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Q+A: John Hewson and Bruce Hawker interview

Published: 3:00PM Sunday August 15, 2010 Source: Q+A

PAUL This time next week Australia will have gone to the polls and unless it's too close to call there'll be a new government, or a government retained. Right now the polls are close, very close, the Labour government's doing okay nationally but struggling in some key marginals, in some key states of Queensland and New South Wales. So will Prime Minister Julia Gillard hang on and become the first elected female leader of Australia, or will she lose out to the coalition led by Tony Abbot who at one stage was training to be a priest? To tap into the mood of the campaign we welcome from Sydney the former Liberal Leader John Hewson, and Bruce Hawker, he's been on the programme before, a member of Prime Minister Gillard's campaign team. A very good morning to both of you, thank you for getting us so early. Can I come to you first John Hewson?

We had a poll yesterday that put Gillard slightly ahead nationally. We have a galaxy poll this morning that gives it just very slightly to Tony Abbot. Would we have to say at this stage John it's too close to call?

JOHN HEWSON - Former Liberal Leader

I think so, I think it is still too close to call. It's about 50/50 and it's going to be a very difficult election to read I think, because I think state and local issues are going to be very important, and the outcome will depend importantly on the contest seat by seat, as much as it depends on the national image that's created by Gillard and Abbot. So it's very close, it's very close, it's very hard to call and in the last week I think a lot of people, a lot of undecideds will start to focus in on the detail, and by next week of course next weekend they have to make a decision. So I think this last week will depend pretty heavily on how these two perform, as well as individual candidates in individual seats.

PAUL Bruce Hawker if we can come to you, of course a lot of it's going to depend on New South Wales. A lot of it's going to depend on Queensland as well. Labour have got a lot to lose in Queensland, or will the Libs make the big gains there as they hope? What do you think?

BRUCE HAWKER - Labour Strategist

Well Queensland is very much the battleground state in this election Paul. There are a number of seats there which are really on a knife edge, so on election night you should be looking at Queensland. If there's a significant swing against Labour then we will have trouble there. If however we manage to hold the swing and pick up seats in Adelaide and Melbourne, then I think we will win the election. That's the big challenge to stop the swing in Queensland where of course Kevin Rudd hails from, and where there have been a swag of seats picked up by Labour in the 2007 election.

PAUL But John Hewson you think that Queensland is it really isn't it? Labour has been spending an awful lot of dough on some of those marginal seats around Queensland, is it going to work?

JOHN Well I think Queensland is a key battleground but I wouldn't underrate New South Wales. I think the standing of the state government in New South Wales is a very big issue. It's atypical, it's atypical I think that national issues and state issues are being linked here, and that the standing of the state governments is important, and I think one of the reasons why Gillard is strong in Victoria and in South Australia, is the standing of those two governments, whereas in Queensland and New South Wales the standing of the state Labour government is pretty poor. And so I think the contest is definitely predominantly Queensland, secondary New South Wales, but Labour's counting on winning seats in Victoria and even South Australia, and I think you know the jury's still out on that, although their polling's very strong, whether they actually win seats there to offset losses in Queensland and New South Wales, is the big question.

PAUL John Hewson while we've got the camera on you, what have we learnt about Julia Gillard and about Tony Abbot, these two leadership contenders in this last month say. What are the main things we've learnt?

JOHN It's quite a bizarre campaign in many respects because we have two essentially untested leaders, individuals untested as leaders. They're still in my view, still relatively unknown. I know that sounds a big crazy, but the average voter doesn't really understand and know them, feel an affinity with them. They've both run very negative campaigns on each other. There hasn't been much sort of forward looking inspirational vision sort of stuff, and so we haven't learnt a lot about them. I think Julia in a sense if she loses is being sacrificed by the factional bosses in the ALP who ruthlessly got rid of Rudd, and caught a lot of people across Australia by genuine surprise. Nevertheless I've never seen a government that can't run on its record, and that just runs a substantially negative campaign on a relatively untested opposition leader. So it's a bizarre campaign not to exaggerate the point.

PAUL Bruce Hawker, bizarre campaign? You agree with that? What do you see of Gillard and Abbot, these two?

BRUCE Well it is a very unusual campaign for the reasons that John has just said. It is like you've got two opposition leaders coming into fight an election. It is reasonably negative, that's true, but in many ways Labour's got a lot to be negative about when they're looking at Tony Abbot. He's a man who was responsible for significant cuts in health spending when he was Health Minister, was very slow to disavow Work Choices, the very controversial industrial relations legislation, that we had under the Howard government, and still really hasn't completely got rid of that monkey from his back. And he's a man of very conservative social attitudes. So women have found him a difficult leader to grapple with. So what we're seeing is much more significant vote for Gillard amongst women than amongst men, and in large part I suspect that that's because Abbot is quite a hardliner on a lot of social issues. He's led the charge against the morning after pill, RU486. Women find him difficult to really grapple with. So that I think is part and parcel of the reason there has been a level of negativity in this campaign.

PAUL Nevertheless he finds himself this Sunday morning, slightly ahead of Gillard, and of course speaking of monkeys on the back Bruce, Gillard's got her own monkeys, there's two of them, one is called Rudd, the other is called Queensland, and of course Rudd is one of the Queensland's favourite sons. How badly do you think in Queensland, that cutting of the throat of Rudd, that dumping of Rudd, the power of those factions, which were demonstrated in the ascendancy of Julia Gillard, have been for her?

BRUCE I think it caused some problems for Labour in Queensland, there's no doubt about that. That's why Kevin Rudd is campaigning quite aggressively for Gillard in Queensland, and also in New South Wales is in former Prime Minister John Howard's seat at Bennelong yesterday, campaigning amongst the Chinese community down there. So look it's true, there was a significant pushback as a result of the removal of Kevin Rudd from the leadership, it became a reason I think that people said that they were unhappy with Labour. But he is working very hard to get the Gillard government re-elected. It's great credit to the man that he's prepared to do that.

PAUL That's right, but I understand John Hewson you may have observed this, you'll be waiting for this, there was the strange meeting between the two of them last Sunday morning, and I understand that as of last night anyway, Kevin Rudd still had not mentioned Julia Gillard by name. Queensland the Rudd factor. What do you think of it all?

JOHN Yeah look I think that it is a much bigger issue than Bruce is prepared to admit, and I think it cuts much more broadly than Queensland, I think it cuts right across Australia, because as I said before it caught people seriously by surprise, that a Prime Minister that was still leading in the popularity stakes, and where the party polling was at best marginal, but I think the internal polling of the Labour Party would say that he was still going to win. I think it surprised everyone that he was got rid of so decisively, and the manner in which that was done, I think is still an issue and Rudd is there and there was this unholy sort of alliance or truce, a purple coalition you know between the two of them. You saw the television image last weekend of them sitting together, Rudd looked much more prime ministerial than Julia did. Neither of them would speak, and now Rudd is on the campaign trail, but he's still going to be there, I guess he'll be at the party launch tomorrow. It's an issue that I wouldn't underestimate the significance of, because there is a sense in Australia of a fair go and I don't think anybody thinks that he got a fair run.

PAUL Yes, alright then, let us speak about - well I spose one little comment we'd like from you is Mark Latham. What do you make of the appearance of Mark Latham Bruce? Welcome?

BRUCE It's like you know the unwelcome uncle who turns up at the family gatherings, and proceeds to offend everybody who's an invited guest, and look that's basically the Mark Latham story, it's a distraction. I don't think it's going to play significantly in people's minds when they decide to vote. The problem is it means that when you know Labour or even Tony Abbot's trying to get their message across, you've got this fellow in the room who's asking all sorts of questions which frankly are quite irrelevant to the election campaign.

PAUL Yes and probably boring to everyone. Let me just quickly move on. Well there have been so many issues in this campaign, an issue a day really it's been, and probably the main issue is going to be the leadership. But we note over here both leaders of course have been forced into quite stern platforms on immigration, particularly illegal immigration. Half a million New Zealanders, we get wondering about immigration when you start talking about immigration, as half a million New Zealanders live in Australia, we feel we have a kind of a special relationship regarding access to Australia. Would New Zealanders do you think John, Bruce, every be really affected by any new restrictions?

BRUCE Well the problem for Tony Abbot in this is that he said that he's gonna cut net overseas migration numbers down to 145,000 people. That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but they count New Zealanders in that number. So that's where I think where Tony Abbot's got himself into a bit of a pickle over that issue, it's not something that Labour's doing, but it is something that Tony Abbot's doing, and interestingly there are about 45,000 Kiwis living in South East Queensland as well who are on the role, so it actually could be an issue in this election campaign.

JOHN Look I don't think it will be a significant problem from the point of view of New Zealanders coming to Australia, or vice versa. I mean unless you keep beating the stuffing out of us in the Bledisloe Cup I think you'll always be welcome, and whatever they've said about numbers and the implications of those numbers, I don't think it relates at all to New Zealand.

PAUL Very good indeed, John Hewson former Liberal Leader of the Australian Liberal Party, thank you for your time Bruce Hawker, Campaign Strategist with Julia Gillard's campaign. Thank you both very much indeed for your time.

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