rising for the next couple of years, and I have no doubt that Della Bosca and his mob in Sydney are petrified that the Prime Minister wants to have an early election because they'll then have two elections on their hands, and I think it's obvious what the Government is trying to do. They're running before the storm, and the storm is ever higher interest rates.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Is there a storm also in the Liberal Party though about your leadership? There are reports that your supporters are counting the numbers and that people are despondent about Alexander Downer's leadership.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, let me make it clear that none of those stories came from me. If anybody is out there beating up the bushes on my behalf, they're doing so not at my request, and they ought to stop, and they ought to do what I've done for the last five months and give every help and assistance to Alexander Downer.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Is Mr Downer .. have you spoken to Mr Downer about ...?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I went to see Mr Downer last night when I heard these stories going around. And we have a very frank and open relationship - we always have. We're very direct with each other, very blunt; very direct with each other. And, you know, you go and talk to him. He's pretty relaxed about my situation and I think that's the ultimate test.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Is there any truth to the reports that we're hearing?

JOHN HOWARD: How many times have I got to answer? I mean, look, can I just say it again? Those reports have not, in any way, emanated from me; I'm disturbed that they have appeared. And I repeat, if anybody is out there doing anything on my behalf, they ought to stop, and they're certainly not doing it at my request, and they ought to do what I've done for the last five months, and that's help Mr Downer.

LYNDALL CURTIS: If people did come to you and asked you to try again ...

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, look, this is getting boring, it really is.

LYNDALL CURTIS: Mr Howard, thank you for your time.

JOHN HOWARD: It's a pleasure.

ELLEN FANNING: And Lyndall Curtis was speaking there to John Howard.