John Howard’s Statement in Support of the “NO” Case

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has issued a statement setting out his reasons for opposing next month’s referendum on on a republic.

Statement from the Prime Minister, John Howard.

The Prime MonarchistI have previously indicated my intention to make a considered statement on the referenda to be held on November 6.

Accordingly, I attach a statement of my reasons for voting ‘no’ to the proposed republic as well as a statement in support of the preamble.

I have drawn upon this material to detail my position in a newsletter to my constituents.

27 October 1999

Introduction

On 6 November Australia will vote on two constitutional proposals – one on a republic and another on a preamble to the constitution.

The people of Australia are entitled to know how I intend to vote and why.

The referendum on the issue of a republic fulfils a promise I made to the Australian people, on behalf of the Coalition, before the 1996 election and before I became Prime Minister.

As Leader of the Opposition, I promised that if elected the Coalition would hold a Constitutional Convention and, furthermore, give the people of Australia a vote on the issue before the turn of the century.

At the Convention, held in February 1998, I said that if clear support for a particular republican model emerged then the Government would put that model to the people at a referendum.

Clear support for the model now proposed did emerge from the Convention. In fulfilment of our pledge, the referendum is now being held.

I have never disguised my personal views on this issue. I have been completely consistent. I told the Australian people prior to both the elections of 1996 and 1998 that I supported current constitutional arrangements. At the Constitutional Convention, I voted in favour of our present system.

Why I will vote "No" to a Republic

I will vote ‘no’ to Australia becoming a republic because I do not believe in changing a constitutional system which works so well and has helped bring such stability to our nation.

The changes being proposed would not make Australia’s constitution or system of Government any better or more effective. They are not as simple or as minuscule as their proponents would like people to believe.

There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes. They would add nothing to the already democratic character of Australia.

They will not enhance our independence.

There is nothing to be gained from tampering with a system of government which has contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century.

Some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under the republic being proposed.

The president could be less secure in his or her position, than is the Governor-General. This in turn could, among other things, affect the appropriate exercise of the reserve powers by a president in a future republic.

An Australian Head of State

The main argument advanced by republicans is that our head of state should be an Australian.

The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.

Since 1965 every Governor-General of Australia has been an Australian. It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian.

The circumstances of history have given Australia a very stable and workable system of government.

Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives. The essentially ceremonial functions of government are separated from the day to day executive responsibilities.

A fundamental characteristic of our system is not only the separation of the ceremonial and executive functions of government, but also that the person discharging the formal or ceremonial functions is so politically neutral – both in reality and perception – that he or she can act as the ultimate defender of the constitutional integrity of the nation.

I do not believe that the republican proposal would be as effective as present arrangements in delivering that outcome.

The Governor-General is the ultimate constitutional umpire. He exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone.

His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.

He acts in accordance with the powers given to him by the Constitution as well as the conventions of the Crown which have been developed and distilled through hundreds of years of constitutional practice.

That is one of the reasons why our system of government is so stable.

It has evolved over a long period of time.

Its history is a strength not a weakness.

We should not lightly put aside something which has worked so well and helped give us such stability.

That the Governor-General is the effective head of state of Australia and must act in accordance with the Australian Constitution was clearly illustrated in November 1975.

After the Governor-General had withdrawn Mr Whitlam’s commission as Prime Minister, the House of Representatives passed a vote of no confidence in the caretaker Fraser Government.

The text of that resolution was sent to the Queen with a request that she intervene. The reply on her behalf was as follows:

".. the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General… and the Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution… it would not be proper for Her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act."

In other words, the matter was to be resolved by Australians under the terms of the Australian Constitution which, incidentally, had been assented to by Australians before its adoption in 1901.

An independent nation

Australia is a fully independent and sovereign nation. Even staunch republicans like the former Prime Minister Mr Gough Whitlam acknowledge this. The 1988 report of the Hawke Government’s Constitutional Commission, of which Mr Whitlam was a member, found that "Australia had achieved full independence as a sovereign state of the world" sometime between 1926 and the end of World War II and was so recognised by the world community.

Despite this some argue, including the former Prime Minister Mr Keating, that Australia must become a republic to demonstrate to the world, and especially to the Asian-Pacific region, that it is a truly independent
nation.

This is a shallow argument with no merit or substance.

Mutual respect is the basis of good relations between nations.

Just as Australia does not seek to tell other nations how to arrange their constitutions, so it is that our friends in the region and elsewhere do not seek to tell us what form our constitution should take.

This reality was best captured by the senior Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, probably the elder statesman of Asia and certainly a good judge of the mood of the region.

Addressing the National Press Club in 1994 he said: "I don’t think Asia understands what the argument is about. Australia would not generate greater esteem in Asia as a republic than it does with its present constitutional arrangements."

Moreover, my experience from all the negotiations in which I have been involved concerning East Timor in recent months is the strongest evidence to me of how empty and transparent is the proposition that Australia must become a republic to demonstrate its independence to the world.

Those negotiations were as intense and as high level as any negotiations in which any Australian Prime Minister has been involved since World War II.

They involved frequent discussions with the leaders of many of our regional neighbours, the President of the United States, the Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Canada, Portugal and Japan and the Secretary General of the United Nations.

They led to Australia, for the first time in her history, being asked to lead a multinational force.

To suggest that I came to those negotiations otherwise than as the Prime Minister of a completely independent nation is ludicrous.

It would be equally ludicrous to suggest that the outcome of those negotiations would have been either different or better if Australia had come to them as a republic.

This "independence" argument is one of the poorest of all advanced in favour of a republic.

A directly elected President?

I will vote ‘no’ because I support the present system, not because I prefer some other kind of republic than the one on offer.

I do not support a directly elected presidency.

This would produce rival power centres in our political system.

Under such an arrangement both the Prime Minister and the president would claim popular mandates.

Even if the president’s powers were carefully laid out in the Constitution, the adversarial nature of Australian politics would ensure that tension between the two would arise.

Flaws in the republican model

Although my principal reason for voting no is that I support the present system, I am obliged to point out that there are flaws in the republican model that people are being asked to support.

This is due in no small measure to the fact that it is a compromise model designed to attract the support of direct election republicans for an appointment process which gives the power to appoint the president to the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

In the process the worst of both worlds has resulted.

Final power to choose the president rests with parliament and not the people. This is undoubtedly unsatisfactory to those who want a direct election for the president.

Under the republican model being proposed, public nomination for the presidency would be called for by a committee comprising 32 people, half of them chosen by the Prime Minister and the other half serving members of the Commonwealth and State Parliaments and the Territory Legislative Assemblies.

This Committee would recommend a short list to the Prime Minister who would then propose a candidate of his choice to the Parliament. He would not, incidentally, be obliged to nominate a person from the short list.

This is a "Claytons" public consultation process. It is designed to placate the direct election republicans with the illusion of public involvement in the selection process.

But it is without one of the advantages of a pure parliamentary appointment model (where there is no such public consultation process) which is that, in practice, the full range of talented Australians would be available for the post of president – as is the case now with the appointment of the Governor-General.

Under the republican proposal being put at the referendum many Australians holding prominent positions might not submit themselves to the nomination process either because of the embarrassment at not being short listed or chosen, or through a fear that their rejection, or the possibility of public knowledge that they were under consideration, might reduce their capacity to discharge their current duties.

Would, for example, a High Court judge, or even an eminent businessman or community leader allow their names to go forward if they feared that their involvement in the nomination process might compromise the performance of their current duties?

Australia has been extremely well served by its Governors-General. If the republic is supported at the referendum then I do not believe that the pool from which a future president would be drawn will be as deep as the one now available for the Governor-General.

Dismissal of a President

There has been much debate about whether, or not, the president in the proposed republic would be more or less secure in his or her office than is the Governor-General under the present Constitution.

I believe that, on balance, the Governor-General has greater security of tenure. Let me state why.

Under the proposed republic, the president can be summarily dismissed by the Prime Minister by notice in writing at any time without reason or appeal.

The requirement that the dismissal be approved by the House of Representatives within thirty days adds little to the president’s security of tenure.

The government party, with a majority in the House of Representatives, would scarcely repudiate their own Prime Minister’s action in dismissing the president. Even if it did, that would not reinstate the president. His or her removal would be final and absolute.

No Australian Governor-General has been dismissed from office.

If in the future, a Prime Minister did wish to have a Governor-General dismissed, it would almost certainly be for a political reason and any action taken to secure the dismissal would be highly controversial.

In those circumstances, a recommendation from the Prime Minister to the Queen to remove the Governor-General would be seen to involve her directly in a political dispute.

Although a future Prime Minister might be willing to do this, a natural reluctance to involve the monarch very directly in a political dispute could act as a constraint on a Prime Minister recommending removal of a Governor-General.

However, under the conventions of our system the Queen would be bound to accept the advice of the Prime Minister to remove the Governor-General. The very requirement of formal advice to the Queen, together with the formal consideration by her and the time taken, however short this may be, could act as a valuable additional check against totally arbitrary removal.

I therefore find it difficult to accept the argument advanced by some that the president in the proposed republican model would have greater security of tenure than the Governor-General.

As I say, I believe that, on balance, the reverse is the case.

Reserve powers

Under the model it is not proposed to specify the reserve powers of the Governor-General. It is commonly believed that the reserve powers relate to appointing and dismissing the Prime Minister, refusing to dissolve the Parliament and forcing a dissolution of the Parliament.

Any lessened security of tenure which has come about by the more arbitrary process laid down for the dismissal of a president could also influence him or her in the appropriate exercise of these reserve powers.

Another referendum?

Recently the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, and others, have raised the possibility of another referendum being held, if the republic wins on 6 November, to give Australians the chance of deciding whether or not they wish to directly elect the president.

This is a stunt to entice direct election republicans into supporting the ‘yes’ case .

If the republic wins on 6 November there won’t be a referendum for a directly elected president. The republicans will have got what they wanted.

Almost all of the prominent politicians who support the ‘yes’ case for the referendum are in favour of the members of Federal Parliament choosing the president. Few of them are direct electionists.

In addition, the majority of those Members of Parliament who advocate a ‘no’ vote are just as opposed to a directly elected president as they are to the model being proposed.

If the referendum wins therefore, these two groups will make common cause to oppose a direct election option being put to the people.

I do not agree with those who want a republic in which the people directly vote for a president. Their cause is not my cause. I oppose any change to the present system.

I do, however, understand why so many of them are advocating a ‘no’ vote on 6 November.

If the republican model on offer, whereby the president is chosen by two-thirds of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament, wins on 6 November it will be there forever.

Conclusion

The current Federal Government is the first since Federation to give Australians a choice between retaining their form of Government under our Constitution or changing to a republican alternative.

Consistent with our great democratic traditions the result, whatever it may be, should be embraced by all Australians.

My support for a constitutional monarchy is not based on nostalgia.

Rather it is based on a belief that we will not give ourselves a better system of Government if Australia becomes a republic and, in all probability, will give ourselves a less effective one.

I am more ready than most to argue the cause of change when I believe that it is in the national interest to do so.

On issues such as industrial relations and taxation reforms as well as privatisation, I have been willing to advocate the need for fundamental reforms, even in the face of fierce opposition, because I have seen such reforms as being in Australia’s interests.

On other issues however – and the constitutional change to a republic is one of them – I will staunchly oppose change because I do not think it will benefit Australia. Not all change is for the better, I cannot support change for change’s sake.

Prudent nations elect to keep those institutions which continue to work, and discard those which don’t.

Not even the most zealous republicans in our midst would claim that our system has broken down, that the constitutional monarchy in Australia is in a state of crisis.

In fact, republicans have paid a massive compliment to the present system by continually arguing that the change they want is minuscule, that it is virtually no change at all.

Some republicans imply that it is almost unAustralian not to want a republic. Such an attitude is offensive.

There are passionate and deeply patriotic Australians on both sides of this debate.

As I move around Australia I find no great groundswell for change. Intense debate is confined to the deeply committed on each side.

Even amongst many who intend to vote ‘yes’ there is a ready acknowledgment that there are far more important issues on the national agenda.

In these circumstances Australians are right to be sceptical about the need for change. I hope they reject the republic. It will not produce a better Australia.

Why I say "Yes" to the preamble

As well as voting on the republican issue people are being asked to approve a preamble. A preamble is a broad statement of values and principles which aim to reflect the spirit, traditions and sentiment which underpin our commitment to the Constitution.

It would also provide Australians with an opportunity to highlight the aspirations we share as we enter the second century of our nationhood.

The great value of the preamble is that it can unite republicans and anti-republicans behind commonly held Australian values. It is not conditional on whether the republic is supported or rejected.

It can also make a contribution to the reconciliation process which is one of the most important issues we face as a nation as we enter the new century. The preamble honours "Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country".

The preamble also talks about those people who defended our country and our liberty in time of war. It honours all those Australians who contributed in so many different ways and expresses the deep respect and appreciation of a grateful nation.

The important role of the States and Territories in our federal system of Government is highlighted as is the nation building contribution of generations of immigrants, our responsibility to preserve our unique natural environment and the special value we place on both fairness and achievement.

This is a worthy affirmation of national values and ideals that is suitably made as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of our Federation.

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