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Michael Clark, ABC Radio 4QN, Townsville, 6 February 1998: transcript of interview [Constitutional Convention; visit to Townsville; elections, Wik legislation]

CLARK: Well, it's a busy time in the federal arena at the moment. The Constitutional Convention is continuing amid much controversy. Industrial action has been much of the focus for the last two weeks, and we may be into what could be a federal election year. Kim Beazley is the Leader of the Federal Opposition and he's in Townsville today to inspect flood damage, among other things. He joins me now. Good morning.

BEAZLEY: Good to be with you. But I must apologise in advance for my voice. I'm doing Neville Wran impersonations. What I should do is start off with, 'Are you with the ABC?'.

CLARK: That's sounding very ... Yes, you are fighting a bit of the flu at the moment.

BEAZLEY: Laryngitis, really. The flu, I think, is not too bad.

CLARK: Right. Is this something that may have been picked up at the Constitutional Convention?

BEAZLEY: It was. It was, indeed. I though I'd better break off and go to more temperate climes.

CLARK: Now, I guess that's something that a lot of people may be asking. Of course, the Constitutional Convention's still continuing and, as we saw early in the week, most of the politicians were in attendance. Why have you left? Should you not still be there for the whole period?

BEAZLEY: Well, we're taking it very seriously, there's no two ways about that. But I have a proxy. Leaders of Parties were permitted to put proxies in place. So, I've got one while I'm away. And so I won't be missing anything and they won't be missing me. But I was, paradoxically, sick when the floods were here and I wanted to get up then. So, I said, right, I'll break off for a day and come up and talk to Mayor Mooney about it during the Convention. So, here I am.

CLARK: Well, with the importance of the Convention, certainly the importance that the Labor Party has put to the issue of moving to a republic, do you think that it would have been important to have that appearance of you being there for the whole Convention?

BEAZLEY: Well, it wasn't our idea, this Convention, and I don't think it's a good one. But we make the best of it and are making the best of it. This weekend, of course, people are preparing motions. They're looking at some of the side issues. The main debate, the most important decisions, will start on Wednesday. So, it's a good time to be away.

CLARK: And, of course, you're one of the people speaking out for a republic with a president that is chosen, rather than popularly elected. We spoke to our only North Queensland delegate, Townsville's Deputy Mayor, Ann Bunnell, yesterday about that. She said that she believes that the politicians, in fact, are only arguing for that model to shore up their own positions of power, be it whatever side of politics they're from. What's your response to that?

BEAZLEY: Well, I make a couple of points about it. Firstly, you have to get all the political parties on side, I think, to be able to get a proposition through. And I certainly don't think you'll get the Liberal Party for anything else, that's the first thing. The second thing is I think it's important that we get an understanding of what's the prior issue. The prior issue here is whether or not we're a monarchy or whether or not we're a republic. That's an issue which, when you decide on it, a shift to a republic, is a no-change issue. You can never go back. But the mode of election, appointment of a president, is something that can be changed at any time. It can be changed through the normal constitutional processes. So, I don't think it's so important to have the presidency finalised, if you like, and it probably makes more sense to keep the focus on whether you should be a republic or a monarchy and keep the presidential ... as close to the existing position as possible while you do that. And then later on people want to have a more fulsome debate. Fulsome's the wrong expression. Have a more vigorous debate on where you might take it after that.

CLARK: You've been a very passionate supporter of the idea of a republic. What did you make of Malcolm Turnbull's claims late yesterday that he could, in fact, be sabotaged by monarchists voting for the least successful model of a republic?

BEAZLEY: I'm not too worried about what comes through from this Convention because, at the end of the day, either us or the Liberals in government are going to put down the final motion. The Convention is advisory. It would be good to get good model out of the Convention. It would be good to advance the debate through the Convention. But the outcome is not absolutely critical and there'll be a lot of water to flow under the bridge before the issue is finally put to the people.

CLARK: Moving on to local issues now. You mentioned that during the time of the floods, you were not well and couldn't get to North Queensland. But it's been a few weeks now, why has it taken that time?

BEAZLEY: Well, we had the Labor Party conference then we had the Constitutional Convention. So, it's been a little hard to break away. I had to be there at the beginning of the Convention. As I said, this is a pretty quiet period, the next few days of the Convention. So, really, it's the earliest I could break away.

CLARK: And, so, by your tour today, what areas are you looking at?

BEAZLEY: Well, I'm in Mayor Mooney's hands. I'm going out to see him, get a brief, and then he's taking me and Peter Beattie around. So, I'm going to go in whatever direction he points me. I'm not quite certain where that is at the moment.

CLARK: Have you been happy with the commitment of the Federal Government in relation to support for those affected by the floods?

BEAZLEY: Well, the support was immediately offered and we supported the idea of offering support. I'm not sure it's actually been finalised. My view is you always have a generous approach on these things. Australia is a country afflicted by disaster and often in our, what for city people are our remote regions. And we owe a debt to people who live outside the main metropolitan centres. It's where we should always be generous, I think, in responding to that. So, we'll be taking a look at those sorts of issues as they emerge. I'll hear from him what he thinks about it. I know there's a bit of an insurance issue around. When we were in office, we put in place a complaints tribunal associated with the insurance industry for people to take issues to them. And we'll be supporting improved disclosure in relation to detail on insurance. I mean, it's surprising, as we are a nation so afflicted by natural disaster, that we've not got these things quite right.

CLARK: Particularly at this point in time, we seem to be affected by natural disasters. Of course, we saw at Christmas, the bushfires down south. Katherine certainly, just recently, has started to ... up operations and Townsville as well. Do you think that the rescue packages offered to Katherine, compared to Townsville, have been fair?

BEAZLEY: Well, Katherine's been wiped out, no question about that, completely. Katherine is completely wiped out. I think that, you know, that's one of the reasons why I want to get some detail up here, to make a judgement about whether or not the packages here are fair. I can see why people would respond very heavily when an entire town disappears. There is a different order of magnitude, in terms of the percentage of damage. But, of course, whole suburbs are wiped out here and probably about the equivalent size of Katherine. So, we need to look at that carefully.

CLARK: Certainly. You are touring around flood ravaged areas today. Now of course, as an . . . it could be an election year, this year. How important do you see North Queensland, considering that last time around Labor suffered a number of losses, heavy losses in North Queensland and in regional Queensland in general?

BEAZLEY: Well, it's absolutely critical. We're putting up a good candidate here again. The old mate, Eamon (Ted) Lindsay, who was a very good representative for this area for a long time and I think is hovering around the studio somewhere, in fact. It shouldn't be an election year, let me tell you. The election year should be next year. It's only the threat of an election year because the Government cannot accept a reasonable compromise on the Wik legislation. Now, that Wik legislation gave pastoralists everything they needed - validated all title in Queensland. This - is what went through - validated all title. Because there was a little bit of balance there, a little bit to make it acceptable to all sides, the Government can't accept it. But I think people need to understand this: unless the outcome is acceptable to all sides - I don't necessarily even use the word 'fair' to all sides, I use the word 'acceptable' to all sides - unless it is, then you're going to get endless litigation and we're not going to get an end to this. What we want, above all, is an end to the uncertainty. And the end to the uncertainty comes when everybody can live with the outcome. Now, that's what we promise and offer. That's actually ... what the Senate gave.

CLARK: Do you think, though, getting back to the original question, that maybe the issue of Wik is going to count in Labor's favour in an area such as North Queensland?

BEAZLEY: Well, we have solutions. That ought to help. But most people assume the Government is calculating that it won't and they may well be calculating wrongly. (tape break) ... we do. I mean, if anyone made compromises during that debate it was us. The Government got through 90 per cent of what they wanted. The amendments we put up constituted about 30 per cent of what we were on about. And we copped it. We said that's fine. We'll settle with that. Because, in the end, even though there were many complaints, particularly from the Aboriginals, nevertheless, just there in the acceptable basket, and we might be able to do things without endless litigation.

CLARK: Certainly a busy year ahead for all sides of politics.

BEAZLEY: Indeed.

CLARK: My guest, Kim Beazley, the Federal Opposition Leader. We do thank you very much for your time this morning in Townsville today.

BEAZLEY: Good to be here.