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Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister discusses factors involved in the Coalition's election defeat

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: For whoever lost the Saturday election, the aftermath was always going to be nasty, but for the Liberals, the shock of the unexpected, the impossible defeat has been devastating. That party is now attempting to dust itself off to form a credible force over the next three years. Liberal Senator Robert Hill is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Opposition spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, and joins us each fortnight to talk politics from his side of the fence.

Senator Hill, good morning. Well, there a few palings missing from your side of the fence this week. A week after the event, are you still shell shocked?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I suppose. I'm still very disappointed, but that's the democratic system. The people made their choice and we've got to live with it.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Did you get any danger signals as those final days ticked away?

ROBERT HILL: There were some. We were reliant on the undecided voting for us. We were disturbed by the large number of undecided leading into the last week. It clearly demonstrated that they weren't embracing the program with enthusiasm, but really they moved so late in the end that there wasn't much that could be done.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes, it appears that they almost moved in the ballot box, in the actual .. the ballot booth, anyway.

ROBERT HILL: Well, I think what it indicated was that they were unhappy with the present administration and that's not surprising with the enormous unemployment and so forth. And they wrestled with us right up until the last moment. But in the end, they found the package just too big and too complex, and within it they found individual bits that worried them, depending on their circumstances. And so pretty clearly, in the end, they decided to keep with the devil they knew. So, it's not a ringing endorsement for the Government, but it has the same effect. They've got the seats and, in fact, an enlarged majority.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Do you concede it was more than that, though, that they were being asked to embrace a cultural change, a sea change, in Australian life?

ROBERT HILL: No, I don't think so. I think that's a lot of nonsense. In actual fact, I think the policy program as a whole was much more moderate than what is now being interpreted. As I've said to you before on other occasions, the tax changes were really much in line with what's happened all over the world and the effect of not moving with those changes leaves our own producers at a competitive disadvantage.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But moving beyond the tax - that was the most obvious and easy thing for the Government to attack, but going to things like Medicare which has been bedded into society now for more than a decade and industrial relations, which has been .. the system in its basic form has been with us since Federation.

ROBERT HILL: Yes, well, I acknowledge we were asking them to accept change over a whole range of areas, and that's why I said a moment ago, I think that people found within it individual aspects that made them nervous. The Medicare changes, for example, I think that providing tax incentives for lower income earners to be able to take up private health care was something most people thought was a good idea. But taking bulk billing off a range of people that were above social security support levels but below discretionary income levels concern them, particularly in the light of the advertising attack suggesting they'd be paying large sums of money up front. So some people worried about that, some people worried about aspects of the industrial relations, some people worried about the aspects of the youth wages. Everyone applauded .. well, most people applauded the idea of youth wages whereby those untrained would get an opportunity, but they were concerned about the level we set. And I think when you add up all those concerns, one can understand how, in the end, they decided they'd stick with what they had rather than take the chance of something new.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, John Hewson last night seemed to be indicating that the policy basics were okay, it was just really the marketing, almost.

ROBERT HILL: I didn't see John last night, but I think the principles of the package are not only okay, but in .. they are in the best interests of Australia and most of them will inevitably be implemented in some form or other.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But Australians didn't want them.

ROBERT HILL: I'm putting to you that Australians in the end were frightened by the extent of what they interpreted as the change, the mass of what we were offering, the fact that they found it confusing, and by particular aspects that affected them. So, I don't think we can say that Australia didn't want .. you know, that it rejected the principles that were behind the package. I just don't think that we can leap to that assumption.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Will you be supporting John Hewson as the leader, second time round?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I said last Sunday that I thought that John Hewson should continue, and that's without any other competitor being in the field. I don't talk about a comparison of aspirants for the job, but Hewson .. this was his first term. It was a fair learning experience in politics, if I can put it that way.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But he's been crushed, hasn't he, as politician, surely. How is he going to dust himself off now and face up to Paul Keating across the floor of the Chamber?

ROBERT HILL: Well, that's part of the political process. I see him as a person of quite considerable ability. I believe he can learn from this experience, and when we have disappointments like this, we can't just cut the leader's throat and say 'You start again'. I think that he's somebody that could go on with the job; in fact, what I was saying last Sunday was he should accept the responsibility to go on with the job.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Do you think there's a need, though, for the party to get away from almost this messiah mentality and get back to a broader policy base?

ROBERT HILL: I think to some extent I agree with that. We do expect an enormous amount of our leaders, much more so than the Labor Party, and that's got something to do with what we do to them afterwards if they lose and we tend to blame them. I see it as much more of a corporate responsibility. But perhaps within our structure, within our systems we've got to better reflect, better ensure that there is a real corporate development of program and detail and projection of those policies.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Do you think John Hewson is the person to do that, though? - because I think his style has been - even he admitted last night - autocratic in a way. He didn't use those words, but he did admit his failings in not consulting widely in the party and listening to other views.

ROBERT HILL: I think he's got to learn from the experience. I'm not disputing that. I concede that point. But my assessment was last Sunday that he could do that and it still remains the case .

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now what about you? Why don't you run for deputy or?

ROBERT HILL: I could use the excuse that they're telling me the planes leaving, Matt, but really I'm happy where I am. I think I can make a contribution. I would like to think I've done that in the last three years in the Senate, and look forward to doing it again in the future.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. I don't want you to miss your plane, but Bronwyn Bishop, Senator Bishop is thinking of running to project the warm side of Liberalism. Do you find that vaguely ironic?

ROBERT HILL: I get on well with Bronwyn.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Senator Robert Hill, thank you.