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Transcript of interview: Neil Mitchell Program, Radio 3AW: Mabo; Republic; Leadership



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18 June 1993 Ref: 0001 .tmc.Melb

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW JOHN HEWSON MP NEIL MITCHELL PROGRAM, RADIO 3AW

E & OE - Proof Copy Only

SUBJECTS: Mabo, Republic, Leadership

Mitchell:

Well, the Prime Minister went to the people in a sense yesterday on radio in Sydney, for the first time since the election and in the studio with me today, the Opposition Leader, Dr John Hewson, good morning.

Hewson:

Good morning Neil.

Mitchell:

Mabo. Now, I've almost got a fear of reverse racism here, in the way this debate is developing, that it is becoming viewed as almost racist if you question Mabo. Is that what's happening?

Hewson:

We can't deny that there's obviously prejudice in Australia, but I think the Prime Minister has been pushing it pre tty hard to start tagging people as racist when they express concern. Because he's raised expectations in this debate beyond anything that he can deliver and that's right across the board. He's raised the expectations of

the miners and the pastoralists at one end. He's raised the expectations, in particular, the aboriginal community at the other. That's resulted in them making some quite outlandish claims..some of the more extreme groups making some quite outlandish claims. He get's himself in hot water.

I mean, it's no time now to go in and start to tag people who disagree with you...

Mitchell:

..well, is that what he's doing. Is that what he's doing? If you disagree you're racist?

Parliament House, Canberra, A.C.T. 2600 Phone 2774022 LON'1''MO':IN' EAzT 3

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Hewson:

It's an issue that requires a degree of sensitivity and I would hate to think that that's what in fact he was trying to do yesterday. I mean, certainly there's headlines all over the papers today and I think he's a bit like that. He sort of goes in and it's the way he's handled this issue, it's the way he's handled the republic, he sort of goes in, he

drops it on the table, `take it or leave it. If you disagree with him in the republic case, well, you're un-Australian. There's a danger in these circumstances that you're tagged as being racist, when all people are doing is expressing genuine concern.

I'm not denying that there are some. ..there's prejudice and sure, there are some red necks and there are some extreme people in the debate, but to some extent he's ignited that by the approach he's taken and the expectation that he's raised.

Mitchell:

How do you see that he's ignited the red necks?

Hewson:

I think he's just raised expectations across the board, way beyond what is realistic in terms of what he can deliver. Look, I've taken the view right through this that Mabo is a very important issue, it's a very sensitive issue. It's an issue in which you're going to have to build a community consensus to deal with it and he's a had a year to do

that. He goes into the Heads of the Government meeting and basically drops it on the table, the Premiers all splinter off and that shouldn't have been any surprise, because they really have six different views as well as the Territories views about what it means for them and their State or their Territory.

But he drops it on the table, they don't accept it and they end up splintering and pretty much going their own way and that's just totally the wrong way to go about it. And we end up with the worst outcome, massive uncertainty, outlandish claims, frustrated expectations and now elements of racism being brought in. I mean, all that

should have been avoided. It was a time for leadership on this issue, not a time for igniting expectations that result in the sort of behaviour you've seen in recent days.

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Well, do we now have the divided community we were trying to avoid?

Hewson:

I believe we do and I don't believe he really did set out to keep the community together. I think his style of politics is very divisive...

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Mitchell:

(inaudible)..

Hewson:

..he deliberately divides the Australian community in the way he goes about it. I mean, he started on the republic issue for short term political interests on his own, principally to divide us and to try and build a bit of nationalistic sentiment on his side...

Mitchell:

..you think he's doing the same thing with Mabo?

Hewson:

He's obviously divided the nation, you can pick up any paper and the views are now hardening on both sides of this issue, that's dividing the nation. Now, that should have been avoided at all costs. As I say, it's a sensitive issue, it's a very important issue and you've got to build a ..(inaudible).. Just step away from Keating and think back to Hawke and how Hawke would have handled an issue like this. I mean, he was always, almost... people talked about in excessive terms, his desire for consensus,

but it is an issue on which Bob Hawke would have built a consensus. He would have started out talking to the States for example, as well as the miners and the pastoralists and the aboriginal community. Would have worked it through for the last 12 months and a consensus would have emerged which would have avoided this division that is

now emerging in Australia.

And I fear that, as I said the other day, I think Keating will go down in history as one of the most divisive Prime Ministers we've ever had.

Mitchell:

Well, if he's deliberately divisive, why? 1 mean, is it to distract attention from other matters or is he committed to this?

Hewson:

Well, he always puts his own short term political interests first. I mean, he plays politics first and worries about issues second, that's always been his style. And in these circumstances, while he may have some particularly genuine interests in relation to some elements of this debate and in relation to the aboriginal community, I mean,

he should have stopped and thought about it.

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If you go back to that speech he made in December, the Redfern, the so called Redfern speech where he really did build expectations that here is an unique opportunity to bring about a reconciliation between black and white Australia that nobody else had ever been able to achieve. And he ran it pretty hard when he was in New Zealand, they ran it pretty hard in the speech of the opening of parliament that was delivered by the Governor General. That raised a lot of expectation in the aboriginal community.

Equally, he and some of his Ministers have been talking about the need to secure existing title. I mean, a country like Australia that depends on our pastoral industries and our mining industries, you can't have a question about their title. And so you've got two sets of expectations that have been built, he then brings in a package on a

`take or leave it' basis without trying to actually find any common ground...

Mitchell:

..well, that's my point. Is he fair dinkum about settling it? Or you're saying that he's just being deliberately divisive?

Hewson:

I think he wants to settle it but he wants to settle it on his terms and that's being divisive.

Mitchell:

Do you unequivocally accept native title?

Hewson:

Well, we have to recognise that the High Court has said that native title exists and they've only at this stage identified a small part of Australia in which they've said it exists, but they've raised the expectation or the possibility that it exists else where, but it's yet to be proven.

And it is not an easy title to prove, you've got to prove from the aboriginal point of view that you've had a continuing association with the land. Now, that will not be easy. But I think the thing that disappoints me about where it is now is the massive amount of uncertainty. We don't know what native title really is, we don't know where

it exists, we don't know the extent of the potential claims. And it's in the way it's been handled by the Prime Minister... people with very genuine concerns about their home, or their mine, or their farm are now worried that maybe their title is not secure. And in those circumstances, it really does need an early resolution to ensure the security of those titles.

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Okay. Well, can you be part of that? Has he talked to you about a bipartisan approach? Is there anyway you can have a bipartisan approach?

Hewson:

Well, look, the only time Paul Keating's bipartisan is when he's in trouble. I mean, he comes round the door talking about bipartisanship, but usually what he does is he calls for bipartisanship, stacks the deck against you and then beats you to death with it. I mean, he's not being bipartisan in any of these issues...

Mitchell:

..(inaudible).. talked to you or the Opposition about a bipartisan approach....

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No and to be clear, let me just compare the handling by Hawke of the idea of aboriginal reconciliation, the se tt ing up of the Counci l. We were asked would we be bipartisan. And we said yes, provided this Council focuses on the well being of the aboriginal community. Provided that we share common objectives, which is to improve their education standards, their literacy, do something about the infant mo rtality rates, housing and so on. If that's what you mean by reconciliation, yes, we're in there. But if you're looking for a back door way to get a treaty, we're not in there and on that basis they were bipartisan. They gave us a lot of scope and a lot

of say in the setting up of the Council, the membership of the Council, the focus or the terms of reference of the Council.

Now, that is a completely di fferent approach to a guy that doesn't consult you at all.

Mitchell:

All those areas you're talking about, infant mortality, education, health care, the rest of it, are they all more important than this do you think? Are they more important than the whole debate around Mabo? Because we've still got the ridiculously high level of infant mo rtality, of maternal mo rtality, of preventable disease.

Hewson:

Well, I think one of the great tragedies of the way these issues have been approached over many years in Australia and one that causes I know the average Australian voter a lot of concern, is that a lot of money is spent every year in aboriginal assistance, in assisting the aboriginal community. But there's pretty clear evidence that a lot of that

money doesn't hit those targets because you don't see the sort of the improvements that you would have hoped to have seen in either housing or education or whatever.

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Mitchell:

Well, should we be fixing that first?

Hewson:

Well, it's hard to say which you should rank first. I mean, it should have been fixed and we have actually put proposals, going into the last election, as to how to better allocate a smaller amount of money to achieve those ends. It's ridiculous, there's something I'm told like 1300 or 1400 agencies that deliver assistance to the aboriginal people. I heard of one small community of about 35 people were served by about 69 agencies, I mean that is nonsense. Obviously there's a lot of money wasted in the

structures, in the bureaucracies, in the delivery and what's the bottom line? They don't visibly improve their well being as a result.

Now, I think that issue is very important, that does need to be dealt with. I think you should deal with that however separately from Mabo. I think you should be looking at Mabo and its implications, the decision by the High Court and it's implications and settling that as a matter of urgency. Because, particularly in relation to security of title, existing title, we cannot have a situation in Australia where as we've seen in recent days, major international bankers for example, are starting to say "listen, big question

mark over Australia" because there's going to be a lingering uncertainty of the title of mining operations or pastoral.

Mitchell:

Well, is therefore room for this bipartisanship, is there room for you and Prime Minister to work on it together?

Hewson:

Well, I would have thought that he had an unique opportunity with governments of both persuasion in the Heads of Government meeting to do that. And look, I think they worked...you see the position that Jeff Kennett took. I mean, he worked very hard to get an agreement, as I understand it, they got very close to an agreement and the Prime Minister just simply said "no, that's it, I'm not in it, it's not strictly on my terms" and so the thing feel down and we're left with...

Mitchell:

..is Kennett right. Is the Kennett plan right?

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Hewson:

If you look at Jeff's done in Victoria, he's been t rying to clean up a State that has just been le ft in a devastated position by a Labor Government and he's dealt with each issue as it's come along. I think in this case, he's taken an understandable position, that is, he was left with no alternative. If he couldn't get.....(inaudible)., worked ve ry hard to get an agreement and that could be said to have been bipartisan, they got very close to it, he did all he could in those circumstances when that failed, when the Prime Minister spat the dummy, Je ff did what he had to do. And that is to look a fter the interests of the people of Victoria in relation to this issue.

Mitchell:

Do you support his plan, his idea?

Hewson:

I can't go to the detail of that. I mean, I haven't gone through the detail of their thinking, but I can say that I understand that he says right, look, I've got to look at it from the point of view of Victoria, I can deal with the problem in relation to Victoria and let's be clear, it's a lesser problem in Victoria than it is in a lot of other States.

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Oh sure, but he's basically talking about the validation of title...

Hewson:

but he's going to go ahead and validate title if the Government won't go...

Mitchell:

is he right?

Hewson:

I would have thought... well, I think we all agree and I think probably Paul Keating now agrees that we've got to validate title pre tty quickly. And the more you get these outlandish claims, these indefensible claims which really make a mocke ry of the whole system, the more uncertainty grows and the greater the urgency in actually se ttling the validity of title.

Mitchell:

Okay. Republic. Now, I'm a bit confused, what is your personal position on a republic versus a monarchy?

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Hewson:

Well, there's been a number of elements to what I've said about this. One is that I think it's very important that the Liberal Party's in this debate. One of our great strengths over the years has been the role we have played, conservative parties have played in the development of our constitution and in the refinement of our constitution.

And one of our great strengths have been that we are prepared to debate our national symbols and our national institutions. Now, this is a classic case where there is apparently an opinion in the Australian community that we need to look at issues like the Head of the State. It's not terribly informed opinion because the Prime Minister

has not said exactly what he means or how he means it, but there is public opinion there, there has been a shift of emphasis on the part... .well, a change in the ethnic mix of Australia for example, there's been an increase in public opinion in support of possible changes. In those circumstances we've got to be in the debate.

But, I say quite clearly, we should enter the debate putting the onus of proof on the other side to demonstrate why we should have a change.

Mitchell:

..(inaudible).. point of view of an opinion. I mean, do you view yourself as a republican or a monarchist?

Hewson:

But it's not a simple choice. What we are really looking at is our constitutional form of Government and they're trying to hide that, they're trying to make it a simple choice, it is not a simple choice. We have a constitution which has a unique set of checks and balances that has given us a democratic structure and a process of government and a tolerance and a stability that is the envy of most other countries in the world. We have one of the longest serving and most successful democracies in the world.

Mitchell:

so why change it...

Hewson:

You should start from the position, okay, if people say they want a change, let's assess the case for change against that current position. Because they will have to demonstrate that in making the change they will not weaken that democratic process, they will not reduce the stability of government, they will not reduce the tolerance that's

in the system.

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Now. ..I'm not ducking the question, what I want people to understand is that the case for change has to be made first and secondly, change to what? Because once you ask that question and you start to look at the detail, you suddenly find out that any change is not a minimal change. They're t rying to create the impression you can make a minimal change.

Mitchell:

What would you do? What is the ideal Australia for you?

Hewson:

At this stage I think the present...to me, the priorities right now are solving our economic and social problems that do not require constitutional change. Equally however, I'm happy to say that there is public opinion there that's moving, there are cases that have to be dealt with, as a ma tter of lesser priority, we can debate those issues. But I'd rather see quite frankly, Keating get on and do something about debt

and the balance of payments and unemployment and those issues that really do dominate.

Mitchell:

But it sounds as if you think that the change is inevitable, that we are heading towards a republic?

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No. No, what I'm really saying is that the change is not inevitable. It's only inevitable if the people of Australia want it and they'll only want it in the end if they understand it and can accept it. And what you've got to do and it's the same way. ..go back to the way he's handled Mabo, look at the way he should be handling the republic. He's got to build a community consensus. If that's what he wants to do, he's got to give

people the information so that they can make an informed choice and in the end vote in an informed way in a referendum.

Now, we're in the debate, we will express our views through that process but the onus of proof is now on Paul Keating. He's been...what, 15 months since he raised it, we have no idea what he wants, he's trying to create the impression that the change he wants is minimal but we know it's not minimal...

Mitchell:

..but you can see that looks like equivocation, it looks like John Hewson ..(inaudible).. each way.

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Hewson:

No, no hang on. I'll tell you some of the things we won't accept. We won't accept his hidden agenda. Right..

Mitchell:

what's his hidden agenda?

Hewson:

I have no doubt that he's about reducing the power of the Senate and in fact if he had his way he'd probably abolish it. And Wayne Goss has made similar statements like that about that in recent days. I think he wants to reduce the power of the States, think he wants to pull more power to himself and more power to Canberra at the expense of the States, we won't cop that. I think he wants to change the flag, we won't cop that. I mean, that is a separate issue but it's not going to get lost in this

debate. And I think there's a fair bit of agro within the ALP about settling scores for 1975.

I mean, we have a system with the checks and balances that I mentioned that provides a mechanism for ge tting rid of bad government and they want to settle that score, they want to change those powers, they want to make sure that 1975 can't be repeated. Now, that's their hidden agenda, that agenda has got to be exposed,

people have got to understand that and that's why, as I say, we're in the debate but we're not going to cop that hidden agenda. Equally, we're not going to cop his tendency to rewrite history for his own short term political gains, in terms of the ANZAC tradition, the Burma railway.

I mean, if you listen to Paul Keating, it is as if Australian history started in 1972 with the arrival of Gough Whitlam. I mean, it is a nonsense, there's a lot more that's good about our history and our heritage.

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Okay. When will we be in a position do you think, where the Liberal Party will say yes,

we do believe change is necessa ry, or no, we don't believe it is necessary?

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Let's have a look at the case they've put up. Where's their case? What's the case for

change today? Recognising the stability of the system and the success of our democratic process...

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Mitchell:

But philosophically, I mean you must have a view on whether a change is a desirable thing or not and then you talk about the mechanism and the procedure.

Hewson:

But change to what. You see, it's a question, it's not as if you can just say I want change without knowing what you want to change to. I mean, do you change your socks in the morning, take whatever happens to come out of the drawer, or do you pick them by colour...

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..well usually...

Hewson:

..if the red ones come out and you've got a blue suit on. Of course, you want to know what change is about, you want to understand change.

Mitchell:

I know I need to change my socks every morning, regardless of the colour, now do we need to change Australia's....

Hewson:

At this stage I would like to see him change a lot of other things like the level of unemployment and get it down, the level of debt and get it down. 1 mean, they are priority issues and look, don't forget he did start the republican debate in part as a distraction. He went into that election not wanting to talk about the worst recession

in 60 years or the level of unemployment. He still uses it as a distraction, although since the election you notice that he's t ry ing to be the so rt of Thomas Jefferson of Australian politics. Well, I mean you're not going to get there by riding rough shod over an issue like this, which is as I say the Australian community do know that we

have a ve ry ve ry successful democratic process, we have a very successful multicultural society in large part due to the success of our democratic process. And don't forget that a lot of the migrants that enter Australia came because of the stability, the political stability, the tolerance, the benefits of the multi-cultural Australia and our democratic system.

Now, in all those circumstances, if somebody comes along and says I want to make

a change, you say change why and change to what and let's look at the detail. At this stage he's trying to avoid that and make it look as if it can be a minimal thing, you can just sort of remove the Queen and the Governor General and put in a new Head of State, nothing else changes. But he really isn't about that, he's really about changing

the powers.

Mitchell:

Don't trust him is what you're saying?

Hewson:

Absolutely, why would you. I mean, he lied all the way into the last election and those lies and misrepresentations are now being clearly exposed on a daily basis?

Mitchell:

Okay, after the election, obviously it hurt you and you did a lot of thinking about whether you'd continue as leader. Does it still hurt?

No, I've accepted the defeat and learnt from it I think is the fairest thing to say.

Mitchell:

What have you learnt?

Hewson:

Well, I've spent a lot of time in the last 12 weeks it is now, just going around . Australia listening, basically listening to people right around the organisation of the Party, as well as my parliamentary colleagues.

Mitchell:

Didn't listen enough before do you think?

Hewson:

Well, I listened but I don't think people...

Mitchell:

..you didn't hear,.

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Hewson:

..were as aware that I was listening.

Mitchell:

Because they were saying you know, Hewson was arrogant, one of the reasons we lost you wouldn't listen. 1 mean, I have you reassessed that too?

Hewson:

Look, I've gone right through the process and in making a decision to stand, obviously not only wanted to test the support for me and for the policy direction and so on within the Party, but I wanted to make an absolute commitment. There's a lot of speculation that Hewson was a short term politician, well, they're wrong. Hewson's a long term politician, he's here to stay, he's going to fight on and it will take something else to pry me out of the job. Because I've actually made an absolute commitment to win next time by learning the mistakes of the last, principally the last election, we've made other mistakes over the decade. But we're now in a position where the Party's re-energised, I mean, we've had several thousand increase in our

membership since the election.

I mean, people are coming in with a degree of enthusiasm, they're not despondent, they're actually enthusiastic and saying, okay, well, you didn't get there last time, we're going to make sure you get there next time. That's a ve ry positive thing and what is coming out of the process is going to be a capacity to win, not to say how we could

have won '93, but actually win in '95 or '96.

Mitchell:

Your personal popularity rating is very low, I put to you that the Party looks to be either resting until it gets itself ready to run into the next election, or else without direction and confused. I put to you that that's the public perception, that the Party is without direction.

I don't think that's right.

Mitchell:

resting a little, are you just gathering your thoughts...

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Hewson:

We're obviously working very hard behind the scenes to rebuild the Party in every sense. I mean, there's a lot that we did wrong, I mean, we left ourselves in policy terms too exposed on too many fronts. Obviously we're looking at that.

In terms of our Party organisation we're trying to make some changes and we're going right through the whole thing, election strategy, funding, advertising, direct mail, how to match the union movement on the ground. I mean, there's a lot of work going into that sort of detail of our campaigning capability as much as there's going into overall strategy and policy...

Mitchell:

..well, how do we get John Hewson popular? The figures are staggering considering...

Hewson:

You expect after an election that the Prime Minister is suddenly seen as popular and successful and the Leader of the Opposition a loser, loses out and the polls go down. And what's happened since the election is in Party terms, we've come back in the polls to be level pegging or a bit in front and in terms of preferred Prime Minister, I mean the gap between us has been about halved.

And in those circumstances, within just 12 weeks, I think that's a very successful recovery. We are about rebuilding, we are about obviously continuing to demonstrate to the people of Australia that we do have the answers to these problems, that we are in there to solve their problems. But in the last 12 weeks what we've basically done

is made them the issue and as they should be. You see, one of the things we got wrong for the last several federal elections, is we allowed ourselves one way or the other to be the issue and to operate almost as a government in exile. Now what we're

doing is saying listen, they're in government, they got there with no mandate to do anything and they lied and cheated and raised expectations so let's expose it, let's expose the broken promises, let's expose the lies, let's expose the false economic assessments, let's hold them accountable for solving the problems.

And so far, look at the spate of broken promises...

Mitchell:

So, that means no policies next time round or not many?

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Hewson:

Look, we still stand by the policy direction in Fightback! Sure, we've excised the GST but we still are committed to tax reform, we're still committed to indirect tax reform. Australia does still have to deal with debt and balance of payments, it still has to lower the rate of unemployment, it has to deal with the health system, it has to deal with the

issue of immigration, so we're in there with a policy direction that is well known and I think will stand us in good stead and I think our credibility is there. We will be substantially vindicated by the passage of events as the Government goes round raising taxes and sort of saying well, we were wrong we couldn't deliver the tax cuts, you know, then our credibility comes back.

Mitchell:

Are you enjoying it?

Hewson:

Oh very much.

Mitchell:

Really. I mean, it's hard to believe after what you've been through and after the kick in the head that you can pop up again and still enjoy it...

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Well, life's like that. You enjoy the good times by recognising the extent of the bad times.

Mitchell:

So, the bruising's gone?

Hewson:

Well, you learn from it.

Mitchell:

Has it gone?

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Hewson:

Yes, I believe it has. I mean, as far as I'm concerned I was absolutely determined on the night to keep going, as I said in the speech where I conceded defeat. I am going to fight on and I hope that fear and misrepresentation doesn't become a feature of the

Australian political system. I think we ought to be able to have clean elections, honest elections and we're going to keep fighting on in that sense.

Mitchell:

Thanks for your time.

Hewson:

Thanks Neil.

Ends.