John Howard’s 2UE Radio Interview with John Laws

This is the text of Prime Minister John Howard’s interview with John Laws on radio 2UE.

Howard discusses the referendum on an Australian republic at some length and outlines the reasons for his opposition.

Transcript of John Howard’s interview with John Laws on radio 2UE.

LAWS:

Prime Minister good morning and welcome.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning John. Good to be on your program.

LAWS:

Thank you. That’s nice of you. Has this whole debate helped shape the succession of the Liberal Party leadership?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s not really had any impact on that. We’re having a free vote. I decided that 19 months ago at the Constitutional Convention. I announced there that if there were a referendum then I would allow members of the parliamentary Liberal Party a free vote. And we’ve stuck to that. And given that there’s a range of views in our party on this subject as there is in the community, the differences have been handled with a great deal of stability. And all that’s happening is that the free vote ends at 6:00pm eastern daylight time on Saturday when the polling booths close, and we go back to having a government position on all of these things. That doesn’t mean to say that inside the forums of the government, around the Cabinet table, in the party room, people won’t continue to put their respective points of view. But you won’t after the weekend have one person saying well I think this is how we should handle the constitution, and another person saying this is a different way that I’d handle the constitution. All that’s going to happen is that the government will again be speaking on constitutional matters with one voice because the free vote will have been over. And I think we will have been enhanced and strengthened and dignified as a party as a consequence. It’s a sign of strength and self-assurance that a party can allow a free vote on something like this. It’s a sign of weakness and concern that you have to try and railroad everybody into singing from the same hymn sheet.

LAWS:

Yeah. Well I think most people would agree with that. And you require unity to have a government that can run the place properly.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well exactly. I mean we allow a free vote on a few things. We allow a free vote on what are traditionally called moral or conscious issues like euthanasia, abortion and those sorts of things. And we did have quite a vigorous debate on free lines in relation to the overturning of the Northern Territory euthanasia law. Remember that, it was a couple of years ago. Now we allowed a free vote on that. We emerged from that unscathed. Likewise I decided on this issue that it was best to let people because it’s an unusual issue, it doesn’t come along all that often, I thought the best thing to do was to allow people a free vote. And that’s been taken up.

LAWS:

Will it ever come along again?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know. All I can say is that I think if whatever the outcome, I mean let’s deal with the two scenarios, and I think it’s, can I say, I think it’s going to be closer.

LAWS:

I think it’s going to be closer than most people think.

PRIME MINISTER:

I do. I think, I mean I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected in politics, and so has Jeff Kennett and a lot of us in the Liberal Party. I mean you’ve just got to be realistic. And I think over the next few days the television and radio advertising campaign by the yes side will be of avalanche proportions. They have a lot more money I understand from private sources than does the no campaign. I think on Saturday what people are forgetting is that the Labor Party is campaigning nationally as a party for the yes vote and therefore the Labor Party organisation will mobilise its members and the trade unionists to work on the polling booths on Saturday. By contrast on the Coalition side, although the National Party is by and large campaigning as a party that is restricted to the rural areas of Australia, the Liberal Party of course does not have an official position. And whereas I know that a lot of individual members of the Liberal Party will be working for the no case on polling booths and some for the yes case, which may I say is their right if that is their view. And I make it very clear to members of the Liberal Party that they are free on Saturday irrespective of the attitude of the members in their own constituencies…

LAWS:

Until six o’clock.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, I’m talking about the ordinary members of the party. Well…

LAWS:

But I think it’s a very good idea.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I’m just saying to people that I think this thing is going to be a lot closer. I do not believe that, you know, the inevitability which people are starting to say out of the polls. The polls have been badly wrong in the past. So, I think when you add all of those things up I think it is going to be close. But I think if the yes vote wins then that will be it. You won’t, in my opinion, have another referendum for direct election of the President. Interesting what Bob Carr said.

LAWS:

Yes, very.

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought Carr’s intervention was fascinating and what Carr has done is to undercut the Beazley play. The Beazley play is ‘yes and more’. What Beazley’s saying is, vote yes on Saturday even if you are a direct electionist and then I’ll give you another vote.

LAWS:

Yeah, well Bob Carr’s rejected that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he has. And Bob Carr, after all, has won a couple of elections and he
’s the most powerful and the most successful Labor leader in Australia. He
is the politically successfully face of Labor.

LAWS:

Yeah, Prime Minister you wouldn’t be saying these nice things about him if
he’d not said what he said about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m being realistic. I mean, he is.

LAWS:

You’re being very political too and cleverly political because he did reject
it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he did. I mean, he said, no way. He said that he would rather stick with the present system of constitutional monarchy than have a directly elected presidency. Now, I don’t believe in a directly elected presidency. I mean, I am a conservative on this issue. I’m an undisguised conservative. I’ve always said that. I’ve been utterly consistent. I don’t feel we need a change. I don’t think Australians feel we need ­ well, they don’t feel passionately that we need a change and I don’t know in the end what they’re going to do. But I thought Carr really undercut the Beazley play. And what Carr was really ­ Carr was calling it as it is. If the yes vote wins on Saturday there will be overwhelming opposition within both the Labor Party and the Coalition to have another referendum for a directly elected presidency.

LAWS:

Rupert Murdoch’s had a bit to say on the republic issue today. He thinks that we’d suffer a loss of self respect if the no case wins. Would we?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I think this is the weakest argument of the lot, this sort of international independence argument. I’ve just gone through, in relation to East Timor, the most intense and comprehensive series of high level negotiations that any Australian Prime Minister’s been involved in since World War II. And I didn’t at any moment, for a nano-second, feel as though I was other than the elected, democratically elected leader of a fully independent nation. To suggest that there would have been a different outcome in relation to East Timor if we’d been a republic, to suggest that our constitutional status in any way influenced the receptivity of our point of view, either negatively or positively, in any part of the world is patently absurd. That, incidentally, is the view of Lee Kuan Yew, the elder Statesman of Asia, who made the observation a few years ago, couldn’t understand what all this debate was about. Look, we’ll decide our own constitutional forms. We don’t seek the leave or permission of any foreign country or any foreigner to decide our own constitutional arrangements.

LAWS:

Okay, could I ask you this question that I ask everybody, republicans and monarchists, how would the place be different if it became a republic, how would our day-to-day lives be different?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, our day-to-day lives would not be altered. And to be fair to them I don’t think some of the more sensible republicans are saying that our day-to-day lives are going to be altered. I think our constitution would be less effective. I believe that a President in a republic would, in a crisis, be more vulnerable than is the current Governor-General. Day-to-day, no improvement, no change, however, the effectiveness of a constitution is measured by how it copes in a crisis. Any old constitutional will do when everything’s going swimmingly, won’t it? But it’s when you put the thing under stress and strain that you find out whether it works. Now, my concern is that a President would be more vulnerable on balance under a republic, the model we’re being asked to support on Saturday, than would the Governor-General under the present system. And there are flaws in this model. I don’t know whether you saw that excellent article by Mr Justice Ken Handley, the Judge of the Court of Appeal in New South Wales in the Financial Review yesterday. A very eloquent exposure of the possibility of sort of litigation over cross dismissals with the Prime Minister, you know, with the signed dismissal in his pocket. Now, I’m not suggesting and nobody suggests that these things are going to happen everyday, of course they don’t, but what I am saying is that you measure a constitution by its durability through crisis and strain and stress and we’ve had 100 years to measure the current constitution and it worked.

The one time it was put under real stress was in 1975. And whatever may now be retrospectively said by both Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser about 1975 what the late Governor-General then did was to remit the matter to the Australian people. And within a few weeks the Australian people could decide whether or not they agreed or disagreed with Mr Whitlam or Mr Fraser. Now, that is the essence of a democracy and it worked on that occasion. And, of course, the other irony about 1975 is that the republicans are supporting a model which they say would still allow the future Australian president to do what John Kerr did. So, I mean, I am lost as to quite what they are getting at. I thought for some of the Labor republicans maintaining the rage was the only thing that mattered in life yet they are now purporting to carry forward into a new republican constitution the reserve powers of the Crown, it’s like having a monarchy without the monarch which is an interesting proposition within itself. But that’s for them to answer. I thought what Sir John Kerr did in 1975 at least provided a democratic outcome. I mean, if you look back on 1975 the last person who, in my view, should be criticised is the late Governor-General. I think if people felt strongly about 1975 they should direct their criticism either against Mr Fraser or Mr Whitlam.

LAWS:

Just tell me briefly why you believe people should vote no on Saturday?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think they should vote no because we know the present system works, it’s very safe. I don’t believe in changing something which has manifestly worked and contributed to making this one of the most democratic societies in the world. That’s the main reason why I ask people to vote no. The second and less important, but nonetheless important reason, is that I think the model being proposed is flawed. I think there’s too much power for arbitrary dismissal in the hands of the Prime Minister. I also think that the nomination process will result in less qualified people making themselves available to be president than is now the case with the governor-generalship. See this public nomination process will scare away a lot of eminent people…

LAWS:

Do you think a lot of people are confused, just generally confused about the
entire issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, people are confused but, you know, I am not…you know, I understand that although I don’t think people are as confused as some others would allege. I think deep down there is a feeling in the community that well, yeah but, I mean, why do we want to change something that works.

LAWS:

Yes, I think that’s…but I think there is a lot of confusion nonetheless and….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is confusion but that always happens. That’s democracy. People have a right to put their point of view. I mean, I have tried to put a measured, conservative case on this.

[transcript ends…]

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