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Republic: author of ALP's Constitution preamble discusses its merits.

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PETER THOMPSON: Of course the federal opposition has had its own shot at a preamble too, and Kim Beazley, somewhat predictably, believes it was much better than John Howard's. Gareth Evans wrote Labor's short introduction to the constitution and he joins us now to talk with Fran.


FRAN KELLY: Gareth Evans, what's so good about Labor's preamble then?


GARETH EVANS: Well, I think it's short and it's taut in the way in which it's drafted. It's learnable and quotable in a way that the Prime Minister's is manifestly not, and it does really touch all the cords that matter - those ideas that are really at the heart of the country, the kind of country we want to be, which cry out for expression. I am not suggesting ours is perfect in any way, and it's really, although it has been the subject of a lot more consultation already than John Howard's was. But it's, you know, if we could get it on the table through a proper further process I think it would be a much better starting point for the kind of debate we need to have than this bowl of porridge that the PM has produced.


FRAN KELLY: Well, let's talk about the preamble the PM produced. What's really wrong with John Howard's version, from your point of view?


GARETH EVANS: Well, it's both substance and style. In terms of substance it's what's there - the political correctness stuff, to which you were referring earlier; and what's not there, including of course the absence of any kind of serious sensitive reference to Aboriginal custodianship, the debt that we really owe to our people. In terms of the style, it really is a combination of turgidity and total unintelligibility. I mean, with phrases like 'the Commonwealth is constituted by the equal sovereignty of all its citizens' … I mean, that's no language known to man or woman; it's certainly not English. The language that the nation is woven together of people from many arrivals - I mean, ditto. It's not even Swahili.


Now, there are some good things in it. I think….


FRAN KELLY: Which bits do you like? What are the good bits?


GARETH EVANS: Well, I like the language: 'In every generation immigrants have brought  great enrichment to our nation's life.' I quite like the language, although some people don't, that 'our vast island continent has helped to shape the destiny of our Commonwealth and the spirit of its people.' 


You would expect some good bits with a poet of Les Murray's stature involved in the process but, frankly, most of it is just awful and it's not really even a very good starting point. It's not just a matter of fiddling around in the parliament and adding a phrase here or taking one out there in the kind of process that would be manageable normally. It really is a matter I think of going back to the drawing board and starting again.


FRAN KELLY: What about the Prime Minister's position, though, that you can't really do this in a group process because you will end with an end up with an ugly lumpy document? I mean, he has a point there, doesn't he, that really a whole lot of different personal styles can't come up with a lyrical preamble?


GARETH EVANS: That's not really true, you know, if you approach this thing in the right sort of spirit of cooperation and goodwill and consensus. Peter Reith and I, as you indicated in your earlier discussion with Peter Thompson, were able to be get together and produce a statement on the racial discrimination issue which all sorts of other people were able to attach themselves to. I mean, those who were drafting the preamble to the American constitution - that was a committee effort - and think of how much resonance that's had over the last two centuries. 'We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….' et cetera, et cetera. I mean, 40 or 50 words of beautiful language and done by a committee. You can do it if the goodwill is there. The trouble with is I think it's been approached in such a cynical way by the Prime Minister, quite possibly as a deliberate spoiling exercise for the larger objective of killing the republic referendum.


FRAN KELLY: Do you think that's being overly harsh, though? I mean, hasn't the Prime Minister shown that he brought this up in the spirit of reconciliation? He was hoping this would be a movement forward to recognise, to give Aboriginal people what they wanted, which was to be included in the republic referendum, a preamble question.


GARETH EVANS: You were approaching the Aboriginal issue, the indigenous issue, in a spirit of reconciliation, you'd be doing a lot more in this document than simply acknowledging that like our flora and fauna, they were here before we were. I mean, the language that is there at the moment, talking about inhabitants since time immemorial, really just does demean and trivialise the point about custodianship. The language that we and lots and lots of other people have been arguing for, is that without opening up matters of current divisive Mabo type controversy, it's a word which does just capture at least some of that intensely spiritual and protective way in which our own indigenous people have always related to the land. And if the PM is serious about reconciliation he really must be prepared to revisit, to rethink this whole issue.


FRAN KELLY: So if he doesn't revisit and rethink it and if it runs into the referendum as is, will Labor run a no case against the preamble?


GARETH EVANS: Well, the preamble is simply unacceptable in its present form. I am not….


FRAN KELLY: So you will run a no case?


GARETH EVANS: Well, I am not going to prejudge that. I remain an optimist about the possibility of some further parliamentary process producing a much better document. I think, within his own party room - although the cheer squad was out in force yesterday - there's an awful lot of discontent with this language, both with what it says and what it doesn't say. And certainly there's not going to be any support at all I think in the wider community for it, certainly there's not going to be any support in the wider parliament for it. If we can get a decent process now referring it off, along with all the other referendum stuff, to a joint select committee of the kind that Daryl Williams, the Attorney-General, foreshadowed a month ago; if we can add to that process some decent further communication, consultation with the wider community, perhaps using some of those marvellous delegates we had at the Constitutional Convention - people like Jason Li, a lot of those younger people - then I think we can create again an atmosphere of goodwill and consensus and try and move it forward and we won't have to face the awful possibility of campaigning against it.


FRAN KELLY: Gareth Evans, can I just ask you, finally, on another issue - the issue of Paul Keating's piggery and the heat that's coming on him at the moment. You've been an Attorney-General in government before. Would you think that this government has options to pursue some kind of inquiry into the former Prime Minister, not only options but also cause?


GARETH EVANS: Well, from what I have seen so far, and that's obviously the qualification, everything that's in the public domain and everything I know privately about this from ages and ages of handling it in the Senate, I see frankly nothing to justify the kind of inquiry which is being mooted. There is no serious allegation that I can see anywhere of criminality or behaviour of a kind which would justify that. It would be a straight political vindictive exercise of a kind which is becoming all too increasingly common. I don't see any justification for that.


FRAN KELLY: Not even concerns about the fact that the Prime Minister could have told half-truths to the parliament, at the very least. I mean, that's the allegation; that's a serious allegation, isn't it?


GARETH EVANS: Well, you know, it's something that you could take up if you were minded to do so, if he was still in parliament, as an issue of privilege or as an issue of censure or debate or knuckle rapping or whatever, although it's a pretty odd sort of an issue to get excited about when the letter of the parliamentary law has been observed. But now that the Prime Minister is out of parliament, I mean frankly, it is just totally indefensible to be trying to elevate that to the status of something justifying some kind of independent inquiry. It is just extraordinary in the way this pigs issue arises every time there is an election coming on. It's happened over and over again. It's a political ramp that ought to be dismissed and sorted out accordingly.


FRAN KELLY: Gareth Evans, thanks for your time.


GARETH EVANS: Thanks, Fran. Bye.


PETER THOMPSON: Gareth Evans there with Fran, and he also, of course, as we discussed a few moments ago is author of the opposition's draft preamble.