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AUS: Transcript - Howard On Referendum (part one)

9 August 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE PARLIAMENT HOUSE

SUBJECTS: Change to wording of referendum question; preamble; One Nation

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I wanted to inform you that the Government has decided to amend the question to be put in the referendum when it goes before the Parliament tonight to read as follows:

An Act to alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the Members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Can I say that this change has been unanimously supported in our joint party room and it also received very strong support in the Cabinet. I personally support it very strongly and argued for it. I don't normally go into that sort of detail but I think given the character of this debate it's appropriate for me to make that plain. Some of you may have detected that right from the beginning I left open the possibility of some alteration and intellectually there was no reason to change the original question, it was absolutely correct.

But I wanted to put beyond any doubt the fact that the question had not been loaded and that it was fair. I don't want anybody to say if the referendum is defeated, which I hope it will be, I don't want anybody to say that it was defeated because of some trickery with the question. There was never any trickery intended and the original question was a faithful, flat statement of what the measure will do. Intellectually if you have a republic by definition you don't have a sovereign. The two concepts are incompatible and therefore to me it seems repetitious to say you are going to establish a republic and then you are going to remove the Queen because the one follows automatically without any further words. However, the view was put in the Committee report and the view has gained currency around the place that in some way to leave those words out was to load the question. There was never any possibility of the Cabinet supporting a deletion of the reference to the two-thirds appointment because that is absolutely fundamental to the debate.

So that is the question that we will be putting to the Parliament tonight. We will not accept any amendments to it. That was expressly discussed in the Cabinet today. We have made the only amendment we intend to make. Intellectually, as I say, not necessary but in the overall handling of the situation I do not want people to say that the question has been unfairly constructed. In the end I myself doubt that people are going to be greatly influenced by the actual form of the question on the ballot paper. I think that illustrates the fact that there is really nothing else much to talk about on the referendum at the moment other than the form of the question. I think once you get into the debate people will pretty quickly forget the actual form of the question. I can think of some remarkably seductive propositions that have been put up before on ballot papers that have been defeated. Not as a result of people actually literally reacting to what's been on the ballot paper but rather to the arguments that are put for and against.

So we decided to make that change. It's a change that the party room is very supportive of. It's a change that people on different sides of the argument are supportive of. I guess it's fair to say that some of the republicans would have liked to have gone further and supported the Committee's recommendation. Others would have preferred to leave it as exactly as it was. You all know my own views on the subject which I don't conceal. I think this is the fairest and most sensible way of doing it. We can now have a proper debate on the merits of the argument. And we'll be putting this up tonight in the Parliament but we'll have the support of the Government.

I should point out a few things relating to the debate. It's an unusual debate. We are having a free vote on the substantive issue. In other words, members of the Liberal Party and the National Party are free to campaign for or against the referendum proposal. They are not free to vote as they choose in the Parliament on the legislation.

The legislation to establish the referendum is Government policy. It's Government policy to have the referendum and therefore it's Government policy to formulate the question and whatever the question is is a Government question and Government members are expected to support the question in accordance with the normal practice.

The other observation I would make is that because of the requirements of the referendum legislation there has to be managed dissent on the Government side in the Parliament so that people can write the no case. So you will see some members of the Government voting against the rest of the Government in the Parliament tonight so they can actually then write the case. Because unless you have people, according to the current law, unless you have people actually voting against something you can't have an officially circulated 'no' case. And we wouldn't want that to happen would we? So we think it'sàwe are going to manage that dissent and you'll see one or two people crossing the floor. But don't be alarmed, there'll be no outbreaks of Bolshevism or no anarchy in the Coalition on these things just managed dissent.

JOURNALIST:

Are you crossing the floor?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I will support the measure. But one or two of my colleagues whose names are probably known to you might be found amongst those who cross the floor. That's being worked out at the moment. There's quite a few people who want to cross the floor.

JOURNALIST:

If there was a free vote amongst the Coalition on the actual legislation do you think there would be many on your side who would cross the floor?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the legislation?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, there's a lot of my colleagues don't want a referendum.

JOURNALIST:

What about on the wording of the question?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, actually I don't. I think people think this is pretty sensible. Look, a lot of people who share my view on the thing are quite happy to have it this way. They think it's just a reasonable compromiseàI mean, we do not want people running around saying after the referendum, you know, it wasàHoward rigged the question. I mean, I don't want people saying that because I am not trying to rig the question. I want to see the referendum defeated but we have all got to, sort of, live with the aftermath until the thing has been given a fair go. And I have kept my word at every stage. I said I'd have a referendumàhave a convention and I said I'd have the referendum and I am doing all of that and at the same time I have not disguised in any way my own view. I can't play it any more openly than that. If I'd have taken a purely intellectual position I'd have not budged. But you can't just take a purely intellectual position on this, you have to manage an issue and that's what I have tried to do.

JOURNALIST:

PRIME MINISTER:

à..don't relate to this Michelle which are of no great consequenceà..

JOURNALIST:

Is there any other fine-tuning of the legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes there may be. Daryl said there were. I haven't looked at it I've got to tell you. I've just been focusing on this.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, this reference to two-thirds majority of Parliamentariansà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Members of the Commonwealth Parliament yes.

JOURNALIST:

You said this was fundamental to the issue. Now the overwhelming finding of that bipartisan committee was that it was actually just one of seven procedural issues, the last one being this one.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's not the view of the Government.

JOURNALIST:

So you reject the committee's à ?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah we do on that score, yes, completely. We think it is incomprehensible for somebody to argue, given the character of the debate and everything, that this is not fundamental to it. We think in fact to omit reference to a Parliamentary appointment is really notà.there is a far greater, let me put it this way, there is a far greater argument to favour the inclusion of reference to the method of appointment than there is to include reference specifically to the Queen and the Governor General, far greater argument. So I find, with great respect to the members of it, I find the reasoning of the committee on that unacceptable and as did the Cabinet.

JOURNALIST:

Does this define the choice between a two-thirds appointed President and an elected President in the question?

PRIME MINISTER:

Does it what?

JOURNALIST:

Does it defineà.

PRIME MINISTER:

No no. Dennis this describes what the Act will do if it's carried. I mean the purpose of the question is to describe in short succinct form what the effect of the Act will be if it's carried. Now in its original form it did that and intellectually it would have been quite defensible of the Government to have said we're not going to change it. Now by adding the words Queen and Governor-General being replaced by the President, you are not distorting the question. I think you are being repetitious and unnecessarily so but you are not distorting it. In my view, given the character of the debate, to leave out the reference to appointment by Parliament, when you all know that part of the debate is whether it should be a parliamentary or a popular appointment is I think to be deceptive, and that's why we're not prepared to [inaudible].

JOURNALIST:

That in keeping with what you said on Australia Day last yearà

PRIME MINISTER:

What's that?

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] the question should be one which allows to differentiate between making a clear choice on the republicà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well did I say that on Australia Day last year?

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well how perspicacious of me. I don't remember, I don't remember saying that. But look, everybody knowsàjust chat for a minute about who sort of, you know, got what in mind. There are in my view, there are essentially three groups of people in the community. There are those who want a republic with a Parliamentary process for appointing the President. There are those who want a republic but favour a directly elected President. And there are those who support the present system. Now I belong to the third category. I understand that if somebody wants a directly elected President, why they would vote 'no' to this proposition because I don't believe that if the referendum question gets up, the one that's going to be proposed, I don't believe if it gets up the Australian people are likely going to change to a directly elected presidency in the future. If this referendum question gets up I don't think you'll have another vote on the Head of State issue for thirty or forty years. I just can't see another vote. I think that is just nonsense for people to say oh look, we'll have another referendum to go from a Parliamentary system to a directly elected Presidency. I mean that misunderstands the history of referenda in this country. So I can understand the logic, even though I personally am strongly opposed to an elected Presidency. And I've never disguised that fact and I repeat it here today I'm very strongly opposed to an elected Presidency. I think it would produce an unstable system and I don't support it. But I can as a matter of intellectual honesty accept that if somebody wants a directly elected Presidency why they would want to defeat this referendum in the hope that they would come again. I understand that.

JOURNALIST:

Do you agree with Mr Reith's claim last week that if this model does get up that there is no way that the public will have any say in the choice of President?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think inevitably there's greater public participation in the choice of a Presidency if you have a directly elected one. I don't think there will be a lot of public participation. But Michael, I don't have to defend this proposition.

JOURNALIST:

But as Prime Minister will you take note of that part of the process that allows public nomination?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I will be bound as Prime Minister if this becomes the law after the 1st of January 2001, I will follow the law. I will obey the law like I always do. But in the endà.I mean, let's face it, the nature of the selection process is something of a fatade. In the end the choice will be made by the Prime Minister of the day. I mean he willà.he or she will find somebody who is acceptable to the Leader of the Opposition and I'll bet that person gets nominated. I mean, forgive me, but I don't think anybody should imagine that this proposition is an exercise in participatory democracy for choosing the President. I mean you either have a President who does not have a popular mandate, which is really the equivalent of the current Governor-General, or you have an elected Presidency which sets up a rival power centre to that of the Prime Minister and I think that is a bad road to embark on and I've always been opposed to that. And of course I don't see any need for change in the present system because I can't believe the system that is being proposed is going to make it any more stable. And the other point to make is that, I think this idea that in some way the model being proposed allows for a lot of public participation. I mean there's the appearance of public consultation but in reality there won't be. I mean in reality whoever the government of the day might think fit will some how or other be one of those who's nominated.

JOURNALIST:

You said last night that there was more power to hire and fire the Head of State if this question gets up andà?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think in reality you would have slightly more, yes. I mean thereà.look it is becauseà.

JOURNALIST:

How?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well because under the present system there is one constraint. I mean the Queen is bound to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. But there is the very fact that you have got to go through that process acts as a further brake and is not seen entirely as a formality. You wouldàI mean, I haven't contemplated it. I can't imagine that I would ever be in the situation of contemplating it. But nonethelessàI'm trying to put myself in the shoes of a Prime Minister under a republican system of government. I think there is somewhat more. But look, I don't want to exaggerate it George. Look the problem with these debates is that a lot can be exaggerated and I mean, I support the present system - not out of any deep royalist sentiments - but rather because as a conservative on these issues I just adopt the Burkeian conservative view that when you've got an institution that works I think impeccably, and hasn't hindered our prosperities or our growth or our sense of self respect, or our identifiable national personality, I don't see any particular reason to change it and that's why I'm going to vote 'no' and encourage people when they ask me, but perhaps on one or two other occasions as well when they don't ask me, to do likewise.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said yesterday that it wasn't a defective questionà

PRIME MINISTER:

No that's right. I acknowledge that.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] qualify intellectually, I'm just wondering what's changed. Was ità.

PRIME MINISTER:

When I also said yesterday that I'd have a look at it.

JOURNALIST:

Was it the weight of some of your Ministers' pleadings?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think youà.no, definitely not.

JOURNALIST:

Was it raised by Ministersà

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, we had a discussion in Cabinet.

JOURNALIST:

Was it raised by Ministers to drop the two-thirds majority, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I don't want to go into that. I think we can say that we had a wide ranging discussion. But I think, can I say in relation to the remarks I made over the weekend, I also said, I always left myself an out, I said we'd have a look at it. But intellectually there's no reason to change it. JOURNALIST:

What's the future of the preamble?

PRIME MINISTER:

We're still in discussion, part heard.

JOURNALIST:

Who's 'we'?

PRIME MINISTER:

We and the Democrats.

JOURNALIST:

Will you show a similar willingness to compromise on the wording of your preamble to get something up to the people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh Michael, I'm always prepared to agree to sensible flexibility consistent with high principles.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is the appointment of the President distracting from the real issue of should Australia become a republic? The question's been changed to include the two-thirds majorityà.

PRIME MINISTER:

The question has not been changed to allow the two-thirds majority. That was there originally. I know your newspaper wanted it excised but I read the editorial carefully and on this occasion I have declined to take its advice. I mean, I do listen to it.

JOURNALIST:

I'll report that back.

PRIME MINISTER:

No you should respectfully I hope.

JOURNALIST:

The question though, we have spent a lot of time with you talking about the appointment of a president when the real referendum question, is it not, that Australia become a republic. Are we being distracted on the question including the republican camps over the appointment of the president?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am not the bloke to ask that question to. I mean, really don't ask me that, go and ask Malcolm Turnbull or somebody who supports this.

JOURNALIST:

They think we are being distracted by this, they think the question should just be: should Australiaà.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, they want a question that will, in their view, maximise the vote for their side. That's what they want. Let's not beat about the bush. They want a question that will maximise the 'yes' vote. If I had wanted a question that would completely maximise the no vote I might have said, you know, you might have argued that you want a Bill for an Act to alter the Constitution to have somebody who can be dismissed at the will of the Prime Minister. I mean, everybody can sort of argue a particular side of it. I thinkàI mean nobody can argue that the question we came up with originally wasn't intellectually honest. It was, it was truthful. Because we areàI mean, the status quo is that this country is a constitutional monarchy where the Queen is the formal head of State and the Governor-General is the effective head of State. I mean, that is the current position. Nobody can argue that as a matter of law and as a matter of practice. That is the truth, and a question that said that we should become a republic with a President chosen by the Parliament would obviously be intellectually correct. But this question isàthere is nothing dishonest about this question. I think it's unnecessarily repetitious but I am prepared to accept something that is unnecessarily repetitious to forestall any allegation that I am trying to word the question to achieve a particular result.

JOURNALIST:

Have you analysed this morning's poll that showed such a wide disparity between the Committee's question and the draft question?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, well I have read it. I haven'tàI mean, I read the story, your story. I don't know that I have analysed it. I haven't, sort of, sought any further information. I don't think those polls areàI mean, they give you a bit of a clue but I mean, there is obviously on first blush all the polls throw up strong support for a directly elected presidency. But that isn't the question. I mean, this is the question. I mean, you can't have that as a question because the Constitutional Convention rejected that and I believe that if that were a question that if you continue to have a debate then I think moods would change. But anyway that's not an issue because that's not the proposition.

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