TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 27 FEBRUARY 2012
FRAN KELLY: One of Julia Gillard's senior Cabinet supporters is Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, who joins us in the Parliament House studio.
Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Well, not such a good morning, perhaps, for Labor. It's been an emotional few days for the ALP. How would you sum up your mood this morning?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, dare I say it, optimistic. In this context: I think the Prime Minister will have a convincing win this morning, and then the test is on us, the test is on the parliamentary party, the Government, to draw a line under all of that, to draw line in the sand and move on, and all of us get behind the Prime Minister. And if we do that - we've done a good job, in my view, of managing the economy, we've done a good job of looking after our national security interests, we've done a very bad job of looking after our political interests, most of that being leadership tension-related, then we'll have a chance, in my view, of being competitive at the next election.
FRAN KELLY: Well, that's very easy to say but harder to do, perhaps, given the blood-letting.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's-
FRAN KELLY: I mean did you despair about what's gone on over the last five days?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've been around long enough to have seen some pretty robust leadership contests in the past.
FRAN KELLY: Nothing quite like this.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not sure that's right. I mean, I've seen, and witnessed and been part of Hawke versus Keating, I've seen Howard versus Peacock, I've seen Beazley versus Crean-
FRAN KELLY: Dysfunctional, psychopath, demeaning-
STEPHEN SMITH: I think the most enduring scarification of a political leader was Malcolm Fraser of Robert Gorton. So, I go back a fair way.
But the most important thing, in my view, is this. This is my analysis. The public understand there's a rough contest going on for political power. They've got to the stage where they're sick of it - frankly, so am I - but what they do expect is that once that is over, that we get back to doing our jobs, to running the Government, running the country. If we do that, we actually have a chance. In my view, when the competition, when the contrast - when the leadership battle is Julia Gillard versus Tony Abbott, we actually have a chance of being competitive and winning the next election.
FRAN KELLY: These numbers will be pored over. In your view, what is the number that is an irrefutable result for Julia Gillard?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the course of this contest, Kevin's supporters have said, anywhere from - as high as 40 and I've even seen or referred to 47. I don't think it's going to be anything near that. I think it'll be a convincing win for the Prime Minister. I don't think-
FRAN KELLY: I'm going to push you to talk numbers here, because that's what - it's going to be a big difference, the interpretation, if it's 30, or 36 or 40.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's right, and I think it'll be closer to 30. That's my own judgement.
But the most important qualitative response, rather than a quantitative assessment of the number of votes, is the qualitative assessment, which is this. I think that the Caucus generally, whether they support in today's ballot the Prime Minister or Kevin will take a very dim view of ill-discipline.
When Kevin was elected leader in December 2006, he stood up in the Caucus room and said, there now has to be a zero tolerance on ill-discipline, because we have to have complete discipline to win the next election. And the same rule has to apply today. And if that rule does apply, the Prime Minister then gets a chance of some clear air, gets a chance, effectively, of a fair go to continue the reform program and to be competitive at the election.
FRAN KELLY: Your Cabinet colleague, Chris Bowen, who's backing Kevin Rudd, says that Kevin Rudd was the man who beat John Howard in 2007. He's best placed to beat Tony Abbott. And, certainly, the polls suggest that at the moment. I mean, what are the public to make of this? Their preference, clear preference for Kevin Rudd, you know, and their rejection of Julia Gillard, but Caucus looks set to complete them, two to one-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well-
FRAN KELLY: -to just ignore them.
STEPHEN SMITH: Chris Bowen's a Cabinet colleague of mine. He's a mate of mine. He and I just have a different view about this.
FRAN KELLY: But the public does as well. That's the issue for Labor isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the public doesn't have a plebiscite vote in the election of the leadership of the Labor Party. The obligation falls on those parliamentary members of the Labor Party who've worked closest with the contestants, either at Caucus level, at backbench level, at Ministerial or at Cabinet level to make a judgement about who we believe is the person best placed to not just lead the party but to lead the country. And, in my view, that's Julia Gillard. And I think she'll have a convincing win reflecting the fact that the majority of her Cabinet, Ministerial and Caucus colleagues share that view.
And if we then draw a line under the sand, make a decision today about leadership, that's enduring for the rest of this parliamentary term, then she actually has a chance of prospering, in terms of political fortunes, and a chance of taking us to the next election and winning it.
FRAN KELLY: It's a quarter to eight on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, who's backing Julia Gillard in Labor's leadership vote today.
But is this a kamikaze action on the part of the Caucus? If you look at today's Newspoll, the person most likely to beat Tony Abbott is not Julia Gillard, it's Kevin Rudd. I mean, would you rather lose to Tony Abbott than see Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'd rather make a judgement, which is a judgement about who I think is the person best placed to lead the party and then get on with the job of winning the next election. That same opinion poll also shows that on a two-party preferred basis, we are at 47-53.
FRAN KELLY: That's a lose position.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's the second opinion poll, respectable opinion poll, in the course of the last week, which has come to the same result.
Now, there were periods in the course of the Hawke Government's term, the Keating Government's term and the Howard Government's term where they were less well placed. If we get on with the job of running the country, managing the economy, managing our national security interests, continuing to make the changes and we do that in an atmosphere where the Caucus and the party is behind the Prime Minister and behind the Government, then we will be competitive at the next election.
We are a long way from being politically dead. Anyone who marks out a government with 18 months to go, who's sitting on 47-53, doesn't understand the history of Australian federal politics.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but Stephen Smith, you have to admit that since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister at the last election, she has not been able to lift Labor's primary vote, really. It sunk to 30, around 30, it's barely lifted. It's lifted today for the first time in a year. I mean, after this ballot, she has nowhere else to hide if Labor's primary vote doesn't lift. Would you accept that, that Labor cannot stick with a leader in six months time if the primary vote is still languishing around 31, 32 per cent.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are two things that I accept. Firstly, when we make a decision today, a convincing decision about our parliamentary leader, about the leader of the Government, about the Prime Minister, that's it, on leadership for this term. That's the first point.
Secondly, the Prime Minister has been getting results from the position of a minority government; Substantial, major, enduring, long-term reform important for our country, important for our nation. If she gets clear air, then her political fortunes and our political fortunes will, in my view, improve. The key thing is, what we now do as a political party.
We have a very stark choice. We get behind the winner of today's contest or we don't. My very strong view is that, for the sake of the Labor Party, for the people that we represent, for the sake of the Government and the sake of the country, that's what we all have to do.
FRAN KELLY: And if there is another ballot later in the year, would you consider ever putting your hand up and challenge the Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've just said absolutely not. Firstly, today, in my view, this ends the question of leadership for this parliamentary term. I'm a strong supporter of the Prime Minister and I'll continue to be so.
FRAN KELLY: And should all those Rudd backers be kept on the front bench?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. Who the Prime Minister chooses in her Cabinet is entirely a matter for her.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran. Thanks very much.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister and Gillard supporter, Stephen Smith.