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Transcript of interview with Peter Couchman: Radio 3LO: 30 June 1993: Leadership; Mabo; Republic

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Leader of the Opposition


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30 June 1993 Ref: Melb.005.jt


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SUBJECTS: Leadership, Mabo, Republic


Well, as Jim Kennan discovered, being an Opposition Leader is hard work - probably one of the toughest jobs in the Parliament. So why John Hewson wanted to bat on for another term after his unsuccessful tilt at the last election, I've never quite been able to fathom.

Nevertheless he did. And there must have been many times since the election when he wondered why he'd bothered. His Party has been seriously divided over a number of important issues - the Republican debate, the High Cou rt's Mabo decision and the Government's response to it, even how the Party should respond to some of these things.

As a result Mr Hewson I think, at times has given the impression that he's been caught back-footed since the election. Perhaps he's been pre-occupied with securing his own position. At least two of his Parliamenta ry colleagues have been quite open about the fact that they want his job and one of them - Senator Bronwyn Bishop - is showing an

extraordinarily high profile in the public opinion polls. In fact, the latest Morgan poll shows her as the preferred public choice for Opposition Leader. A report in the Sydney papers this morning says that she's been offered a choice of any one of six of the Liberal Party's blue ribbon seats in New South Wales, which if it's true means that it's on.

So all of this gives the impression of Dr Hewson as a Leader under siege. Do you think that's the case Dr Hewson?

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Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 26(X) Phone 277 4022



Good morning.


No, not at all. My position's very secure and I actually welcome the publicity that my colleagues are getting because in the end people will vote for us as a team. It's always been hard from Opposition to actually build the image of a team and a number of identifiable players. That's one of the strengths we now have.

It's not just Bronwyn who's well and who's popular. John Howard's popular, Andrew Peacock is popular and a number of my other colleagues are ve ry popular and I think that's a good thing.

You see it as a plus do you to have a number of ambitious leadership contenders?

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There's nothing wrong with ambition. And look, my hold on the job is the same as Paul Keating's hold on his job - it's on performance. If you perform you'll keep your job and what I've got to do is manage that team and create opportunities for talents like Bronwyn to make sure that they really reach their full potential.

I tried ... I was disappointed, in fact, she didn't take a job in the Shadow Minist ry but I haven't given up and I'm going to keep t rying because I've used Bronwyn to do a number of high profile jobs in the past. She is a good media performer, she's a good speaker, she has a popular following and she has a reputation for being dogged in the pursuit of public servants, in particular. They're real strengths. Leadership is not just about popularity but popularity is a part of it, sure.


You'd be aware a lot of the political commentators were advising you that it would have been wise to have put her into the inner Cabinet and shut her up - bought her off, in other words.


Well, I make the judgements very carefully. It's a tough choice because we have a lot of good people but Bronwyn was coming in from outside, I gave her a very senior job and in fact I tailored the job to suit her. I put two portfolios together - two that had been previously run by two men in the previous Shadow Ministry. I put them together - privatisation and administrative services, pitted her against Bob McMullen whose one

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we've really got to tarnish in the Parliament. I thought it was a unique opportunity and I was surprised that she knocked it back and disappointed but in the end it has to be on merit and the people that are in the Shadow Cabinet I thought deserved to be there ahead of Bronwyn, that's all.


I'm interested in your response to that because I've got the impression that you've found it difficult at times to come up with a positive response on a number of policy issues simply because you've been aware of these divisions of people like Bronwyn Bishop breathing down your neck, and that you have to keep supporters on side but you've felt you haven't been able to antagonise significant sections of the Party?

No, it's not really that although I would lose either way, I guess. If I go ahead and make a decision they'll say, there he goes on his own and if he goes and talks to all his colleagues and carefully assesses the issue, he's being hesitant.

So I don't ever win that point. What I always try to do is come to a very careful position on an issue and let's not exaggerate it but issues like Mabo and the republic and so on, are major issues that have a lot of dimensions. There's a lot of complexity. You have to be careful. A knee-jerk reaction is the wrong thing.

I've carefully crafted our position on both those - not only to have the support of the Party but I think to tap the mood in Australia.


Well, they're difficult issues for the Liberal Party because they've heightened the differences in the Party on issues like this, haven't they?


It's funny, if you read the press you think we're the only Party with differences. The Government has just as diverse a set of views behind whatever position they take as we have. That's what you'd expect in a democracy. We are representative of a wide

cross-section of the Australian community and the Australian community has very different views about issues like Mabo or the republic.

So it's not surprising that you have those views in your Party and what you've got to do as a leader is position yourself on those issues so that you not only have the Party feeling, yes we're in this debate and we're in it with a good clear cut position, but you've got to be tapping the mood of Australia as well.


And that's really why I don't think.., you know, it's easy for people to say you should have a position on Mabo on Day One. The Government the other day, I saw a story in the newspaper, won't have a position on Mabo for six months - final position. Because it is a very detailed issue and we've worked it very carefully to a get a position.


I certainly appreciate what you're saying there but your response was very slow in coming. And because it was slow in coming there was a vacuum and people like Tim Fischer felt obliged to charge in, more from frustration, I think, than from political good sense, and make a statement. Which then made it even more difficult for you when you had to come up and try and state a Coalition position.


I think that was misrepresented. Tim's on the sub-committee that deals with Mabo, as are a number of others who've spoken out And we had a very strong view that we had to get out and about -not just sit in our room in Canberra and come to a view - but to go and talk to Aboriginal leaders, talk to the miners, talk to the pastoralists, talk to the Government people (Attorney-General's and Prime Minister's Department) to make sure that we made an informed decision.

Next week that Committee is off to Cape York and the Torres Strait. We're going to see some of it first hand. One of my colleagues, Peter Nugent, has spent the last two or three weeks out talking to Aboriginal leaders.

It's very important that it's all brought in and done properly. Now it's easy to say, let's just give a knee jerk reaction and take a quick position that gives you a political edge on the day. But an issue like Mabo could dog this country for years unless you get it right. What we've got to do is make sure that when we've got a clear cut position,

we put the Government under maximum pressure to solve the problem.

Now, if you want to talk about drift, that's where the drift is. They still have no position and the uncertainty out there is enormous about whether or not titles are secure. There's uncertainty about the investment climate in Australia in the future and, of course, we've now had some unbelievable and unjustified claims by the Aboriginal

leaders - some of them - because their expectations have been so raised by Mr Keating that, in a sense, some of them have just made the most outlandish claims. All that does is breed a very divisive situation in Australia which could have been avoided.


Now that's where the drift is and I think while the Opposition has been careful in coming to it's view, you shouldn't lose sight that they are in Government and Mr Keating has a responsibility to have provided a lead on this issue and he hasn't. In fact, he tried to ride roughshod over the States - just put a position on the table and said take it or leave it - where you've got to build a consensus.


It's such a difficult issue, maybe that may be necessary in the end.

On this question of drift. You saw it happen when Bob Hawke failed to respond to your Fightback! One package and he paid a price for it. Politically it's been demonstrated to have been disastrous in Australian politics to let a major issue drift before you come back with a response to it.

Now I certainly understand that what the public does not want is a knee-jerk reaction. But on the other hand, the fact that you let it run for, how many weeks was it, before you came back with ...


No, I actually did go out and make statements on it but equally to put the detailed position down we had to do the work.

I don't think there's been any drift and look, we are in Opposition. We have time, we have time to get it right. It's easy for the press to run on that sort of line and it's easy for some people to make it an issue.

But the real drift is on the Government's side where they have no solution to the problem.


Well they've got to try and pull it together and that's the difficult thing.

But I'm interested in the position that you have come up with now because it's being interpreted as very much a pro-development position. On the other hand, you've also committed yourself to reconciliation with the Aboriginal community. Now, can you do both? Is it possible?


Yes, we think so. Just to be clear though, we don't think it is just a pro-development position. I think it's a balanced position but what we have done is say that we think it's wrong to deal with Mabo and reconciliation and other issues together. We think they should be separated and I think that was the Prime Minister's fundamental


mistake to put them together and to raise expectations that here was a way that in the end he could reconcile black and white Australia that nobody else has been able to do for 200 years.

Raising expectations without doing the detailed work in particular in relation to the States to see whether he had the capacity to deliver, which he obviously doesn't have given the diverse views of the States. Now, we sure, are pro-development in the sense that we would not want the treatment of Mabo to delay development projects and we would not want it to increase the costs of development projects. We've already got enough delays in Australia on major projects.


How can you pursue that line while at the same time pursue Aboriginal reconciliation?


Well, what we said when the reconciliation process started - Bob Hawke wrote to me and asked can we have a bi-partisan approach on this - I said we'll be in this on a number of conditions. One, we don't want this to be a front for negotiation for treaty. We don't support a treaty. But if by reconciliation you mean a process whereby we actually raise the well-being of the Aboriginal people and we do something about their very low levels of literacy, their poor housing, their poor education, their poor health, the high infant mortality rates and so on, yes, we're in and we'll support it all the way. We actually think you should have some quite specific objectives and make sure that the money that goes out from Government or others actually hit those targets and

raise their standard of well-being.

Now that's what we mean by reconciliation. I think most Australians would accept that that's a reasonable definition and on that basis we've been very supportive. You see, in a sense, you don't need to mix that all with Mabo and I think it's wrong to have put it with Mabo. Mabo has an urgency about it. It needs to be solved now. And you

can't have people unsure as to whether their homes are secure, or their farms are secure or their mines are secure. They've got to know the title is secure to be a process into the process where there maybe claims to Native Title that those

claims can be heard....


..this has been part of the problem. I mean, members of your Party have come - while there's been this vacuum, we've had wild debate going on - members of your Party coming out saying, well, our homes are going to be insecure, our farms might be taken away from us. And the whole thing has run wildly out of control.


That's an environment that the Prime Minister's created. He created it by leaving a vacuum, a leadership vac.Jum and raising the expectations of the aboriginal community...

..(talking over each other)...

..made a claim on Canberra, about a third of New South Wales, substantial parts of Western Australia. I mean, the claims are there. The average Australian, okay, is not up on the detail, but sees people on tv of an evening making a claim over where they live. Sure, it's not unreasonable that they react and the Prime Minister is totally responsible.


But I'd have thought his position has always been quite clear on this. But tell me, you say that you took time to consult before you came up with your position. Did you discuss your position paper with the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council for instance before you went public?


Yes. We had a meeting with ATSIC and Lois O'Donohue and the executive of ATSIC. And of course, my other colleagues like Peter Nugent or Mike Wooldrige, whose had a long experience in aboriginal affairs, many many discussions with the aboriginal community and that's all been imputed in to our process.


But they're saying publicly they don't like it. Did they say that to you privately and you said....


No, we saw what they thought about the Mabo process and I think that they strongly...I think they're disappointed that we've decided to separate Mabo from reconciliation. I'm disappointed in their reaction but I understand what they're saying relative to what they put to us. But that was one input. We had to make a judgement on the basis of a lot of other inputs too.

We want to make sure that all Australians are treated equally. But we don't want a situation where, as is happened, where their expectations have been whipped up to such a point that they're only going to be disappointed by whatever the Government does. We'd hoped to avoid that and I think the way to have avoided that was to actually separate the issues.


It's still not too late and I wouldn't be surprised if in the end the Government doesn't go that way because it's silly, I think actually irresponsible, for the Prime Minister to say to the Premiers, look here is my position, it's got a lot of string attached that go off into reconciliation and other areas, accept it or that's it. That is not the way to solve this problem. It just compounds the problem and right now we've got much more uncertainty than we otherwise would have had. And it's still drifting and the uncertainty is there all the time.

Take a situation where foreign investors are looking at Australia. They're going to put a big question mark over any future mineral developments in Australia, for example, as long as this uncertainty exists. We can't afford that with the worst investment climate since the war, with a weak exchange rate, a weak balance of payments and a massive dependence on overseas debt. You saw yesterday in the savings report, the worst national savings position in our history.


But surely we're never going to achieve any kind of social stability in Australia until we can arrive at some form of reconciliation with the Aboriginal community. And they've made it quite clear they're not going to be bought off with health programs and other rural assistance.


I don't think it's a question of buying them off.


They believe as a result of the High Court decision that they do now have right to at least Crown Title throughout parts of Australia.


Well, what the High Court did was establish the existence of Native Title. We don't dispute that. Some are disputing that. We don't dispute that. But they've only proven it in relation to one part of Australia which is one of the Murray Islands.

And whether, and how and in what form and when it would transfer to other circumstances around Australia and whether other Aboriginal groups could actually demonstrate a continuing association with the land to effectively claim Native Title is undetermined and unspecified.

In those circumstances, the fair thing is to set up a procedure whereby that can be determined without, as I say, compounding the problems we've got with the investment climate and the development climate in Australia.



But then, does it really matter then that Aboriginal groups have made such wild and outrageous claims? If they're tested in the courts, it will be sorted out there very clearly?


Well I think a lot of people are offended that when they are visibly unjustified claims, a lot of public money is going to be wasted. A lot of other money is going to be wasted in determining those claims and a lot of people are going to be called on to defend those claims that they wouldn't otherwise have to defend. If you'd secured existing title straight away, a lot of the uncertainty would have already disappeared and a lot of those claims would not have been made. But where uncertainty hasn't been eliminated - where the titles haven't been secured -well I imagine we'll see more of this.

Without doubt I think the Prime Minister has been so deliberately divisive on this issue when, as you say, we've got to be pulling ourselves together. The very time we should be working together with a common sense of national purpose in solving all these problems - economic and social problems - the Prime Minister is dividing the country.


Well, despite all this. Did you welcome the Mabo decision? I mean, even though it has triggered this incredibly emotional and divisive debate and led to all kinds of problems and uncertainty, did you welcome it as at least a first step to determining

where we are?


We were very surprised by the decision and I guess it's a reasonable response. We've acted in good faith in Australia for 200 years on one particular basis and then suddenly we're told that whole basis has been wrong and actually there was a title in the beginning and Native Title did exist.

Now, that will just on a first blush, create a lot of uncertainty because it's basically saying to you what you've been doing all that time is wrong and you've got to look at it a different way.

So we recognised it was a very significant decision. Going into the last election, we were all working on the expectation that maybe there could be a negotiated response to Mabo but after the election and looking at legal opinion and so on, it became quite clear you needed a legislative solution.



So it was on the basis of that, really, that I set up our sub-committee to say, ok, we've

got to treat this issue differently than what we thought at first. We have put a lot of time into it now to get to what I think is a sensible and balanced position.


I know you've got limited time here. Just another one of the tricky issues that the Party's had difficulty coming to terms with - the dreaded republican debate.

Now in retrospect, do you think it was a mistake not to have joined the consultative process, the Turnbull Committee that's now going around hearing submissions?


Absolutely not. I mean, that is not a bipartisan attempt to deal with a difficult issue. And this is a difficult issue and it is a very detailed issue. The so called minimal approach is really a furphy. There's nothing minimal about any change to our constitution.

The position we start from is to recognise that Australia has a democratic system of government that is the envy of many other parts of the world. It has given us a political stability. It has been fundamental to us developing the very tolerant and sensitive multicultural society we've got in Australia.

Now, when anyone comes along and says right, we want to make a change, I think you start by saying why? Why do you want to make this change? Give us the case for change. And one of the great strengths of the Liberal Party has been over the years we've been fundamental in the development of Federation and the reform of our

constitution. We are not opposed to change. So we want to be in the debate. We want to look at change but I think you should begin by developing the case for change. And at this point, the Keating Committee, the Turnbull Committee, jumps that question and just says let's go and look at the form of republic. Where a lot of people want to say, well hang on, there's a lot of very delicate checks and balances in our system. Its worked well. it isn't really a question of personalities. It isn't really question of British personalities or whatever. It is a question of our system of government and making sure that in any change, doesn't destroy what's been fundamental to this country.


Are they necessarily jumping the process or are they simply attempting to arrive at some kind of republican model that might be effective in Australia. So that the debate can then go on from there?



Well, I think that will be an element of the debate. But I do say that the first question is why change? When we see a case for change...l respect in saying that that there has been a shift to community attitudes. But if you poll that issue, whatever the polling means, a third of people want basically to stay where we are. A third want to change and a third don't know....


and a lot of those would be Liberal voters...


...and in those circumstances you really have to develop the case for change. What we've done is basically say, look, we should be in the debate as a Party, but the onus of proof is on the Prime Minister and his people to demonstrate two things. One, the case for change and then two, change to what?

And in doing that we have a very strong suspicion that his agenda is not a minimal change in the Head of State, but it's really about dealing with the powers of the Head of State - fixing the 1975 situation. It's probably reducing the powers of the States. It's probably reducing the powers of the senate and they're on record as wanting in

effect.. .some of them wanting to abolish both of those.

It's probably about changing the flag and a host of other things which when you expose all that, the average Australian is going to say eh, whoa, hang on. These are big changes not small changes. You see I think in the end...I don't see it as inevitable that we have a republic in Australia. Simply because in the end the people of Australia

have to vote for it. And if they don't vote for it, it's not inevitable. It's only inevitable if they do vote for it.

To get them to vote for it though, you really do have to have an informed debate and delineate all the detail, the case for change, change to what? What are the pluses and minuses at each of that? And that's where we are today, where the Prime Minister is yet to make the case for change and even if he does delineate a model, then we'll

raise some of the issues that I've just mentioned. I think there's a much broader agenda there and that needs to be exposed.


And of course, history shows us that unless there is a bipartisan approach to it, no matter what the opinion polls say, Australians will vote against it. No matter what the issue.




We've learnt very many times, I learnt it at the last election, if you don't understand it, people if they don't understand it they won't vote for it. So, you really do have a responsibility as a political leader to make sure they understand the full extent of the

change. Particularly in our case, where as I say, the constitution has been absolutely fundamental to the type of country we have and the stability of our democratic process.


Well thank you for giving us some time this morning.



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I know you've got a busy schedule and I'll let you go.


Thanks Peter.