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Shadow Minister defends the retention of the current Australian flag, and comments on the Coalition's tariff policy

PETER THOMPSON: Nothing symbolises a nation like its flag, and nothing more symbolises the cleavages in Australian politics than the emerging debate about whether to change the flag. Paul Keating told schoolchildren waving Australian flags in Papua New Guinea that he'd be giving them a new flag soon. A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office told A.M., this morning, that there'll be no formal announcement on changing the flag today, but the Government is expecting the issue to be raised in Parliament.

The current flag was designed in a competition at the turn of the century. The designer won a prize of 200 pounds. It was formerly approved in 1903 by King Edward VII. A Morgan Gallup poll in today's Time magazine finds a majority of Australians, 52 per cent, believe the present flag should stay. One of those is the Federal Coalition frontbencher, John Howard, who joins us now in our Canberra studio. To speak to him, Andrew Sholl.

ANDREW SHOLL: Good morning, Mr Howard.

JOHN HOWARD: Good morning, Andrew.

ANDREW SHOLL: Do you feel vindicated by the poll?

JOHN HOWARD: It doesn't surprise me. In fact, given the anti-flag publicity of the last couple of months, it is instructive that a clear majority of Australians still favour retention of the present flag. A lot of these polls do react to the mood of newspaper reports and I think, over the last couple of months, there's no doubt that the overwhelming bulk of journalists, commentators and so forth, have supported a change in the flag and a move to a republic. Therefore, it is an indication of the underlying conservative position on both of these issues that despite the enormous pro-change publicity and pro-republican publicity of the last two or three months, there's still a clear majority.

And there's a message in that for the Prime Minister. If he tries to change the Australian flag without consulting the Australian people, if he goes ahead and does that, he will leave a legacy of bitterness, amongst those who support the present flag, that will last for many years. There can be no justification at all for changing the most precious and sensitive of our national symbols without consulting the Australian people. I am against a change. I think the present flag is attractive; it has the right balance of a distinctive Australian flavour; it is a flag that has meant a great deal, emotionally, to millions of Australians for a long period of time.

ANDREW SHOLL: In any event, though, the polls are showing a gradual decline in favour of the flag.

JOHN HOWARD: There has been some movement, but given the enormous priority given to the pro-change cause, that doesn't surprise me. But look, it all ultimately boils down to this, that something as clear-cut as a symbol as a flag, where there is deep division of opinion, where there are millions of Australians who would bitterly resent any change, the obligation on the Government is to have a vote. Now true it is that under the law you can change the flag merely by an Act of Parliament. True it is that in 1953, when this flag was entrenched, legally, as the Australian flag - although it had, by custom, been the Australian flag for 40 or 50 years before that - there was no vote. But in 1953, there was no debate. Everybody wanted the present flag as the Australian flag. Now, there is debate, and I'd remind the Prime Minister that, in 1977, Malcolm Fraser conducted a poll on the national song. He personally, as I did, wanted `Waltzing Matilda', and I guess he voted for it as I and many other people did, but the majority voted for the current national anthem which we personally would have preferred to be something else but we accepted the result.

And if Mr Keating has any respect for the sensitivity of Australians, he will adopt the same approach on this particular issue, because if he changes the flag without a referendum, he will never win acceptance for that change, and there are millions of Australians who will always resent having had a change of that type forced down their throats. I believe if it is put to a referendum, there will be a very strong vote in favour of the present flag.

I think most Australians regard it as infantile in the extreme, this obsession the Prime Minister has developed about breaking ties with Britain and Europe. I mean, are we so hopelessly immature, as a nation, that we can't retain links with people all around the world? Are we so unsure of our identity that we have to throw out all of our old ties in order to cement our new ones?

And of course, to cap it all, the Prime Minister's performance in Indonesia must have sickened even ardent republicans in this country. To think that the Prime Minister of this country would go to a foreign capital and make the strongest statement, yet, on the flag and on the possibility of a republic, was demeaning and insulting to most Australians.

ANDREW SHOLL: Well, the Prime Minister says he's been raising the issue since January and the question - he was actually asked a question ....

JOHN HOWARD: No. No, I'm sorry. He made a speech about it and he was reported as having told the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Mr Alatas, that we were going to change the flag and there was strong support for a republic. He was later asked a question. He initiated the subject. And I just say, again, can imagine President Suharto or Dr Mahathir from Malaysia, coming to Australia and talking about the Malaysian flag or the Indonesian flag, about the change of the system? I mean, really! It is absolutely outrageous.

ANDREW SHOLL: Just finally, Mr Howard. Is the Coalition now united on tariffs?

JOHN HOWARD: There's a united view in the Shadow Ministry which, I am sure, will be endorsed in the party room.

ANDREW SHOLL: And that includes Mr Braithwaite?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Mr Braithwaite can speak for himself. I'm not going to speak for Mr Braithwaite. All I can tell you is that the overwhelming view of Shadow Ministry is that the current policy should be affirmed, and I have no doubt that that policy will be overwhelmingly confirmed in the party room today. And that, of course, includes not only support for the gradual removal of tariffs - not the overnight removal of tariffs - but also the implementation of major changes to tax and industrial relations which will enable the tariff-less industries to compete effectively in a world environment.

ANDREW SHOLL: Mr Braithwaite, though, says he's not resigning from Shadow Cabinet, but he also says he's not resiling from the Queensland position.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, look, I'm not going to interpret what Mr Braithwaite intends to do. I haven't heard what you have just said. All I know is that the Shadow Ministry said: no change. It is up to Mr Braithwaite - knowing the rules of Shadow Ministry membership, it is up for Mr Braithwaite to announce his future, not for John Howard.

ANDREW SHOLL: Very quickly, is the issue over, now?

JOHN HOWARD: The issue on sugar tariffs is over. I have no doubt about that. We could have done without the publicity of the last couple of weeks, given that the tariff changes are being implemented by the Keating Government without the accompanying micro-economic reforms.

ANDREW SHOLL: Mr Howard, thank you very much for your time.

PETER THOMPSON: John Howard was talking to Andrew Sholl.