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Prime Minister discusses Rugby World Cup; referendum; Constitution preamble; Melbourne Cup.



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TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH PHILLIP CLARK, 2BL

CLARK:

Good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Phillip.

CLARK:

Did you stay up on Saturday night?

PRIME MINISTER:

Did I ever. I got to bed about twenty-to-four. It was a great match. It was a fantastic match and I’ll be staying up very late this Saturday night as well…early Sunday morning. It will be a long day but I think we’ve got a real show.

CLARK:

It’s going to be. The last week of the referendum campaign, I suppose it’s the only issue on the agenda for this week in a sense isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. I think it will get a very good run and so it should because it’s an important issue. I’ll be taking the opportunity to suggest to people that they should stay with the present constitution. I’ve been a consistent opponent of change to a republic. I’ve never disguised that fact. I think we have a very safe and reliable constitution and I don’t think we should take the risk of changing it.

CLARK:

Can I put this to you that whatever happens on Saturday, the result in a sense is probably going to end up as a divisive exercise in that we’ve got a whole lot of people in one camp with fervent views, sometimes passionate views, and on the other side others the yes and the no cases will argue their case with a lot of energy up and down the country. But in the end, despite all of this effort and despite all of the expense and the trouble we’ve been to as a country, at this time in our history at the end of 1999 we’ve ended with something that divides us when it could have been something else. I mean do you feel that a sense of an opportunity being missed here?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. You could always, if you were going to as it were force a vote on this issue at this time there’s always going to be a difference of a view. But a movement started some years ago to have a vote on the issue before the turn of the century. And I promised the Australian people that if I became Prime Minister, although I myself were opposed to change, I would give them a vote and I’m keeping that promise. I mean this is democracy. You always have differences of opinion. There were differences of opinion in the past on other constitutional issues. But I don’t believe after Saturday, whatever the result, I don’t think you’re going to have endless division. I think Australians are Australians above everything else. I mean I want the referendum proposal defeated because I don’t want to risk a very safe constitution. But if the Australian people vote yes then as Prime Minister, I will accept that result and I will facilitate the implementation of their wish. And I would say to those people who want a republic that if it is defeated, well we get on with our lives. We together as Australians celebrate the centenary of our country. I mean this is not a debate about who is the more passionate Australian. There are equally committed passionate Australians on both sides of the debate and it’s just a question of what is the better system of government. I don’t think we should be frightened to debate differences as long as at the end of the day we are above everything else Australians and that unites us more than any of our divisions on this might put us apart.

CLARK:

One of the phrases you used in your defence of the current system, issued in the minute of your Bennelong electorate newsletter which struck me as interesting, that is you said the Governor-General is effectively our head of state, thereby acknowledging the truth that the head of the constitutional arrangement in the country lies the Queen.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I said in that document…..

CLARK:

In other words it’s not quite right, the symbolism of our country isn’t quite right. The Queen is the head of the constitutional arrangements but she’s not really our head state. [inaudible]…

PRIME MINISTER:

I was speaking a truth and the truth that I was speaking was that under the constitution the powers of the monarch are discharged by the Governor-General. I mean these are things people will take into account.

CLARK:

But it’s a bit ramshackle isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think ramshackle is the last thing our constitution is. I mean even the republicans acknowledge that we have a very stable, reliable, secure system, otherwise they wouldn’t be running around saying - ever so subtlely - look this isn’t really big change. It’s just sort of a white out of Queen and Governor General and a write in of president. I mean their whole thrust is to say that this is a tiny miniscule change. You know why they’re saying that? Because they know that the present constitution is very safe and secure and is workable. I mean we’ve had it for a hundred years. All this talk about the powers of dismissal of the Governor-General of the President, we’ve never dismissed a Governor-General. And the value of a constitution is discovered when it is put under strain and stress. Any old constitution will work when everything is going swimmingly. It’s when something is put under stress and strain that you know whether it works or not. And this constitution has worked effectively for a hundred years. I mean I am a person who will argue for change passionately if I believe that it is in the good of the country as a I did with tax reform. But when it comes to something that I see works, I know I feel, as I go around the country the feeling I get from the people is gee we really do have a good system.

CLARK:

But our national symbols are important aren’t they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes they are important.

CLARK:

..very important. And isn’t it important to get them right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

CLARK:

There’s a sense, you implicitly conceded in your letter ..

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t…

CLARK:

… there’s a sense that our symbols are not quite right because our head of state’s effectively somebody else.

PRIME MINISTER:

Sorry, Phillip. Don’t….I mean this is a very nice interview. I don’t want to be antagonistic. But look, don’t put words into my mouth and words into my newsletter. I didn’t concede anything in my newsletter. I asserted the obvious and that is that we have a very workable system. We are lucky that the accident of history, the circumstances of history have given us a particularly stable system. Now in the end people will make up their minds as to whether they want to maintain that historical association with the Crown or not. Whether that is so offensive to them that it overwhelms the evident advantages of the present system. Now that is something that people will make their mind’s up at the weekend. I mean I don’t walk away from that because it’s an historical fact. But equally the functioning practical day-to-day reality is that the Governor-General exercises the powers of head of state in this country. I mean that is a matter of law because his powers derive from the constitution. So I mean these are things in the end that people have got to make their mind’s up. You ask me do I feel any less Australian because of that arrangement, the answer is no. I don’t think anybody does. You agree with me that it is not a debate between as to who is the better Australian. It’s really a debate as to what is the better system.

CLARK:

Of course. It’s clearly not a debate about who’s the most patriotic, or who’s the passionate Australian. I think you observe a moment ago those who feel equally strong on both sides. But the symbolism is important, just to return to this point. And it seemed to be underlined most cogently in the Olympic Games issue didn’t it? Every other country would have its head of state opening the Olympic Games. We don’t. Whether you regard the Governor-General or the Queen as the head of state. You said yesterday in your ….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think that it’s most appropriate given the sort of country Australia is that its Prime Minister open it. I mean I had that view when Mr Keating was Prime Minister. It’s not something that I’ve developed since becoming Prime Minister myself. And I would have that same view if we were a republic because what you’ve got to remember….

CLARK:

That the Prime Minister should open…..?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes because in our system of government the person who effectively sits at the apex of the decision making process is the Prime Minister. So there’s a lot of talk about the importance of the head of state. In a way that is an accretion if you like, something that’s come into the debate because of the argument about a republic. The executive political authority in this country is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet because we are a Westminster system of government. We are not like the American Presidency, an executive President, or the Mexican Presidency, or the French Presidency, where there is a division, or the Indonesian President or the South African Presidency. All of these are very very different presidencies. So when you’re talking about the identity of the decision maker and so forth, in the end it’s the Prime Minister who sits at the apex of the political system. But we have at the moment a fortunate division where as a last resort if the political process doesn’t resolve the dispute you have a system of government that in a completely non-political impartial fashion can resolve dead lock. Now, I don’t believe you can duplicate that as well in a republican form of the model being voted for on Saturday. And that is an overwhelming reason why undecided voters should vote no. I mean, they’ve got to ask themselves, do they really think that you can have as neutral, non-political a Head of State arrangement as we have now under the republican model. And if they’re in any doubt about that then they should, on that ground alone, cast a no vote.

CLARK:

I was reading a piece by Brian Matthews on the weekend which he made the point, look it’s not just a question of saying if the current system is okay, leave it alone, as he says all political institutions evolve over a period of time and that what we’re looking at - I don’t think anyone argues that the current system doesn’t work well, it does. But the question is whether the symbols that the current system contains are the appropriate ones for us and whether we could evolve a system with better symbols. And it’s forcing that argument, that we [inaudible] evolve.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the nationalism of this country is very strong. As I go around this country I don’t get people - people don’t rush up to me and say, you know, look I feel that the symbols are wrong. I find as I go around this country that people are very satisfied with their identity as Australians. And they are not saying to me, look, we lack identity. Look, we have just been through a period in our history where we’ve probably played a greater leadership role in our region in relationship to East Timor than on any occasion since World War II. I didn’t go to that debate and that series of discussions other than as the political leader, the elected, democratically chosen leader of a powerful independent country. Now, this suggestion which is implicit in the republican case that in some way our national growth is stunted because of our current constitutional arrangements is really a great furphy of the whole proposition. I mean, it is not - look, the choice should not be, which is the better system. Do you throw out something that is proven by the track record of calm constitutional history to have been a very workable proposition and embrace something that does have, for example, a dismissal provision of the President to be found, as I understand it, in no other republican constitution.

CLARK:

Although, as you point out, I think there’s probably undue emphasis on that in the sense we’ve never dismissed a Governor-General in the country and the likelihood is that we wouldn’t be dismissing Presidents either.

PRIME MINISTER:

No but when you change the system then you do have to ask questions about alternatives.

CLARK:

Can I just, can I turn to another issue and that is the issue of what’s going to happen after Saturday. In essence, whatever happens in a sense to the first question, whatever happens after Saturday there’s going to be a lot of unfinished business because it’s very likely, if you look at the trend of polls, it’s very likely that there may be a majority of voters in the country who actually vote yes on Saturday but the referendum didn’t succeed because it didn’t pass in the required number of States. Even if that doesn’t happen there’ll be a result which will in a sense leave unfinished business because the direct electionists, Mr Reith in Cabinet included, want to push on. After Saturday, as far as you’re concerned, what should happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, as to what the result will be, I don’t know.

CLARK:

No [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know and I’ll have to wait and obviously I’m not going to speculate about what the result is except that I think it could be very tight. I just don’t know. Well, I think we can say a few things. You can certainly say that yes will mean yes to the present model. There is no likelihood in my opinion and all we can do from my position is predict, I can’t guarantee, but I think if the currently proposed model gets up that will be it. There will never be, in my view, a willingness on the part of parliamentarians on either side, Labor or Liberal, at some time in the future to put forward the option of a directly elected President. So, I say to people who want a directly elected presidency, if you’re contemplating voting yes on Saturday because you think that Mr Beazley, as Labor Prime Minister in some years into the future or some other Labor Prime Minister or a Liberal Prime Minister of the future, whatever, may in some way give you the option of a directly elected presidency I don’t believe that will happen. I can only state that as a very strong view because once you get a republic those who have been pushing hardest for this model will have got what they wanted. And the great majority of members of Parliament on both sides are opposed to an elected presidency. Now, I mean, I am opposed to an elected President…

CLARK:

And so is Mr Beazley.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, I’ve never disguised that either. I mean, I don’t support any type of republic. I think people should clearly understand, there is really no hope if you’re a direct electionist in voting yes in this belief that you can sort of have yes and more. Yes will mean yes.

CLARK:

If there’s a no vote will you, during the term of your prime ministership, ever put the question again?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think if there is a no vote, I mean, whatever the result is in the near term people are going to sort of want to put this thing aside and say, look, we’ve had enough of that for a while. I have said before that if there’s a no vote I don’t see the issue coming back in a hurry. As to what happens beyond that I can’t really predict.

CLARK:

Will Mr Reith and others be told to maintain some sort of Cabinet line on the issue or will they be able to speak freely?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, to be fair, Mr Reith, I mean, no individual should be singled out. I mean, at the moment we have a free vote. We decided…

CLARK:

Will that end on Saturday?

PRIME MINISTER:

The free vote will end on Saturday, yes, of course.

CLARK:

What will happen after Saturday?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well, what will happen Saturday is that there will be a government position on future handling of constitutional issues. That’s what that means.

CLARK:

What will that be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what that means is that whatever is urged and advocated inside the forms of the party will be urged and advocated. People will be entitled to argue in Cabinet for anything they like but we will have a collective government position…

CLARK:

And that’s decided by Cabinet after Saturday.

PRIME MINISTER:

It will be decided by Cabinet in the normal way. Now, that will apply to me. It will apply to Mr Costello. It will apply to Mr Reith. It will apply to everybody. But we have quite sensibly in this debate said we have a range of views in our party. It’s an atypical issue. It doesn’t come up every year. We’re going to allow our Senators and Members a free and open vote. And I think that’s been quite refreshing and it really has been debated with a great deal of civility. There’s been an attempt by some of our critics and some in the media to beat up every word, every nuance of differences between Peter Costello and myself. I mean, he has a different than I do on this debate. After Saturday we’ll still have different views internally about this issue. Of course we will. I mean, you can’t run around the country advocating a republic and if there’s a no vote, say well I no longer believe in it. I mean, that is disingenuous any more than…

CLARK:

Of course, but in essence there’ll be no more constitutional conventions after Saturday. Not in a hurry, not at the usual pace, in a hurry, you’re not in a hurry.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hang on. It’s very important that I not be, I’m not saying you’re doing it, but I sort of … people don’t run around trying to verbal me. I mean, I keep seeing people saying John Howard says no means no, John Howard has said this, John Howard, of course, has put all of that out of the [inaudible], you don’t have to worry about it any more, the Prime Minister has assured us. I mean, I know everybody is jockeying for what I might call the ‘expectational advantage’. If you are a yes voter you are desperate to get the direct electionists to believe the ‘yes and more’ philosophy. And if you are a no voter you don’t want that to happen. So, I’m just choosing my words carefully and stating it as honestly as a I can and that is that yes will mean yes and I don’t believe we’ll ever have a direct election. And no means that I don’t believe that the thing is going to come back in a hurry. Now, that is what I indicated last week. I’m not sort of shifting from that. People should not exaggerate that or take it out of context or run around and say, ah, it’s all over, Howard has spoken. All I’m saying is that I believe that if the referendum is defeated on Saturday then I think the desire of the community and the desire of the Government will be for the issue not to be revisited in a hurry. Now, what happens after that I probably have to say I won’t have any control over.

CLARK:

It’s eleven to nine. This is 2BL ABC Sydney. Phillip Clark with you. My guest is the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Howard. We’re talking about the yes and no cases and this final week of the campaign. You might have a view about it - 9333 1000 is the number. We’ve probably got time to take a few calls about it.

You’d never be party, if I understand you correctly, to putting a case or to putting a proposition to the Australian people that involved a directly elected President.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m against a directly elected presidency. I would argue inside the Government and if it ever became a proposition for public debate and resolution I would campaign against it because I think that would create an intolerably rival power centres within our constitutional arrangement and I’ve always been against it. I believe in the Westminster system. I believe that you should have the executive and ceremonial functions of government divided between a titular head of State.

CLARK:

In essence, a directly elected President would upset that balance.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, that’s my view, yes, absolutely.

CLARK:

Steve, good morning.

CALLER:

G’day John.

PRIME MINISTER:

G’day.

CALLER:

Just following on from what you were just saying. If you took the view that eventually Australia will go the way of a republic, wouldn’t it be better to then support the ‘yes’ campaign as it is because that’s the way that there’s a lead to change? You were just saying that…

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand your argument but see I don’t…I agree with Benjamin Franklin. There are only two things in life that are inevitable - death and taxes.

CLARK:

….[inaudible] 1 st of July next year.

PRIME MINISTER:

Death and taxes. And they’re the things I believe in and I just don’t think you can run around and say: oh look, something’s inevitable. I don’t accept the inevitability argument about anything. People living in Canada 25 years ago used to say to me a republic there was inevitable. My judgement of Canada is that the only thing that will make them awaken a republic in the near future will be if this country were to become a republic. I mean, it’s the last thing they want to touch because it’s now seen, amongst other things, as a point of distinction between them and the Americans. So you can’t argue this inevitable line. I mean, again and again it’s really a question of do you want to throw out something that we know for sure is safe and secure?

CLARK:

All right. Michael, good morning.

CALLER:

Mr Howard, we had a, sort of, barbeque discussion on the republic on Saturday night.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

CALLER:

The question came up, which powers at the moment affect the Governor-General and if so, who replaces him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, those powers I can recommend if there were a reason, but I can’t conceive what it would be because there is wider acclaim and support for the job being done by the current Governor-General as indeed there has been for just about every governor-general since Federation. Look, the formal legal position is that the governor-general is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister that she must follow. If for some reason, that’s never occurred in 100 years, that were necessary, or circumstances arose where the Prime Minister wanted the Governor-General removed, he would have to make a recommendation to the Queen. She would be bound under the constitutional convention after consideration to accept that recommendation. It’s never happened. It shouldn’t be assumed that you could get a dismissal instantaneously.

I noticed on a Channel Nine programme yesterday Professor Blackfield from Macquarie University said that it would be perfectly to be expected that there would be some time delay and that could affect the dynamics of the political dispute between the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. The other point to make is that the very fact of recommending the removal of the governor-general to the monarch would, because you wouldn’t make that recommendation unless there were a political dispute, involve the monarch in the political affairs of the country would act as an additional restraint. That is why I don’t believe that the president under the proposed republic is as secure from arbitrary removal as the Governor-General is at the present time. See under the republican model all the Prime Minister has to do is to sign a letter and the president is gone for all money never to be returned.

CLARK:

But that’s the case with the Governor-General…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but hang on…no, I have just spent a minute explaining how it happens and I am talking about a hypothesis in both cases because we don’t have a republic…

CLARK:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but you have to go through somebody and if there is a…

CLARK:

The result is the same.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you can’t be absolutely certain about that.

CLARK:

Yes you can.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, you can’t and I’ll tell you why, because often with these things the dynamics of the political dispute is influenced by time and even the delay of a day or two, and there is no precedent suggesting that that would be unreasonable that time dynamics would have an impact on behaviour. Now, once again it gets back to my central point that we have had 100 years where this has never arisen. We have had 100 years of total stability. We have had 100 years of predictable Constitutional balance.

CLARK:

I don’t want to have a [inaudible] argument about it but in essence the result is the same. Whether there is a delay or not the result is the same.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no. I argued, because I think what you are missing….

CLARK:

The letter can’t be withdrawn.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I think what you are missing is that you would never have an attempt by a prime minister to remove a governor-general or a president unless there were a major political row and a matter of high drama and tension. And I know from experience that when you have those sort of political confrontations time can alter the whole dynamic.

CLARK:

That argument would apply under whatever system you have.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, except that the lack of a total arbitrariness in the present situation means that you could have a different dynamic. Now, that’s the point I am making.

CLARK:

Okay. Mark, good morning.

CALLER:

Oh, good morning. I was just wondering if Queen Elizabeth dies and Prince Charles dies and we have, say, Prince William as the head of state, and he is only a 16 year old boy, he is involved in the political process of Australia, a 16 year old boy?

CLARK:

Well, that would be the current rule of succession at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean, they are two highly unlikely events but the Constitutional arrangements, of course, cover that very easily in that the powers elected are exercised by the Governor-General. I mean, under the Constitution nothing changes, absolutely nothing. I mean, you still have exactly the same stability.

CLARK:

Ian, good morning.

CALLER:

Good morning. I thought it was curious that the Prime Minister was talking about under our type of country it was appropriate to have the Prime Minister as the political head of state open the Olympics…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, the elected head of Government. I didn’t say political head of state.

CALLER:

Okay, elected head of Government and distinguish that from the kind of role the Queen would have. I wonder how you compare that to the UK where the Queen is not the elected head of government but I would be surprised if the British people would accept their Prime Minister rather than the Queen opening the Games. I think that goes to the point of the symbolism of who is our head of state.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s a question of what you believe is appropriate. I mean, this, I mean, surely you are not arguing that, you know, that the value of a constitution turns or falls on who opens the Olympic Games. I mean, what you have got to understand is that under our Constitution the powers of government are divided between the Governor-General as the Monarch’s representative under the Constitution exercising the ceremonial and formal executive powers of government. And the political or actual powers of government being exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. And that doesn’t mean to say that the Prime Minister never performs ceremonial functions. I mean, one of the most moving ceremonies I have been to was when in 1993 the remains of the unknown Australian soldier was taken from the western front in France and interred at the War Memorial in Canberra. Now, on that occasion the ceremony was, the centrepiece of the ceremony, was a speech by the then Prime Minister, Mr Keating. And it was a very fine speech and it was a very moving occasion. Now, that was a quintessentially ceremonial occasion and it was entirely proper and appropriate that the Prime Minister do it. So this idea that prime ministers never perform ceremonial functions is not correct.

CLARK:

All right, it’s two minutes to nine. My guest is the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Howard. We might leave calls there. The question of the republic "yes" or "no" has cost a lot of money. In the end, do you think it’s been a good process for the country or not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Anything that allows the people to make a decision is good. Now, this is what it’s all about, this is the ultimate exercise in the sovereignty of the Australian people.

CLARK:

So it’s been a positive process for this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, because we are talking about ourselves. We are debating the value of our institutions. I hope people don’t forget the other question and that is the preamble. I do hope that people, whatever their views are on the republic will vote for the preamble. Because this is the first opportunity in 100 years that we have had a chance of putting something very positive and gracious and noble in the Constitution about the indigenous people. And it’s something that can unite republicans and anti-republicans alone.

CLARK:

Mr Howard, thank you. Just before you go, the big race is on tomorrow, Melbourne Cup, I see that horse number 16 is called Figurehead. Is that 100 to 1?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Sky Heights.

CLARK:

Sky Heights. Mr Howard, thank you.

[ends]