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Transcript of Press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 5 October 1993: termination of question time; Speaker; Mabo; budget bills; senate



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Leader of the Opposition

5 October 1993 REF: TRANSCR\SAW\DT\0031

TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS CONFERENCE DR JOHN HEWSON MP PARLIAMENT HOUSE. CANBERRA

E & O E - P R O O F COPY ONLY

SUBJECTS: Termination of Question Time; Speaker; Mabo; Budget Bills; Senate

I've just called this press conference to make a few brief remarks about the bizarre events of Parliament this afternoon then of course I'm happy to take questions.

Our parliamentary strategy today was to explode the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister in recent days. He's been arguing the case that there is a convention which would prevent us from mounting the sort of attack we've been mounting on certain tax increases that were foreshadowed in the Budget.

The approach was fairly simple and fairly direct. It was to focus on Mr Willis because he was probably the most quotable of the Ministers as then Shadow Treasurer from the experience of 1981 when in opposition the ALP set out to block certain tax increases. And so our strategy in simple terms was to ask Mr Willis four consecutive questions along that line as I say to explode the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister on this issue of convention.

Well clearly by his actions today the Prime Minister is totally out of control. He decided to crash through, he came in to the Parliament with a strategy to crash through but he simply crashed. He can certainly dish it out in politics but he equally certainly cant take it.

He finds himself today I think particularly cornered. I think he sees himself as in a box where all the major issues are the sides of those box and they're closing in on him. And you've got the Budget, you've got Mabo, you've got the republic and you've got industrial relations. And as every day goes by those sides are coming in on him. He's getting increasingly desperate and he's increasingly thrashing about and attacking

people and I think you've seen the outcome of that today with clear evidence that he's

Hewson:

Parliament House, Canberra, A.C.T. 2600 Phone 2774022

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people and I think you've seen the outcome of that today with clear evidence that he's out of control.

There is a bigger issue as far as Parliament is concerned that concerns me and concerns our side of politics. And that is that the Prime Minister has been increasingly seeking to restrict the operation of the Parliament as his own difficulties with these issues have grown in the course of the last few weeks. We're now at a situation where we cant move any matters of public importance, we cant move any censure motions, we cant move any votes of no confidence. The number of questions that we were

being allowed was shrinking and of course today it was terminated. And I think that's a sad commentary on our process of the Parliament where increasingly it's difficult for us to argue our case and yet we have a set of circumstances in all four of the areas that I've identified of very important issues for this nation to be considered and the

Prime Minister's not prepared to face debate on them, not prepared to answer questions and as I say as every day goes by he simply gets increasingly desperate and you saw the best evidence of that by his behaviour today in terminating Parliament. He didn't say you know Ί ask that further questions be put on the notice paper', he simply said 'Question time is terminated'.

Jmlst:

How can the Opposition turning Question Time into pandemonium help you argue your case?

Hewson:

Sorry?

Jmlst:

How did the Opposition turning the Question Time into pandemonium argue your case?

Hewson:

I don't believe we did turn it into pandemonium. In fact I think by comparison with other days today was a quieter day. I mean after all people will get a bit, no in terms of our attitude to today I mean our people were more subdued than they've been on other days. I mean the Prime Minister was there for something like fifteen minutes in answer to one question. He went on to areas that absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances of the question and increasingly I think he took the debate further and further in the direction that he wanted to take it to try and turn the pressure up on us.

Now naturally after a series of legitimate points of order arguing the case for relevance, sure, I mean people, the noise level rose a bit.

But there's nothing you could say there or use to excuse the behaviour of the Prime

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Minister today. I mean, after all he claims to be a seasoned Parliamentary performer, the tough guy that's been around for years. I mean there wasn't anything in our reaction today which would have justified his reaction. And as far as I can see I think it was most noticeable by the extent to which a number of his colleagues sought to restrain him. And if you want to look at the real significance of today's events have a look at the looks on the faces of his front and back bench while he was doing it. And in particular look at the anguished look on the face of Kim Beazley or on the face of Ralph Willis. And don't forget the Speaker actually gave the Prime Minister several opportunities to back off the termination of Question Time and he still stood there and he still in the end terminated. So I mean I don't there was anything in the events that he could use to justify his response. As I say I think it just shows the extent to which he's out of control.

Jmlst:

Just for the record the Prime Minister's suggested that you're deliberately getting your members to shout and disrupt the Parliament. Could you just tell us whether you have any guidelines into, about those sorts of tactics, about disruptive tactics? Whether you have any rule about how much yelling and screaming should be carried on from your

side of politics?

Hewson:

No and I issued no instructions to that, in that respect today. I mean what we do is leave the circumstances pretty much in most days for the backbench to react, the front bench to react. And you know the reactions show the nature of the answers usually, the frustration perhaps at times for the length of the answers and the

irrelevance of the answers. I mean they have set out to make a mockery of question time where questions are not answered. And I saw the Prime Minister say that Question Time ought to be a matter for the answering of questions, the provision of

information and effective debate. I haven't seen that in the Parliament in recent days. I mean certainly isnt their attitude to Question Time.

Jmlst:

Do you think today's Question Time should serve as a warning to Mr Keating given that one of shortest Question Times on record in recent memory was on the 16th of October 1975 when Gough Whitlam called an end to Question Time after three minutes and one question being asked on Budget bills and double dissolution?

Hewson:

Well I'm not seeking to issue a warning to Mr Keating in relation to Question Time. The only warning I would issue to him is to listen to the people of Australia. I mean he's been trying to paint me in particular and the Coalition in general as the odd ones out in this Budget debate. Well we're not alone. We've had a consistent position

REF: TRAN SC R\S AW\DT\0031 4

since the night of my Budget Reply but we have progressively seen the support for that position grow. I saw it at that time as simply giving voice to the sense of anger and the sense of betrayal out there in the people of Australia. We've now seen the Democrats and the Greens say they'll support us in parts of the position we've taken and clearly in the last survey I saw 74 per cent of Australian people thought the B Budget ought to be redone. I mean he ought to listen. That's the warning. He ought to listen to the fact that people out there don't think he had a mandate. They may think, they believe he had no mandate to raise taxes. His only mandate was to deliver

his L.A.W tax cuts without tax increases or new taxes.

Jmlst:

....in the Senate this afternoon that Question Time was privilege?

Hewson:

Well the Prime Minister's said that on other times too. And you know I think nevertheless most people would realistically expect the Government to be prepared to answer questions. I mean I find it interesting that they have so much trouble with Question Time, I would think if you were a competent Minister and you were on top of your portfolio and after all you've got all the information and all the fire power in terms of public service to back it up, I would think you would be able to handle

Question Time as a breeze. And you might recall at the time of the last election we did take a package of reform measures, Parliamentary reform measures to the electorate. I firmly believe as was in part of that package that Question Time ought to do what it's supposed to. I mean it might be a bit boring for you guys that like some of the theatre but I think if Prime Ministers and Ministers answered the questions there's no reason why you cant have a very large number of questions dealt with on

any day and Question Time provide the information it should provide. But you know, I think all you saw today was not the Prime Minister thinking back to whether or not it was a privilege, just cracking under pressure and deciding he wanted out of there. Just like he's admitted several times that he didn't want to come in and hear my

Budget Reply speech because I might say a few things that he didn't like.

Jmlst:

If you got into Government would you be prepared to implement a situation like they've got in the Senate with a limited amount of time for each question and reply

Hewson:

Well we've looked at all these things in the past and we continue to look at it. And I don't know whether that's the most effective way to do it. I certainly think a minimum number of questions is an important, it should be an important element of it. You should have a minimum amount of time and or a minimum number of questions, something like that. I think that's a reasonable way of ensuring that a significant

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number of questions get asked and that was part of the proposal we took to the last election. There are other proposals now floating around. You know it's difficult with a time limit. You would think that two minutes or three minutes ought to be long enough but sometimes it might be a question that warrants a longer answer.

Jmlst:

Dr Hewson, if you want to raise the standards of Question Time are you going to suggest to Mr Tuckey he calms down a little too?

Hewson:

I don't think Mr Tuckey did anything wrong. I mean I think they've been trying, my colleagues have been trying to raise points of order. And don't forget we only really have one standing order that we can use in relation to Question Time and that is relevance. It really, you know if that's enforced you can improve the standard of Question Time quite a lot. But that is our only one really. We can draw attention to others from time to time that, you know, where questions may be inconsistent with the standing orders might be seeking a conclusion or whatever. But basically, the one that matters is relevance.

You know, we've been copping 10, 15 minute answers which have got nothing to do with the Dorothy Dixer that was asked. It's got everything to do with the Prime Minister or one of the Ministers trying to bucket us.

Why should Question Time simply be an opportunity for the Government to denigrate us. And that's all it's become. It's just an opportunity - they see it is an opportunity to denigrate the Opposition - nothing more than that.

Jmlst:

You don't see the Speaker as being effectively policing the 145 rule?

Hewson:

I am not going to criticise the Speaker. I am not going to take sides in that debate. If we think there's something wrong with the Speaker's ruling in due course, then of course, there are avenues open to us within the Parliament to deal with that.

Jmlst:

...interjection...

Hewson:

...hang on, but the Speaker has made certain statements about relevance in the

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limited time that he's been Speaker and, we're just monitoring those. As I say, if we disagree at some point, we have an opportunity under the Standing Orders to move a substantive motion.

But at this stage, I think the Speaker today, tried to do everything he could to keep the Question Time going.

As I say, I'm not sure on the count, but it was two or three times I think, he gave the Prime Minister an opportunity to reverse his decision and to continue with Question Time. And the Prime Minister on those occasions decided not to and walked out.

Jmlst:

What do you think his future is given th a t...

Hewson:

... Paul Keating?

Jmlst:

...no the Speaker. What do you think the Speaker's future is given Mr Keating's action today and ...inaudible...

Hewson:

Well look, I...

Jmlst:

...inaudible...

Hewson:

Well, look the Prime Minister is always telling the Speaker what to do. I hear him over and over again, name him, name her, name whatever you know. He's always telling the Speaker what to do. He jumps up, he attacks us for what he calls frivolous points of order and is quite capable of making a lot of frivolous points of order himself. And,

indeed, I think he did a couple today.

I think he is in unique position - the Prime Minister - to set the standard. If he wants the Parliament to work well, if he wants his Minister's to answer questions, if he wants Question Time to be meaningful, he can do that. He can instruct his Ministers to play

by the rules. The Speaker will then have a very easy time applying the Standing Orders to ensure that Question Time works.

s

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Do you agree ...inaudible...

Hewson:

Well, I didn't hear all of them.

Jmlst:

... democracy for an Upper House to take control of the ...inaudible...

Hewson:

I mean, you've got to keep a sense of perspective. I mean, I haven't seen that quote and I quite frankly think that quote is irrelevant. And I asked one of my colleagues perhaps we could run back to Alfred Deakin and see if we could find a quote back there.

I don't think quoting the past is relevant. You've got to look at the circumstances of the time firstly. Secondly...

Jmlst:

...interjection...

Hewson:

... we are not blocking the Budget. We are not blocking the Budget. And you've got to keep that sense of perspective.

We are not blocking supply, we are not blocking the Appropriation Bills. We have said we will vote against four specific tax measures and there are dozens of examples of that in the past.

And, as Tim Fischer pointed out in a Point of Order today, the Prime Minister was quoting from Mr Menzies back in 1968. Well, in that particular year, I think the Government and the Labor Party then voted against something like eleven measures. One of them was package of sales tax measures which had something like 19 bills in it.

So, all I can say this idea of convention that the Prime Minister has been trying to argue in recent days is just nonsense.

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Jmlst:

...inaudible...

Hewson:

There is no convention. And look, the best example or recent example we've got of their behaviour in Opposition was the basis of the questions we asked today and the quotes of Mr Willis.

And those quotes are fairly telling. If you recall the first question where he said the first in which we quoted Mr Willis This is not blocking supply. We are not suggesting a blockage of the Appropriation Bills and, therefore, putting the Government in jeopardy. All that we are saying is that there ought to be a blockage of these tax Bills

because they are not in the best interests of the country. It is consistent with the fact that we have opposed various tax Bills in the past'.

The second quote we had was The Opposition is implacably opposed to these measures. They will have an adverse affect on the living standards of Australian families. They will affect the equity of the tax system in quite a regressive way and they will most certainly add to the inflation rate'.

I mean they are the same sorts of arguments that we have used over and over again in relation to these particular tax Bills as well.

Jmlst:

... blocking Supply in the general Budget situation ...inaudible... Budget at all or are you ....inaudible... progress ...inaudible...

Hewson:

No, I mean we made a decision which, at the time, we very carefully thought through right through to all the potential ramifications of the decision we took as to where we would go. And we decided to stand absolutely rock solid against four taxes. And they were the sales tax - the general sales tax Increase - the wine tax - I'm sorry, I

should say excluding luxury cars on the general sales tax - the wine tax, the retrospective tax on accrued leave and the petroleum excise increase.

And we have had a firm position from the beginning. We've been constant, we've stayed there and we will stay there all the way.

Jmlst:

What if the Australian people start saying to you "for goodness sake, let's get this Budget through, let's return to some sort of system?

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Hewson:

There is an attempt by the Government, by Government spokes people to argue that we have delayed this Budget.

The fact is, we have not delayed this Budget and, indeed, if you go back and look at the passage of tax Bills on the occasion of previous Budgets, you will see that we are not out of the ordinary in this regard - we're probably still a bit ahead in the pace in terms of the dealing with these pieces of legislation.

Secondly, we did move a motion in the Senate last week, to bring on debate so that we could accelerate the process.

Now we are not delaying the process in any sense. And I don't think the people of Australia are saying - to pick up your specific question - that we are delaying it.

The Government is trying to that on as an argument. I think the people of Australia really do understand what political mandates are all about. And we've heard a lot about political mandates from the Prime Minister in recent days.

They know that the basic issue of the last election campaign was tax. And they knew that he came in and promised from One Nation on that he could deliver tax cuts, in the end, put them in law - L.A.W. - law - as he said. They would be delivered without question and they would be delivered without increases in tax or new taxes.

I put that case on the record at length. They went over and over in the election campaign so the mandate he got was not to increase taxe, but to provide the One Nation tax cuts as promised.

I don't the people of Australia understand that and they're not going to be fooled by anything he says. In fact, I doubt they will ever believe again anything he says. And, in that sense, I think they are saying to us - and that's what the surveys are saying - you're on the right track. You're giving voice to what we feel. We feel betrayed, we feel angry, we feel cheated, by the fact that this Government basically lied their way

back into power. And we want you to hold them accountable for that.

On the economics of it, if you want to take that away from the politics, the other part of our position is that the economics is very strong.

This Budget is not an economic document. It is a political document designed to try and minimise the political damage that they were doing to themselves by breaking those tax commitments.

As far as it goes as an economic document, it doesn't reduce the deficit, it increases it this year and, in the future, those numbers are fictional and we all know that. We don't know where the deficit numbers will go because the growth numbers they've

REF: TRANSCR\SAW\DT\0031 10

built in and some of the other assumptions will not be achieved.

But they w ont be at 1 per cent of GDP by 1996-97. Debt is to increase, the balance of payments deficit is to increase, inflation is to increase and unemployment w ont be any better they say.

It's not an economic document. So in all those circumstances, the people of Australia want them to be held to their mandate and they'd like to see them go back and do the Budget that tries to solve our problems. ·

Jmlst:

...inaudible... Bills? Did that include what it might mean for future management of a Coalition Government's Budget through the Senate?

Hewson:

No, I think it's a furphy issue.

Jmlst:

Did you consider that was a potential issue for you?

Hewson:

It's not an issue.

Jmlst:

...inaudible...

Hewson:

It's not an issue. We don't see that as an issue. We see that as an attempt by the Prime Minister to raise an issue. But that isn't an issue. What your balances are in the Lower House and the Upper House are, of course, are determined at the election and at that point you run your strategies to do the best you can.

But I mean, it's as if he's arguing that there's some convention there that we've broken and now there will be retribution from the ALP when they're in opposition.

I must say, I like him talking about the fact that they will be in Opposition. But he keeps saying when they're in opposition, we cant expect them to back us.

We never expected them to back anything. I mean on their track record in 1981, why would we expect them to back anything? We have never taken them at their word

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and he cant speak for future Opposition Leaders either because he w ont be one, he w ont be there. But, nevertheless, you deal with the circumstances at the time.

That whole argument that he ran yesterday as run over the last few days now, is just a furphy.

Jmlst:

Dr Hewson, on just a slightly different issue. Mr Tickner yesterday was suggesting that your leadership was dependent on those who were utterly opposed to Mabo. Are you, in fact, adamantly opposed to any Mabo legislation which might water down States' rights. And, secondly, when might your Sub-Committee on Mabo actually

produce a policy document on what the Opposition's policy is?

Hewson:

The first point, is my political standing has got nothing to do with my position on Mabo - absolutely nothing. There's no evidence to substantiate that whatsoever. Secondly, we have put down a statement of principles in our Issues Paper and I think basically, what we've been seeing is the Government coming back towards those principles ever since.

Thirdly, we think that because States in Australia have the principal responsibility for land management and the issue of land title and so on, that that ought to be protected. And that was one of the principals we identified at the time. And what

we didn't like about the Keating approach at the heads of government meeting back in June was in effect that he tried to ride roughshod over the states and some people saw that as an attempt to usurp part of the right that was otherwise theirs in land management. Sort of a take it or leave it here's my approach, he's still apparently on

that tack as far as we can tell and trying to pick off certain states and not deal with others. And I would just reiterate my challenge to him of some time ago. This needs a national response, it needs a coordinated response and the way to get that is to reconvene the heads of government meeting and sit there as long as it takes with all the states until you hammer out an agreed position for dealing not only with the

confirmation of existing title, but how you deal with native title in the future and there is no alternative, and trying to pick off certain states and being divisive about it, continuing to whip up the expectations of the Aboriginal people or whatever is just totally counterproductive to what is the job that should be done. Now Bob Hawke

I think would have understood the need to build consensus in this regard. Paul Keating seems to have no idea and all I can say is that we will scrutinise his legislation from the point of view of the principles we've enunciated and one of those principles is the is the protection of the rights of the states in relation to land management.

Jmlst:

Dr Hewson, Mr Reith has said on several occasions in the past week that he'll only

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accept legislation that meets the concerns of Richard Court. Is that your position?

Hewson:

Well what we've said is that all states ought to be involved, and Richard and I have had many discussions about this issue, and he's agreed with me that you know the first best solution is for everyone to sit down and try and get an agreement. And don't forget that back in June, Richard Court was willing to sign off on that agreement.

There was only one person who wasn't prepared to sign off on that agreement and that was Paul Keating. All the other states were on side and they all look back at that at that point and see how close they were and I think most people since then have been very concerned that the whole process is fragmented. Where people have you

know, Jeff Kennett's gone off and done one thing, John Fahey's done another, Wayne Goss is talking about doing something else, I don't know what Arnold is in the end going to do, he doesn't want to much before an election I imagine, and Richard Court's made a series of statements. Now that fragmentation is not in the best interests of dealing with this issue and it's not in the best interests of any group,

miners, pastoralists, aboriginal community, whatever.

Jmlst:

Nevertheless, if five states and the Commonwealth can reach agreement on this matter and one state holds out, does this mean the Federal Opposition will continue to hold out against it for the person?

Hewson:

Well you'll just have to wait and see our response to the legislation. We will have to scrutinise the legislation, because there'll be a lot in this legislation apart from whether or not there's an agreement and you know I hope that the Prime Minister in all seriousness, I hope the Prime Minister does not try to be divisive. He's done enough damage already on a lot of issues by being divisive. Now he says this is a very big issue, and a very important issue and it is, so in those circumstances we don't want division, we want unity and he ought to be negotiating with all states, as I say it's better to put them in my view, it's much better to put them all in the one room and to negotiate with them right through an agenda and in my view stay there as long as it

takes and I don't care whether it takes five hours or days or weeks or months, they ought stay there until the job is done.

Jmlst:

Is your support for the Mabo legislation conditional upon it being approved by Mr Court or not?

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Hewson:

No look nobody has veto power over our position. Our party room will decide in the end where we go, but we will take account of all those considerations and we will take account of course of the individual views of the individual state leaders. And they are very different, I don't know why you pick out Mr Court because Mr Fahey and Mr

Kennett have got different views, Mr Goss has got different views, you know it's at this stage, let's see what he actually brings forward. We've at best I suppose got an indicative set of drafting instructions, an idea of the direction in which the legislation is going. We havent yet any real idea as to what the Prime Minister is going to do and we w ont get that I believe until we see the detail of the legislation and look we've been constructive right through this. I've been out there playing down expectations when I knew that they were unjustified. We've tried to play a very constructive role

but I would beg the Prime Minister, dont use division on this issue to chase your own short term political agenda. Back off and think of what's in the best interests of the nation, and a unified national response is fundamental to that.

Jmlst:

Could we just get to the Budget, you say havent delayed the Budget so far, there's no question that you would though is there?

Hewson:

No look we're not talking about delaying it. We dont see why right now in this week the bulk of it cant be dealt with. I know some matters are under hearings by Senate committees, but a lot of others arent. Now this linkage that they've introduced, they do n t need the linkage, we can pass the tax cuts and the tax rebate measures straight away, we can deal with the sales tax measures straight away, I mean we've got a clear cut position on that, and I'm surprised that the government, he wants to move things and they d o nt listen to us and say look yes, well I can see that the Democrats, the

Greens and the Opposition are all going to vote against the wine tax, so we better withdraw it and save a bit of time and effort so we can concentrate on the other elements of the Budget. I mean the ball is in their court, and we are trying very hard to accelerate that process and my colleagues, we've talked about it as recently again

as this morning in a leadership meeting. We are keen to accelerate the process and to get the decisions taken, I mean we're there are areas where people want to have a hearing like the FBT and the credit unions, I mean they are being heard, they'll be

given a hearing and that's important because you know the Parliament really does have a responsibility to let the public have a hearing and bills were guillotined through the lower house and nobody got a chance to say very much about them at all, the Senate will run that process. But you know, we arent seeking to delay it, and look

if you go back and look at our bona tide's, we argued from the very beginning that these bills could well be, that the original bill was probably unconstitutional. We went out and got the legal opinions long before it's you know in the Parliament and being

debated in significant extent before it had been brought on in debate, we put the

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Senate committee up, we got a determination of that and they responded. Now why on earth on that determination they didn't split all the bills and do it properly, and put them all in separately so they can all be dealt with separately is beyond me. I mean they are still trying to be too smart by half. We found last week when the bills could

have been debated in the Senate they weren't, so Jim Short moved a motion if I remember correctly as the one who moved a motion, he moved the motion to say let's bring on the debate so that we can get these matters settled. Now if you look at the bills, the structure of the bills today, look at where the difficulties are in relation to what we've said, the Democrats have said or the Greens have said, and the Government could quite quickly just break the link, pass the relevant pieces of the Budget and you know, I totally reject the notion that we are about delay. We are not.

Jmlst:

...on the Mabo issue...

Hewson:

That's one of the great benefits of democracy, there are a lot of different views that are considered in arriving at any final position and you know, I strongly support the issues paper that was put out and the principles of that paper, and as I say if you read that paper carefully, it has stood us in particularly good stead. I think the Government is on its way back towards us, and they all agree with that.

ends