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Transcript of doorstop interview: 90 Collins Street, Melbourne:13 August 1993: Mabo; Weipa; Coles Myer



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Leader of the Opposition

13 August 1993 TRANS/JF/MLE

TRANSCRIPT OF JOHN HEWSON MP DOORSTOP INTERVIEW 90 COLLINS STREET, MELBOURNE

E & E 0 PROOF COPY ONLY

Subjects: Mabo, Weipa, Coles Myer

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Hewson:

I've called this press conference to draw your particular attention to a fundamental conflict that exists today within the Keating Government between the Prime Minister on the one hand and two of his senior Ministers.

It is a conflict that's very important and of national

significance as it's about a project that's worth $1.75 billion in expansion and 2,000 jobs.

The very confused and totally rambling and almost incoherent press conference by the Prime Minister yesterday on the Mabo issue just shows to me how badly he has mishandled the issue, reveals and confirms the appalling lack of leadership he has

shown on Mabo and clearly he has lost touch with the issue and the constituencies that are important to the resolution of that issue.

But most importantly, this conflict that has emerged is

fundamental. In simple terms, the Prime Minister would not give a guarantee that the project would be secure. He has not been prepared to guarantee the leases under which Comalco mines at Weipa and he has not been prepared to accept the oft repeated

requests of the Queensland Premier, Mr Goss, to confirm or to secure those titles so that project can continue.

If those titles aren’t secured, the further development that is planned will not take place and that will cost us, in itself, $1.75 billion in investment and, as I say, 2,000 jobs.

The Prime Minister hasn't been prepared to give that assurance and he certainly wasn't prepared to give it yesterday in his press conference yet two of his Ministers, the Attorney-General Mr Lavarch, and Mr Griffith have both given that assurance in the

past. '

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So the Prime Minister's actions yesterday leave those two Ministers in a completely untenable position. Mr Griffiths and Mr Lavarch have two choices. Either they admit that the

statements that they made this week guaranteeing the future of the Comalco leases were made without authority, were mistaken and therefore they are withdrawn, or they must stand by those

statements which are clearly inconsistent with the position that the Prime Minister has taken. If they do stand by those

statements then of course they should resign their positions as totally untenable.

There are very clear cut statements by Mr Lavarch and Mr Griffith and let me just read them to you.

On Tuesday, Mr Lavarch made a series of statements as bluntly as saying:

"The mining leases which Comalco hold will be

validated."

"The Important thing in terms of the project is to understand the Commonwealth will be ensuring that the title question does not threaten the issue of the existence of that project."

And thirdly,

"We will be validating all titles which could be

impacted upon by the Mabo decision and that will, in my view, cover the Weipa leases."

And similarly Mr Griffiths said in relation to the Comalco project:

"It's inconceivable that the Federal Government would allow circumstances to arise where there was any threat over the viability of that expansion of an existing project."

The Prime Minister has revealed in his press conference yesterday he's been deluding himself that these Weipa claims are not a Mabo issue, firstly, and secondly, h e ’s tried to paint the picture that this issue is a Queensland problem and not a national problem.

Well, he's wrong on both counts. The Weipa operation is of national significance. Development is of national significance firstly, and $1.75 billion worth of additional development and 2,000 jobs ought to be of national significance. And secondly,

if the Weipa claim were to be successful, it could cast doubt over all titles that have been issued since 1788. So if he

doesn't understand that as a national significance, then, of course, it shows how far out of touch he is with the issue.

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So it Is an important national issue. It is a Mabo related issue and the Prime Minister now has to show some leadership on that issue.

We are also very disappointed that yesterday he ruled out another Heads of Government meeting. He has simply got to realise that the requirement of national leadership today is to reconvene that Heads of Government meeting as fast as possible.

We have a situation where one Premier, Jeff Kennett, has already gone ahead and legislated in respect of his own State. We know Richard Court is thinking of doing the same in Western Australia and undoubtedly will take a different approach. And we've got the uncertainty in Queensland - Mr Goss out there now almost daily attacking the Prime Minister for his lack of leadership, his lack of concern.

The divisions that have been created in the Australian community are unbelievable - the worst I've seen in my memory. He's

divided right across all groups. He's divided the Aboriginal community, he's divided the miners, he's divided the

pastoralists, he's divided the broader Australian community and, of course, there's massive uncertainty at a time where what we desperately need in Australia is a secure investment climate.

I think in simple terms, this Weipa issue and Mr Goss' position on that is becoming quite symbolic and totemic from the point of view of the Mabo situation and it has to be resolved in the

interests of the nation.

Journalist:

What are you suggesting? Are you suggesting a simple

misunderstanding between the Prime Minister and the Ministers or is it a breakdown in communications? After all, Mr Lavarch is quite a close friend of the Prime Ministers, it would seem unlikely that they are not able to communicate,

Hewson:

Well their positions are fundamentally different. Mr Lavarch is prepared to say quite openly, three or four times in the one interview, that he would secure those leases so there'd be no doubt about the Comalco project at Weipa. Whereas Mr Keating

said yesterday, quite clearly he wasn’t. And, indeed, he even went further and raised the possibility that there might be doubts.about some pre-1975 titles which is staggering. He's opened up a whole other dimension of uncertainty in trying to

deal with what Mr Lavarch has said this week.

I'd say there’s a fundamental conflict within the Government. We've known for some time that Government Ministers have had significantly different views on Mabo and poor old Mr Tickner has been left out on his own more times than he can count. But in

this particular case, I think Mr Lavarch went on the record

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saying what he believed was the case and what they needed to do, very much along the lines of what Mr Goss has been asking for, yet the Prime Minister wasn't prepared to back up Mr Lavarch and he left him out there to dry.

It makes you wonder why the Prime Minister is acting like that. He's obviously not acting like that from the point of view of the national interest. He presumably is acting like that because he's got some personal political hangups and disagreements with Mr Goss which have blown out into the open. And it's a personal

thing, not something that's in the national interest.

We could not understand why the Prime Minister would call a press conference like he did yesterday and ramble on in the most incoherent fashion with massive internal conflict in the things

he said, massive uncertainty, showing an unbelievable level of confusion about the detail of the issue and all in the context of trying to nail Wayne Goss' hide to the wall and to correct something Lavarch had said during the week.

From our point of view it is a simple issue. The Comalco leases have to be secured. They have to be secured.

Journalist:

So are you saying this is a major disagreement between the Prime Minister ...

Hewson:

Absolutely.

Journalist:

Or just a misunderstanding?

Hewson:

No misunderstanding, a fundamental disagreement. They are fundamentally opposed. The Prime Minister says he won't assure the project and he won't validate the leases and Mr Lavarch says

he will and he'll look to either general Mabo legislation or special Mabo legislation to do that.

Journalist:

How do you say that legislating to secure the company's title in this case will not be discriminating against the Wik ?

Hewson:

It's not a judgement that I'm making. I'm just saying that that title has to be secured. Nearly everybody in the debate has agreed on one thing and that is that titles that have been issued in the past in good faith, mostly the focus has been on titles

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issued between 1975 and 1992 or 93 depending where you put the cut off date, but those titles have to be secure. And everybody has agreed that.

We can't have a situation in Australia where titles that have been issued in good faith by Governments over a number of years, a very significant number of titles in total, you can't have uncertainty about any of them.

That was the view that all of us had taken, whether it was a

Wei pa claim or any other claim. Those titles, up until some cut­ off date, simply just have to be secured. To do that you need complementary Commonwealth/State legislation. Neither party can act alone - neither State or Federal Government can act alone - but together they can solve that problem. And that's why the Heads of Government meeting is so important - to hammer out a basis for an agreement so those titles can be secured.

Journalist:

I'm just wondering if this particular case is something of a storm in a teacup. The Chairman of the local Aboriginal Council, Ron Nulameta, says his people want nothing more than modest compensation - that they don't actually want to stop the mining.

Hewson:

When there's uncertainty about that I think it goes to the very heart of what matters in Australia, which is securing our

investment climate. Now, as I understand it, the Weipa claims call into doubt the lease. They asked for the lease under which that mining is done to be invalidated. That's a pretty

Significant fact and until that's settled, uncertainty will persist.

And as CRA has said many times, they have an expansion planned in relation to the Gladstone smelter. They have until the end of this year as there absolute deadline to actually take a final decision on that. They can't take that decision for the

expansion, the $1.75 billion expansion, until they know their titles are secure, that the Mabo issue in all its dimensions from their point of view, is settled. That's what they've been asking for and I think, totally understandably, Mr Goss has been asking

for the same thing.

It's a very significant development of an existing project, a very successful existing project and you just can't have uncertainty about that. You can't let it linger on in the courts for years. It's got to be solved and as CRA has given a

reasonable deadline, which is based on their agreement with the Queensland Government, of December 31 this year. So they've reasonably asked the government: "for crying out loud listen to us, put in place the legislation that will secure our titles and

guarantee a) that the project can continue and b) that the development that we want to add to it, the further development of that project can actually take place".

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Journalist;

Why do you think the Prime Minister is at odds with three other Labor Party Ministers - two Ministers and a State Premier?

Hewson:

Well we have absolutely no idea why he is at odds - he just is. He's fundamentally at odds. They gave clear cut unequivocal statements in support of the validation of those titles in relation to the Weipa project. He was not yesterday prepared to do that and, indeed, in not doing that he raised a lot more

uncertainty, about in particular, the possibility that some pre- 1975 titles would also be in doubt.

Most people have taken the view that the focus of attention would be the post-1975 titles - the titles that were issued after 1975 that may or may not be inconsistent with the Racial

Discrimination Act. But now he's raised the possibility of one more area of uncertainty - that is titles pre-1975 that might be called into question. The Wei pa leases were given in 1958 on the basis of 1957 legislation and he's raised doubts about those

titles. Now that is staggering.

Journalist:

Dr Hewson, can I take you onto Coles Myer. You mentioned

Investment before. What will it mean for the economy do you think?

Hewson:

Well I've only seen the newspaper reports of their estimates of the jobs and the size of the investment. We'd welcome it. It'S a good thing. It's encouraging to see that they are prepared to make that sort of commitment that's going to have such a

significant effect in terms of both total investment and, what is it - 130 odd thousand jobs they believe all up in the end. That's really good news.

Journalist:

Do you agree with Peter Bartels that there's been a lack of business leadership, a lack of leadership in business?

Hewson:

Well, 'I'm not going to criticise the business community. There has been no investment in the business community, in fact, investment is still falling. 1 think what surprised a lot of people in the last National Accounts was that even though

investment had fallen very dramatically in March and most people thought that would be it it will start to turn around, it

actually fell further in June.

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There's very little confidence in the business sector. There's very little investment that is presently planned and in that context it's good to see a major investment like that

foreshadowed and, of course, we hope it goes ahead.

But more generally, there is still a lot to be done to restore the investment climate in Australia. There's no sense of certainty as to the future. The economy is seen to be

particularly weak. I see ACCESS Economics saying that growth this year will at best be 2.5 percent which will not be enough to bring down unemployment. In fact, it's consistent with unemployment increasing.

So in that environment where consumers have been hesitant, where there are a lot of other uncertainties, very high real cost of capital or real interest rates, businesses Just haven't been prepared to invest. And, of course, the Mabo issue is so

significant because in a whole host of areas, and it's not just mining - it's also in the pastoral area, in tourism where there may be doubts about the validity of certain titles in those industries as well - the Mabo decision has had a very significant negative effect on that investment climate. People want to see

the problem solved.

Journalist;

Are we viewed overseas like that?

Hewson;

Well we've seen evidence that it is. ... Chase Manhattan Bank recently made a statement that they believed that hundreds of millions of dollars of mining projects in Australia had been shelved.

And, as I say, CRA and Wei pa is of enormous real as well as

symbolic significance because here is a major project that a lot of Australians know about. There is an expansion of that

project, or in relation to that project planned which is $1.75 billion worth of investment and a couple of thousand jobs and that's been left to dangle.

The Prime Minister yesterday, knowingly, says he wasn't going to assure that that project could continue. Yet two of his

Ministers who are more in touch with reality - Lavarch and Griffith - know that it's got to be secured. You can't possibly have a situation where the Wei pa project is not secure. You just couldn^t. The Australian people would never wear a situation where the Government had allowed that sort of uncertainty to

persist over a major project and also compromise the possibility of further development and such a significant dollar investment and such a significant number of jobs.

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Journalist:

Despite the general economic uncertainty, Coles Myer has gone ahead with massive investment, why can't other businesses do the same?

Hewson:

Well they make their own choices and obviously in the Coles Myer area where there's, as I understand it, an enormous amount of competition at that retail level, particularly I know of some of them in the fast food area, there's very real competition to take market share off each other. Well that's obviously what has, in part, motivated them.

In other industries there's no confidence. There's no confidence in mining. Nobody's going to run out and put a dollar into the mining industry today until they get a resolution of the issues like Mabo.

Journalist:

... (inaudible) ... referendum assist solving the position that you refer to among the Australian people?

Hewson:

Look, what we've said about the issue of Mabo, and we've

consistently said, is that the top priority now is to secure existing titles and develop a framework with which we can deal with Mabo. And that requires the Commonwealth and the States to agree and therefore then to be complementary Commonwealth/State

legislation to resolve the problem.

That's the top priority. Everybody is focussing on that now. If, down the track, that isn't the way we go - if, for example, Mr Keating goes off in a pigheaded fashion and tries to ride roughshot over everybody's interests and put in his own

legislation - then as far as we're concerned, all bets are off, all options are back on the table.

At this stage though, the top priority is securing that

legislation and until we see his legislation - they've been talking about the legislation appearing by September - we'll at least in those circumstances be able to Judge whether or not he's taken the right approach.

But at this stage, we are increasingly doubting, of course, that he is taking the right approach because a) he's showed no

leadership and b) he's just gone off on his own - he's not

negotiating with the States, he won't have another Heads of Government meeting, how on earth can you reach a consensus if he's not prepared to sit down and talk with the States.

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Journalist:

... (inaudible) ... Peter Keith's comments in the Canberra Times this morning?

Hewson:

Peter Keith says to keep all options open. We are keeping all options open in the context of a clear cut commitment. There is a top priority to get that complementary Commonwealth/State approach.

(Ends)