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Parliamentary Secretary discusses the constitutional convention

JOHN HIGHFIELD: The Government has wasted no time in dismissing the latest proposal on the republic. The parliamentary secretary responsible for the convention, Senator Nick Minchin, says it's just an Opposition smokescreen to hide its determination to sabotage that convention. Senator Minchin is also talking to Catherine Job.

CATHERINE JOB: Before the election, you promised the people of Australia they would get a vote on the republic before the year 2000. This plebiscite Bill would allow you to fulfil that promise. Will you back it?

NICK MINCHIN: The Labor Party is preventing us implementing our policy, which was to have a convention followed by a vote before the turn of the century on this question. We remain committed to that policy and we're not prepared to allow Labor to force upon the Government, from Opposition, the policy it went to the people with last year and were resoundingly defeated.

CATHERINE JOB: Okay, that policy being to go straight to a plebiscite without a convention.

NICK MINCHIN: That's correct. That's right.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, does that mean you're going to hold the convention after all?

NICK MINCHIN: We remain determined to hold the convention, but we can't do it until the Opposition parties pass our legislation.

CATHERINE JOB: That have passed it.

NICK MINCHIN: They have not passed our legislation.

CATHERINE JOB: They have passed it in an amended form ....

NICK MINCHIN: They have not passed ....

CATHERINE JOB: ... but they have passed it.

NICK MINCHIN: No, no. They proposed a different electoral system which we regard as completely unworkable and impractical and unduly expensive. The electoral system proposed by the Coalition was rejected by the Senate and therefore we cannot implement our policy to hold a convention until the Senate allows us to do so. It is the Labor Party that's demanding that Australia become a republic, not the Government, and if they want this debate advanced by the Government, then they should allow the Government's legislation to proceed.

CATHERINE JOB: You have a Bill that has passed the Senate that would allow you to hold that convention at any time of your choosing in an exact same way that would reflect the promise you made before the election, when there were no quibbles about voting systems. So it's you that's pulling the plug on the convention here, isn't it, not the Opposition?

NICK MINCHIN: No, Cathy. That is absolutely unreasonable. It is a Labor Bill that was adopted by the Senate; not the Government's Bill. The Government's electoral system was clearly rejected by the Senate so we don't have the legislation that we need to implement our policy, and we remain committed to a convention but we can't have it until the Labor Party, which is the one that wants a republic ....

CATHERINE JOB: Well, you can, but you would have the usual sort of voting that Australia has.

NICK MINCHIN: Well, we've made it clear that the Labor Party's electoral system is impractical, unworkable and unduly expensive for holding ....

CATHERINE JOB: It's the one we use for every State and Federal election.

NICK MINCHIN: We're electing delegates to a 10-day convention to discuss the question of whether or not there should be a republic. The Proportional Representation Society of Australia, the Electoral Reform Society of Australia, have all endorsed the electoral system proposed in the circumstances of this quite unique election, where you could have in New South Wales alone 500 candidates. The normal Senate system simply cannot cope with that and that view has been endorsed, as I say, by the two independent organisations most interested in electoral systems.

CATHERINE JOB: So do you completely rule out going straight to a plebiscite?

NICK MINCHIN: That is not the Government's policy. We believe that there should be a vote by the turn of the century, but it's important to have-before that vote occurs-a convention comprising elected delegates, appointed delegates and Federal, State and Territory parliamentarians to discuss the questions and formulate specific proposals to put to the people-not the committee of Federal politicians proposed by Labor.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, in that case, if you're not going to have the convention because you're not satisfied with the form that emerged from the Senate, and you're not going to go straight to a plebiscite, does that mean a republic is now off the cards as far as the Government's concerned?

NICK MINCHIN: Well, it's not the Government's policy to turn Australia into a republic.

CATHERINE JOB: It's the Government's policy to give people a vote on it.

NICK MINCHIN: Yes. We are prepared and want to have a convention at which all the issues involved in any move to a republic can be debated. We remain committed to implementing that policy but we require the Senate's endorsement of our legislation to give effect to that.

As soon as the Senate passes the Bill, we will hold the convention. The Senate will have another opportunity to pass the Bill in three months.

CATHERINE JOB: So short of it passing the Bill in three months' time or it getting through a joint sitting following a double dissolution, there'll be no republican referendum.

NICK MINCHIN: Well, the matter is entirely in the Opposition's hands. If they want this debate to advance, they'll allow the legislation to pass the Senate and we can get on with it.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Senator Nick Minchin with Catherine Job in Canberra.