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Profile of Laurie Brereton.

LAURIE BRERETON: 1994 was a hell of a year for me because we had all those issues running at once. We had the airports; we had industrial relations; we had ANL; we had planes falling out of the sky; and the Civil Aviation Authority with all of its difficulties; we had Kingsford Smith Airport with the commission of a third runway. It was a hell of a year. But I wouldn't put it as my worst year, but certainly a terribly challenging year, and I think 1995, here's hoping, will be a little easier.

MATT PEACOCK: Hello, and welcome again to Background briefing. I'm Matt Peacock, and today the man they love to hate - Laurie Brereton. What makes the Prime Minister's best mate tick?

HALL GREENLAND: He's basically everything from a henchman to an errand boy, but he generally acts on other people's initiatives and does the dirty work for them. He's not an initiator or an ideas man or a leader or anything, he's somebody who you give a job to and he does the job.

MATT PEACOCK: Hall Greenland, Left-Wing Sydney activist.

GERRY GLEESON: I'd put him in the top group, definitely in the top group. His first quality is his intelligence. He's highly intelligent; he's analytical; he's a very perceptive fellow; he's able to weigh up advice and make, I think, wise judgments.

MATT PEACOCK: Gerry Gleeson, head of the New South Wales Premier's Department for Wran, Unsworth and Greiner.

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: Laurie Brereton will be a very good Labor, with a Liberal mentality, with the sort of an attitude of a guided democracy where more or less the ability of pushing things down and getting done with no ifs and buts.

MATT PEACOCK: In other words, forget about the Opposition and do it regardless?

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: Yes, that's it. What is really, during my contact with him, particularly on the question of the Harbour tunnel, I found out that if we didn't have, let's call it a partner, let's call it a partner, a mate of that kind, the Harbour tunnel would never have been done.

MATT PEACOCK: Franco Belgiorno, head of Australia's construction giant, Transfield, who says that he'd make a good Prime Minister. A mate like Laurie launched Paul Keating to prime ministership, and for the two working-class Catholic lads, it was a partnership that began in Sydney 30 years ago. Brereton was born into politics. His father chaired the local ALP branch in Kensington for most of his life, and his sister is the Member for Heffron in New South Wales, Deidre Grusovin.

DEIDRE GRUSOVIN: There were plenty of us in the family, as Jack Ferguson said on an earlier occasion when the Left were trying to do a bit of branch stacking out in our area. He said: Why are you bothering to stack out there? He said: Don't you know they can breed faster than you can stack? So there were plenty in the family, and I remember, going back to the very early years, when my mother would carry the pot of paste and my father the ladder, and they would be out putting posters up on light poles. Election time was always a very exciting time and there was always something that even the small ones could involve themselves in doing.

MATT PEACOCK: Inevitably, first Deidre, then Laurie, joined the local party branch, and it was their father who taught them the most important lessons.

DEIDRE GRUSOVIN: I had arrived back at home and was sitting down trying to work out who had voted against me, and my father said: What are you doing? I said: I'm trying to work out who hasn't done the right thing. And he said: Well, you haven't put me in that column, have you, because I didn't vote for you? And he then went on to explain that I hadn't really fulfilled my responsibilities the way he would have liked them filled in the previous year and I didn't deserve the vote. I was always very wary after that and I think .. and obviously my brother observed all of these matters, and while it did become a funny story within the family, I think that there was implicit in it a very important lesson which I've never forgotten.

MATT PEACOCK: Laurie soon abandoned surfing to team up with the young Paul Keating, and in the heart of Sydney's Chinatown the intrigue of Labor politics soon became their passion. At the Youth Council, Frank Walker was their opponent.

FRANK WALKER: It was an extraordinary place in those days. I was knocked unconscious at my first meeting, and I loved it. I thought that was wonderful. It was just extremes of politics. But it must have been about six or eight months I'd been there, and these two young blokes turned up, and they were both 15, it was Keating and Brereton. The thing that struck me was they were a totally new breed, they had nothing to do with .. they had no relevance to the fight that was going on in the Youth Council. Even at that age, they saw themselves as professional politicians. They'd mapped out their political careers. Brereton, at that point, was the leader, and I think it's a point that's worth making. Brereton was in charge of that relationship between the two of them then. He was the organiser, the manager, and he got Keating up as President of the Youth Council, but it was Brereton's savvy and numbers. But Brereton in those days was a very Right Wing Catholic. He was quite reactionary about .. he was straight out of school with a very narrow attitude to the world, and a typical product, I suppose, at 15, of that Catholic education system.

And Brereton was seen to change a lot over the years, but then he was very narrow, and I had no time for him at all. We were into one another, and I was sort of, as the years developed, the leader of the Left in the Youth Council. But I always felt that Brereton was the enemy, not Keating. It was Brereton I saw as the organiser, the man behind the scene as a string-puller. Maybe he hasn't changed much today. I think, you know, he's still a manager, a string-puller.

LAURIE BRERETON: The reason he got knocked out was that he didn't have the numbers, didn't have them then, and didn't ever manage to get them. As the result of some superior organisation by ourselves, yes, we knocked him out more than once or twice.

MATT PEACOCK: We?

LAURIE BRERETON: We collectively. That was the group who were running the Youth Council in those days. That was the Centre Unity Now group, Right in those days.

MATT PEACOCK: But this was par for the course, was it, people getting knocked unconscious at meetings, vote-rigging, stacking, all that kind of stuff?

LAURIE BRERETON: The only physical occasion I ever remember was someone taking to Doug Sutherland, who subsequently became Lord Mayor of Sydney, with Doug's own walking stick. But apart from that, one physical occasion, I think the next rowdiest occasions were two or three meetings had to be closed down as a result of disruption. But there were no fisticuffs, certainly not in our time.

MATT PEACOCK: Now, what are the rules of politics that you learnt there? Show no mercy; always make sure of the numbers; never forget; what sort of rules?

LAURIE BRERETON: All those things, but the most important one was each year, when the annual elections came up, make sure you had more votes than your opponent's, because without those numbers, all else was in vain, and that was the great lesson and one that we learnt and learnt well.

MATT PEACOCK: Brereton soon became the youngest MP in Parliament, but along the way his ambition clashed with the ruling Right Wing and his seat was abolished. He won another though to join Frank Walker yet again as backbenchers.

FRANK WALKER: I first started to work with Laurie - I still didn't trust him much, I might say, coming from my political perspective - I started to work with him over the Wran ascendancy. Lionel Murphy had been promoting Neville Wran to be the new leader, the argument being Pat Hills couldn't win an election. I agreed with that; so did Laurie Brereton, and Laurie Brereton took a very genuine role in getting votes for Neville Wran out of the Right Wing, winning it a lot, but in the end there was enough. The most amazing thing about Brereton, of course, was that he was the scrutineer for Wran and Ferguson in the ballot in which Hills was defeated, and Wran and Ferguson became the leader and the deputy leader. It was a controversial ballot because the first ballot was drawn and there were no rules about what happened in a draw.

The leadership was solved by Pat Hills doing the decent thing and throwing up his arms and saying: Well, I got the message, the mood is there, there's going to be a new leader. And Pat was exceedingly decent and stepped aside. But the great fear we had was that the same thing wouldn't happen for Ferguson, but lo and behold, when the vote was counted for Ferguson, Ferguson actually won by a vote, a clear vote, instead of having a draw. The reason for that is someone's vote went missing in the ballot, and the big question was who stole the vote? It had to be a Right Wing vote that had disappeared in the ballot. There was never an inquiry into it, and we've always had our views about which particular scrutineer managed to palm the one Right Wing vote that got Jack up.

LAURIE BRERETON: I supported the ticket and, I must say, I wasn't alone in supporting the ticket. I mean, John Ducker, then the most influential figure in Labor politics in New South Wales on the Right also supported that ticket.

MATT PEACOCK: Whatever happened to the missing vote for Jack Ferguson? I mean, he actually got up by one vote; one Right Wing vote went missing.

LAURIE BRERETON: I think they're still looking for that. But Wran got there by the closest of margins. He won on a count back, but it was a great win, and of course, we saw him then grow enormously in that period of 1973 through to 1976, and establish a reputation subsequently as the best premier this State's ever had.

MATT PEACOCK: Wran succeeded where Whitlam had failed, making peace with the media barons of the day: Kerry Packer and, in particular, Rupert Murdoch, whose role was so crucial in Whitlam's fall. But it was here that Brereton became embroiled in a scandal that still haunts him to this day, the Botany Council affair. In this interview, recorded before his death and after his conviction for corruption, Sydney's chief stipendiary magistrate, Murray Farquhar, who heard the Botany case, tells his story for the first time.

MURRAY FARQUHAR: I'm a bit sorry to have to raise this because I don't know Mr Brereton very well, in fact I barely know him at all, and I acknowledge his present position, he's not going to like what I am now saying. There was an allegation brought that he had sought to influence the Botany Council to change the zoning of an area to suit Rupert Murdoch. It turned on evidence given by, I think three aldermen, and the wife of an alderman if my memory serves me right, that Mr Brereton had .... offered them a sum of money, not for their own personal aggrandisement, but saying well: Murdoch's offering such and such to the party, and you could use that for your next electoral expenses.

Now, prima face, I found that to be correct. Prima face. I mean, he might have overthrown it if we'd gone into the defence case, but I also said in the course of the thing that nothing emerged with regard to this man, Carl, whom I don't know - I don't even remember his Christian name - nothing emerged that he was involved in any way in any offer of money, so that in the present terms of the allegation, he could not be considered to be culpable. The man, Carl, walked out of the case correctly - absolutely. It's never been challenged, that. Then it came to the man Brereton, and there was a lot of discussion there as to whether it could be laid at common law, which they had done, the prosecution. But the law is very clear cut, that if a statute deals with precisely the same thing, the statute law overcomes the common law, and it's clear that in the Local Government Act there was a section which made it an offence for an alderman to seek a bribe and an offence for an individual to seek to bribe an alderman. So I was obliged to find - I don't think there was any doubt about this - I was obliged to find that I'd brought it under the wrong section. I should have brought it under the Local Government Act, not at common law, and as six months had expired, it was therefore statute barred. They were too late to do anything about it.

So, really, Mr Brereton escaped on a very technical, legal section. The luck for Brereton .. I feel a bit sorry for him, mind you. He looked a very young man at that time. One would think he was left out on a limb a bit.

NEVILLE WRAN: The Liberal Party picked it up, and long after they were aware that there was nothing at all against Brereton ....

MATT PEACOCK: Although Farquhar did find a prima face case against Brereton, didn't he?

NEVILLE WRAN:Let me think about that. Yes, he found a prima face case, but that's no indication at all of any wrongdoing. That merely says that on one side, that is the side of making the allegation, there is enough to be considered further.

MATT PEACOCK: And that was the problem about it, though, that it was never actually buried, it never did get its day in court.

NEVILLE WRAN: Correct. And correct to the point that later on a No Bill was filed, and that happens every day when all the facts are looked at and all the facts were looked at.

MATT PEACOCK: That was something again that Frank Walker had said, before he got in there, he'd never do.

NEVILLE WRAN: Yes, well, bear in mind that Frank and Laurie in those days weren't the greatest of mates. But Attorneys-General don't do these things by themselves, they do it on the basis of objective advice, and the objective advice said that a No Bill should be filed.

MATT PEACOCK: A subsequent investigation from the Liberal Government's Independent Commission Against Corruption was critical of Mr Walker's action in not seeking further advice on the merits of pursuing the case, especially given that Mr Brereton was a political colleague. It also found that Mr Walker could have misled Parliament, either that or departmental file notes were incorrect. But it ruled that the case against Brereton was too old for any further action. That didn't stop Premier Greiner's strategist, Gary Sturgess though from pushing the story.

GARY STURGESS: The other reason why it retained colour and interest, romance, was that the Labor Party themselves had split on this. They were Labor aldermen who had broken away and who were angry about it and who made the accusations, and the Left in New South Wales always regarded this particular case as an outrage, so that a lot of the heat that came out of the issue, if it had come from the Liberals it wouldn't have mattered anywhere near as much. That would have been expected. It retained its power, its potency because elements within the Labor Party themselves kept raising it and expressing anger about it.

NEVILLE WRAN: Yes, that's a classicly North Shore Liberal explanation. They behaved like absolute bastards to Brereton in relation to this matter, and I say that not because I don't think everything is fair in love and war and politics, but because they pursued him when they knew there was nothing to pursue.

LAURIE BRERETON: But I think the lesson I learnt all those years ago from that case was always be ultra careful and always be absolutely cautious in your dealings with everyone in politics, and it's a lesson that I've been able to apply again and again in the intervening 20 years.

MATT PEACOCK: Wran soon pulled Brereton into the Cabinet where he made his mark as Health Minister.

NEVILLE WRAN: He's a tough individual, Laurie Brereton. I would put him as one of the best, if not the best Minister in terms of carrying out and carrying through a job that I worked with. He'd make a good executive in any circumstances, and if you gave Brereton a job to do, you didn't have to ring him up every half hour to find out whether he was doing it or not, you knew it was being done. And, incidentally, it's because of the reputation that he's built up of getting things done that, by and large, he gets tough jobs. For instance, when we started off the 'Beds to the West' campaign, in other words, rearranging the hospital system to get rid of some of the inequalities of better availability between the eastern and northern suburbs on the one hand and the fast growing western and south-western suburbs on the other, that was not a very popular thing in a lot of quarters, and Brereton carried that through with a Robert Bruce-like devotion. He saw the injustice of the way in which population had moved but services had not moved with the population, and he got stuck into that with great gusto, and what I liked about him was that he wasn't flicking the ball back to his leader all the time, he was prepared to take the heat. Now, I can tell you, not many Ministers are prepared to do that. A lot of them are terrific front runners, but they're not worth two bob once the slings and arrows start hitting them. And that's not Brereton. He's quite fearless in a political struggle.

MATT PEACOCK: And that's a view that's shared surprisingly by people like feminist, Eva Cox, who worked with him in Health.

EVA COX:He is the best Minister or best politician I've worked for, and I've worked for a few, both in Opposition and in Government, because he actually did things. He had three questions, you know: What will it cost; who will it hurt; who benefits; and then, will it cause world war three? Now, he's had a few world war threes, but you could actually get him to decide, and that was quite fascinating because he's the only Minister I know that will make decisions.

MATT PEACOCK: A lot of people will raise their eyebrows when they hear you, supposedly of the Left, supporting the machine man of the Right.

EVA COX: Well, I've supported Laurie for a long time. As I say, I worked with him. I found out how good it was to work with him. And I think you've got to give him credit for doing a lot of things that Left-wingers probably would approve of. Of course, you've also got to kick him for things that you don't like him doing. But I think Laurie is one of the people that unfortunately tends to be sort of set up as the man that people love to hate, and it's something I have personally never understood. It's interesting that because he does things, he gets people's backs up, and other Ministers who do a lot less can sort of do the sort of bleeding heart, sweet smiling stuff and keep people on side, like some of the Ministers of the Left. He was quite happy to push a lot of issues that I was concerned about - stuff about women, stuff about equity - as long as it didn't cut across any particular faction, you know, political issues.

PAUL GREENLAND: Well, I think he was out to lunch, if she says that kind of stuff. You know, I just look at his record on the inner-city environment. You know, we had to battle him to get the parks in Roselle Bay, and you know, he wanted to put a commercial development in Roselle Bay and rob us of the land that we'd been campaigning for for 20 years for parks that belonged to the MSB. All my encounters with Laurie Brereton in my neck of the woods, he has never been on the right side. He's been on the right side for Eva, good for her, but for most of the people in the inner city, that is just a nonsense.

MATT PEACOCK: Paul Greenland first crossed swords with Laurie in Young Labor, and now 30 years later, he's still fighting him as one of the organisers of the No Noise Party campaigning at the next election against Sydney's third runway.

PAUL GREENLAND: He's agreed to play the lightning rod for lots of other people. I mean, on the airport, for instance, when the decision was made for the parallel runways, to build the third runway, he wasn't even in Federal Parliament, in fact, he was a State Member campaigning against it. But soon, as his factional bosses decided to make the decision, and they needed somebody to carry it through and attract all the lightning, you know, Laurie's willing to put his hand up. He's a kind of factional masochist in lots of ways. He'll even do jobs that I don't believe he really believes in himself, but he'll do them because that's what's essentially important to him, to be a loyal servant of his faction.

MATT PEACOCK: But that's not how Frank Walker, now also a Federal Minister, sees it.

FRANK WALKER:Laurie matured. He's not only self-educated, he's university-educated. He did law and never told anyone about it, I might add. He educated himself; he became a lot broader-minded; he became softer in his attitude towards civil liberties and rights of humans; and I grew to respect that. I always found in Cabinet, mostly I voted with Laurie Brereton and mostly he was on the side of what I saw was the angels. That wasn't always his public image. The way he voted in Cabinet and the image he portrayed outside, it wasn't always the same. But I found him to be one of the most consistent voters for good things in the Wran Cabinet of all. The environment was one .. when we were fighting about saving the Border Ranges or stopping the chip millers, Laurie was always there with his hand up supporting the greenies, which is not an image he's portrayed outside. I don't suppose he would get upset with me saying it, but the truth of it, he was on the side of what I saw was good.

MATT PEACOCK: But it was in Wran's last term that Brereton really made his mark. Gerry Gleeson, head of the Premier's Department, was Wran's closest adviser.

GERRY GLEESON: On the Monday after that election, I saw him about 9 o'clock that morning and congratulated him, and his immediate response was: It's going to be bloody difficult to win in '88. Now, let's sit down and plan now for how to win in '88. He'd been in office since 1976; by 1988, that would have been 12 years and Labor would have been seeking another four years. And the subject that of course immediately emerged was the bicentenary, so Neville asked me to come forward with plans about how we could enhance the bicentenary celebrations in our State.

MATT PEACOCK: Basically as a re-election strategy.

GERRY GLEESON: That would be the political agenda, yes. And part of that, that enhancement, was to be some major capital works projects, and at the same time, of course, in those first few days, the Premier had to decide his Cabinet reshuffle, and the logical person to stand out for taking over the public works portfolio, which would involve the major projects, was of course Laurie Brereton.

MATT PEACOCK: Brereton took to the job with gusto, but the Wran plan misfired as the projects that most Sydney-siders now admire began to take shape, Brereton became known as the 'Minister for monuments'. It was made worse by a barrage of signs that advertised his role. Suddenly, Wran, dogged by a succession of scandals, resigned, and the old Labor Council took revenge on the man who'd flirted with the Left, installing Unsworth, not Brereton, as his successor.

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LAURIE BRERETON: As you know, in the course of the last few days, I've been consulting with my colleagues and it's clear that whilst I've got considerable support, it's insufficient to win the contest. I'd like to thank all of my colleagues for their support. It's my view, having assessed the position, that Barry Unsworth will be successful. I think he'll make a fine Premier for this State, and he'll have my absolute support. Thank you very much.

MATT PEACOCK: It was a grim-faced Brereton who went back to work. By now, though, the dream was becoming a nightmare. Labor Party polling was showing the public identified Brereton projects as vote losers, not winners, and Unsworth demoted Brereton who quickly resigned. One of those present was Graham Richardson.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Oh well, this is a rough game, you know. It's not a game for the faint-hearted. Laurie isn't faint-hearted, and Laurie will come back.

MATT PEACOCK: And, of course, he did. Neville Wran now says that he was disappointed.

NEVILLE WRAN: I think he would have made an excellent Premier. I rather thought at the time I resigned, although I didn't interfere with the succession, that he was the hot favourite, and I must say, I was both surprised and disappointed when he didn't get the job. I was even more disappointed when he was pushed to a position where he resigned from the Ministry. The irony is that, in the end, Brereton achieved what he set out to do, and now his former opponents, like Gary Sturgess, sing his praises.

GARY STURGESS: You have to say, in the time that he was at State level, his legacy by and large was a positive one. The overwhelming impression that I'm left with is the 'Beds to the West' move which, at a time when economic rationalism and tough but good decision making had not yet become the vogue, was rare and something that you had to respect him for. And, of course, by and large, the public works that went in at the time, particularly Darling Harbour, were for the good of the States. The Harbour tunnel, of course, is another. And so, yes. I mean, his push or break or break through attitude was electorally dangerous and damaging when exploited by the Opposition, but by and large for the good of the State.

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LAURIE BRERETON: Seeing is believing, and this is certainly the transport system of the future. But I do think that in the years ahead we'll certainly see this sort of technology, these very modern convenient ways of beating the traffic, erected right around Sydney, and indeed in other capital cities in Australia.

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UNIDENTIFIED: Now, the Labor Party in recent years have produced some pretty ugly politicians, but Brereton must be one of those with the thickest hide. And I think this meeting of over 6,000 people that marched through the streets of Sydney were saying to Brereton: If you want any political future, get off the monorail, pull it down.

MATT PEACOCK: Without question, it was Sydney's monorail that Brereton made the most enemies, and it's in the story of the monorail that the style of the Minister who gets things done is best revealed. A people-mover for Darling Harbour, Brereton seemed hell-bent on its construction, regardless of the opposition. Even Wran got nervous, and Cabinet shortened the route. Now, seven years later, both men have their doubts.

NEVILLE WRAN: It's not the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I don't think it's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. And when it comes down Pitt Street, it actually passes some of the worst buildings in Sydney. But, having said all that, it's a pity that it doesn't run further and give more people and, may I say, more children who regard it as a great thrill to get on the monorail - I know my little kids like getting on it and going for a ride - but it could be much more functional if it was much longer.

LAURIE BRERETON: The monorail was the best solution in the circumstances, and I could only concur with Neville Wran, it's anything but the prettiest thing you've ever seen. But it's one that can be taken away at some point in the future when the city can afford a full metro rail link through Darling Harbour, and at that point it should be taken away.

MATT PEACOCK: And you wouldn't mind seeing the end of the monorail?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, one day we will see the end of it, but in the meantime it's carried several ....

MATT PEACOCK: I mean, that's the first time I've heard you say that, that you wouldn't mind seeing it go.

LAURIE BRERETON:Well, it's the first time anyone's asked me about it for seven or so years. I mean, the last time someone asked me about the monorail was when they were trying to stop it from being built, and I certainly wasn't going to agree with anyone who was trying to prevent its construction because it was necessary, is necessary. But, again, you've got to be balanced about it, and one day, I repeat, there will be a metro system, and I'll be throwing my hat in the air. I hope to be there for the first ride.

MATT PEACOCK: A lot of your major projects were development projects, whether they be the tunnel, Darling Harbour, all these sorts of things, and often times they were situations where, in the end, there was only one tenderer.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, which ones have you got in mind?

MATT PEACOCK: Well, I'm thinking of Kumagai Gumi for the tunnel.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, they weren't one tenderer, they were one of four tenderers. They were in a consortium with Transfield, and they were one of four groups who put forward proposals for a second crossing back in the early days of the Wran Government, and they were the only one of those four who came back with a subsequent improved bid, and that was to build the tunnel using the latest technology, in conjunction with Kumagai Gumi. And it was the Cabinet decision to award them the tender, subject to due process, a whole series of probity checks through the departmental processes and through the New South Wales Treasury. Which other projects did you have in mind?

MATT PEACOCK: Monorail. That was going to be tendered, but in the end it was just one tender on the day, wasn't it?

LAURIE BRERETON: That's not true. The monorail was a straight tender situation. It was one ....

MATT PEACOCK: In the document that went to Cabinet, I thought there were two and one withdraw actually on the day of consideration.

LAURIE BRERETON:No, one withdrew beforehand, but there were two proposals that were assessed by the Macquarie Bank and were subject to due Cabinet process. One involved a tram set, and the other was the monorail. Again, it was a Cabinet decision.

MATT PEACOCK: But I've understood that you'd rung Belgiorno-Nettis to tell him to withdraw the light rail one.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, he certainly hadn't withdrawn it. I'd indicated to .. I think the department had indicated the problems associated with it because it needed taxpayer subsidisation, but in terms of asking him to withdraw, I certainly did no such thing.

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: We were told: Forget about it. That's it. Very simple. And we gave a free .... to TNT to continue the investigation. No way would we be interested in competing against TNT because we had something else to be done, to do.

MATT PEACOCK: And what happened? Laurie rang up, or somebody in the department rang up, and said: We're not interested.

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: Well, I think that Laurie Brereton told me personally: Forget about the light rail, concentrate on something else. That's it.

MATT PEACOCK: Well, Laurie Brereton rang us after these interviews and he had dug out the Cabinet minutes to explain the full story. It wasn't a boat race, he said, but yes, I did railroad it through. As he put it, Custom Credit, Darling Harbour's only private industry development, with the harbourside markets, had the Government hanging out to dry. It had a contract with the Government. Have a people-mover in place by the first of the year or it could pull out, leaving Darling Harbour the government wasteland that Greiner claimed it would be. Brereton, Carr and Unsworth were the sub-committee to consider the two rival bids, but Transfield's insisted on some government subsidy. So they locked in TNT's, despite its adverse environmental impact. Belgiorno now says that he was lucky, and Sir Peter Abeles says Brereton was left with the monorail that makes no money but a contract that he's never been able to break.

But it also left Brereton with a problem, and that's the continuing perception that he's been too close to the rich and powerful. Just for the record, I asked him if ever in his long career of public service, he'd been offered anything, a bribe, a holiday, by anyone corrupt.

LAURIE BRERETON:No, I haven't been approached corruptly by anyone in my time in politics. I'm sure that there have been various characters have turned up at my electoral office and dropped in ....

MATT PEACOCK: Does that surprise you?

LAURIE BRERETON: ... dropped in cakes and all sorts of things. But in terms of the sort of corruption that you're alluding to, I haven't personally experienced anything.

MATT PEACOCK: Does that surprise you? I mean, the common perception is that corruption does occur - obviously, it does occur, there are plenty of examples of it. Does it surprise you that you've never come across anything like that?

LAURIE BRERETON: I think probably the experience I had in the Botany Council case would suggest that you'd have to be pretty foolish to be approaching me with any proposition along the lines you've just suggested.

MATT PEACOCK: The ghosts of the past, those still haunt him to this day, as ironically he's become the focus of the burgeoning protest over Sydney's third runway. Opinion is now white hot amongst the estimated quarter of a million voters newly affected by aircraft noise, and it's been inflamed by Brereton's provocative style.

Airport blockades, Canberra demonstrations and a serious election campaign, all lead others to query Brereton's political judgment in opening it early, something that Brereton says he did on safety grounds on advice from the CAA. But his old mate, Bob Carr, who still dines with him frequently, wouldn't be seen for dead on this program. He may have lost the premiership over it.

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LAURIE BRERETON: I'd now like to introduce the Mayor of Marrickville, Barry Cotter.

BARRY COTTER: Thank's, Laurie. You should be clapping all the people in those trucks. It's over a kilometre long, the convoy of trucks that's leaving now, and we want you to show your support for them by being the best behaved large crowd that's ever blockaded an airport in the world.

MATT PEACOCK: What sort of noise levels are you measuring?

BARRY COTTER:Well, we're getting noise levels as high as 107-108 DBA down at Sydenham, and 80-85 in ordinary residential streets.

MATT PEACOCK: So what's the political fall-out in all this do you think? Do you think the Labor Party will be affected?

BARRY COTTER:Oh, look, I've no doubt that there will be an effect on the Labor Party. Traditional Labor voters feel they've been totally betrayed, and the true believers have been taken for granted, and they're going to react.

LAURIE BRERETON: I'm really the best person to tackle that issue of Kingsford Smith Airport because I know and understand the issues. I've lived with them all my life, and I think whilst many of those protesters would probably hate to hear me say it, that I'm the best chance of getting the Government to focus the necessary attention on addressing the issues.

MATT PEACOCK: And as an opponent originally of the third runway, and somebody who used to have the planes flying over your electorate, presumably you would have known the myth of these things like curfews that are broken many times.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, let me just say this, there have been a lot less curfew breakings since I became Minister for Transport than was the case.

MATT PEACOCK: It's built into the licences, though, isn't it?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, only to a very limited extent, and if you went to the Senate late last year, you'd find the Liberal Party asking questions about whether I'd locked out Qantas and other international carriers from Kingsford Smith by a strict enforcement of the curfew, and cost the industry between $1 and $2 million dollars. I mean that's the tough approach that I'm taking because I understand the issue. And again, it underwrites the importance of the airport at Badgerys Creek which will be a curfew-free airport.

HALL GREENLAND: Well, again, he'll be acting as the hatchet man because it's by no means clear that Badgerys is an answer. It was only ever thought of as a spill-over; the EIS is ten years old; people have started to move into the western suburbs. He's likely to have another revolt of the true believers if he pushes ahead in a stupid way as he's loath to do out at Badgerys. And Laurie doesn't strike me as the sensitive listening kind of guy to do the job properly.

MATT PEACOCK: Hall Greenland. Brereton's sensitive style hardly was on display in Parliament last year either when National Party Leader, Tim Fischer, who'd been lucky to survive a car crash in which an elderly couple died, got under his skin over the Seaview Air disaster.

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LAURIE BRERETON: ... aircraft, any Seaview aircraft under charter to other operators should be the subject of immediate and regular inspection. Mr Speaker, in the other document that I've tabled today, under the heading, 'Surveillance of Seaview' .. yes, you .. why weren't you breathalysed? Mr Speaker, the Authority is aware that although Seaview Air is not operating ....

SPEAKER: The Minister will resume his seat. The Member for Gippsland on a point of order.

TIM FISCHER: The point of order, Mr Speaker, as any fair-minded person in this Parliament would find that offensive, and I ask the Minister to withdraw it.

SPEAKER: The Minister will .... the House on a point of order.

UNIDENTIFIED: If the heckling weren't undertaken in a disorderly fashion, there wouldn't have been that response.

SPEAKER: Order, order.

LAURIE BRERETON: Mr Speaker, if the Honourable Member offended takes that point, I'll be very happy to withdraw.

SPEAKER: The Minister has withdrawn.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I'm sorry to disappoint you, but he hasn't yet.

SPEAKER: You'd never disappoint me. Will the Leader of the National Party ....

TIM FISCHER: The Minister said across the public table .. across the dispatch box I should be breathalysed .. why don't you go and get breathalysed? I find that personally, in the light of all that's happened to me this year, very offensive, and I ask that it be totally withdrawn.

SPEAKER: Order. The Minister is coming to the dispatch box. Previously, he said he will withdraw. He will withdraw.

LAURIE BRERETON: I'd be more than happy to withdraw, and do so. Mr Speaker ....

SPEAKER: Order. The Minister will resume his seat ....

MATT PEACOCK: Brereton says that Fischer, too, should apologise for suggesting that he had blood on his hands over the Seaview crash. But even Brereton concedes that all has not been well at the Civil Aviation Authority where only this week he reinstated a woman that its board had sacked. But it's nothing, he says, compared with the problems of the Australian National Line whose board he sacked last year.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, I don't think anyone could be at all happy with the performance of the Civil Aviation Authority over the last 12 months. I certainly have not been. I mean, we've lost a managing director, we've lost a director of public relations, we've lost the chief legal counsel, and we've lost the director of aviation safety.

MATT PEACOCK: So where do you think things started to go wrong? Was it Dick Smith's fault? Was it this affordable safety?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, I think there's no doubt that the decisions taken several years ago to restructure the Civil Aviation Authority as a government business undertaking and to look at it without a public safety component, saw cost recovery taken too far, saw staff cuts taken too far. I mean, there was a reduction of nearly 50 per cent in the air safety officers, and a reduction of less than 15 per cent in the head office bureaucrats. We're busy rebuilding that.

MATT PEACOCK: Can you say that you have absolute confidence in the CAA board?

LAURIE BRERETON: I've always had confidence in the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. Peter Gration is a great Australian. The fact is he has my confidence, he is leading a board, and I expect that they will work with me and cooperate with me in the restructure of the CAA that's currently under way and which will be completed this year.

MATT PEACOCK: But, Mr Brereton, you haven't said you have confidence in the board. You've said you have confidence in the chairman, what about the entire board?

LAURIE BRERETON: I've got confidence in the board, and that confidence will be maintained.

MATT PEACOCK: How can you when only hours after they sacked Dr James, you'd reinstated all her redundancy payments?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, that's my prerogative, and I've got to make those calls.

MATT PEACOCK: Given that track record, though, over the past 12 months, why are you so confident about them? You were pretty quick to sack the ANL board.

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, the ANL board lost money hand over fist and would never admit it. There's a world of difference between - with respect - Peter Gration's performance and commitment to change, and what I was confronted with, with Bill Bolitho and the board of ANL.

MATT PEACOCK: Okay, let's go back to August last year. You said that the ANL was a dog in a basket; you couldn't give it away, it was losing, what was it, $20 million a year?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, it's lost an average of $19 million per year for six of the last seven years.

MATT PEACOCK: And what's different now about it?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, the major thing that's different is that Neville Wran is there with a new board charged with the responsibility of reforming ANL and making sure that it does not continue to haemorrhage and lose taxpayers' money.

MATT PEACOCK: But Neville Wran says that it's a viable concern now. Why would it be if last August it wasn't .... and we've lost stevedoring?

LAURIE BRERETON: Hold on a second. Neville Wran has just presented to me for tabling in the Parliament annual accounts with a loss of more than $100 million for this year. ANL is a company in dire straits. But having said that, I'm pleased that Neville Wran has accepted the challenge and is fixing it up.

MATT PEACOCK: Well, why would people want to buy it now if they wouldn't have before, if it's still in dire straits? Just because Neville Wran's running it?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, I think there's an opportunity for a suitably restructured ANL to serve a very important purpose, that is to maintain the presence of some Australian ships with Australian workers under Australian award conditions on the Australian coastline as a majority Australian entity.

MATT PEACOCK: Probably Brereton's toughest job though will be to win back the confidence of the trade unions, something that the ANL saga, amongst other things, has severely dented. It may be important around election time. The President of the Community and Public Sector Union, Peter Robson.

PETER ROBSON: Two years ago, at the last election, people like myself and many other unions, got tremendous support behind the campaign and we were, I think, instrumental in getting Labor back into power. That's now forgotten within the Government. There's a level of arrogance which I can't recall being there over the last 12 years. In short, I think that they don't think the union movement is the relevant force it was, and they're in the process of giving us the flick, and Laurie's leading the charge as Minister for Industrial Relations.

MATT PEACOCK: Is it Laurie Brereton, though, or is it the Government, or is it the Prime Minister?

LAURIE BRERETON: Well, I think the relationship between the Prime Minister and the union movement has been a very long one, and it would hurt me greatly, and I still would be surprised if that relationship is not there. But I do think, and I've heard Laurie say on a few occasions, that he wishes that we'd stop hammering the messenger and have a go at the organ grinder.

LAURIE BRERETON: The real problem with the union movement has been the fact that with the creation of the mega-unions and with the reform of industry in Australia, with the creation of jobs in new sectors, they've lost a lot of their relevance, and that's why enterprise bargaining is to be encouraged, and that's why the workplace program has been so directed to try and encourage unions wherever possible to get into the swim.

MATT PEACOCK: And is that the message to the unions, sink or swim?

LAURIE BRERETON: Re-invent yourself, that's the message to the union movement, and we'll do what we can to help, but it will always be a balanced approach. You cannot look to monopoly rights and that, of course, is the reason we introduced non-union enterprise bargains, much against the wishes of the union movement because we're intent upon having enterprise bargaining spread through both the union and the non-union sector. We'll help them where we can but they can't expect to get there on the back of some unfair monopoly right. Now, many unions don't like that - stiff cheddar.

MATT PEACOCK: Laurie Brereton says that he's still a trade unionist to the core, but one of Australia's leading capitalists, Franco Belgiorno, thinks otherwise.

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: The impression that I have of him, that even in the complex surrounding of politicians and the trade unions, he is still a sort of Houdini ability to escape and to survive. He's a survivor.

MATT PEACOCK: Is he more at home, do you think, with trade unionists or with captains of industry?

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS:Oh, he's much better with captain of industry, not with trade unions.

MATT PEACOCK: Of course, that doesn't help him anything, you saying that kind of thing. I mean, he is in the Labor Party, after all.

FRANCO BELGIORNO-NETTIS: I know that it's not helping him, but I'm talking about realities, not about fiction.

MATT PEACOCK: At the end of the day, Brereton will survive as a Minister as long as his mate Paul Keating keeps the job that Laurie helped him win.

LAURIE BRERETON: I think he's as close as anyone to me in politics, yes, and has been for the best part of 30 years now.

MATT PEACOCK: He would never do what Barry Unsworth did to you if you became too unpopular for doing the dirty work?

LAURIE BRERETON: Oh, well, you'd have to ask him that. But I was, I must say, never particularly close to Barry Unsworth. But Keating's been a great sticker, and I might say he's stuck like glue through thick and thin, and that's a quality that I think I reciprocate.