Last updated on November 23, 2023
This is Federal Opposition Leader John Howard’s response to Paul Keating’s proposal for an Australian republic by the year 2001.
Broadcast on national television, the speech was in response to the previous day’s announcement by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, that the government planned to move Australia towards becoming a republic.
- Listen to Howard’s speech (30m)
- Watch Howard’s speech (31m)
- Text and audio of Paul Keating’s speech, “An Australian Republic: The Way Forward”
The Australian, Friday, June 9, 1995
Text of John Howard’s speech to the House of Representatives.
Mr Speaker, the opposition welcomes the statement made last night by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) about the government’s proposals to put a referendum to the Australian people inviting them to create a federal republic by the year 2001. The outlining of the government’s proposals, in a sense, ends the phoney war stage of the debate about Australia’s constitutional future and presents to the Australian people the option and the model desired by the government.
I want to say first, on behalf of the coalition, that this is an important debate. Although the question of the constitutional structure of Australia is not something that weighs heavily upon Australians as they go about their daily lives, although the question of whether or not Australia becomes a republic will have no bearing on our standard of living and our capacity to economically penetrate the fast growing Asia-Pacific region, nonetheless, the constitutional future of our nation is a matter of great importance. I believe it should be treated in an important, sober and, to the maximum extent possible, non-political fashion.
This debate is not about who is the better Australian. There are decent, passionate, loyal Australians on both sides of this argument. The overwhelming issue—indeed, I believe the great test, the great answer and the great issue—is what system of government will best deliver a united, stable and tolerant Australian nation. Let me say that the interests of 18 1/2 million Australians are more important than the identity of one.
I think even the Prime Minister would acknowledge that the system of government under which we have operated since Federation in 1901 has been highly successful. Australia has been one of fewer than 10 countries that has been continuously democratic for the whole of the 20th century. There are few nations in the world that can boast the degree of tolerance, harmony and stability which has been the inheritance of the Australian people.
As members will know, I have been a strong supporter of the present constitution. I have not disguised that, and I do not disguise that. But, as a political leader and as a passionate Australian, I recognise that attitudes in the Australian community over a period of time have changed. Attitudes towards the constitutional monarchy in Australia are now very different from what they were 30 or 40 years ago.
As the Prime Minister said last night, those changed attitudes in part reflect the changed composition of our population. They also in part reflect the natural, historical drift apart—I hope never in acrimony but because we are going, in some respects, our different ways—of Australia and the United Kingdom. I therefore recognise, as an Australian and as a political leader, that there is a mood in the Australian community to address and to perhaps embrace change.
I want to say a few things tonight on behalf of the coalition about the process whereby that mood should be addressed, how it can be assessed and how it can best be harnessed to produce an outcome that will unite and not divide the Australian community. It is important that, if change is to occur, it occurs in a uniting and not in a divisive fashion. The great unity of the Australian people is the most precious asset we all have. The greatest obligation we all have, whatever our political beliefs, is to act ultimately on important matters in a fashion that binds together and does not push apart the Australian people. It is important that all of us, whatever our views may be, honestly address this issue and recognise the strengths and the weaknesses of the various arguments that are put forward.
The change proposed by the Prime Minister is a very significant one. It goes beyond being a purely symbolic change. If Australia were to become a republic, it would end this nation’s link with the second oldest institution in Western civilisation. Some people may find that a source of satisfaction, even joy; some people will be utterly indifferent; other Australians will find it distressing; still another group of Australians will ask themselves whether such a move is absolutely essential in order to finally confirm the independence of this country.
This is one of those issues where a degree of tolerance and understanding, particularly between the generations within the Australian community, is essential. The older section of the Australian community must understand that younger Australians have a different view towards the constitutional monarchy than they do. Equally, there has to be an acceptance on the part of the younger section of the Australian population that the institution is held in very high regard, even with deep affection, by many of the older section of the Australian population.
We do have a very strong, free, liberal and democratic system of government. What makes it strong, free, liberal and democratic is that it is built upon two principles. The first of those principles—and this does not appear to be in dispute between the Prime Minister and me—is the principle of a Westminster parliamentary system of government. It is not the most perfect system that could be devised but, in that famous remark of Winston Churchill’s, it is much better than any of the alternatives.
The other great virtue of the present system is that we do have a politically neutral head of state. One of the questions that has to be addressed in this whole debate is whether we could possibly devise a system of government in this country which could deliver a more neutral head of state and a more neutral set of arrangements for the head of state than exist at the present time. I want to explore that for a moment by tracing briefly the careers and the contributions to public life in Australia of four distinguished Governor-Generals of this country—all former politicians, two Labor and two Liberal.
The first of those was Sir William McKell, who in 1947 was appointed by the Chifley Labor government as Governor-General of Australia. On being appointed to that position, McKell abandoned his partisan Labor leanings and discharged his obligation as the Governor-General of Australia with very great distinction. Many members of this House will know that in 1951, when following proper constitutional practice he granted the Menzies government a double dissolution of the parliament, he incurred the wrath of some of his erstwhile Labor colleagues, some of whom took years to speak to him again. But he did the right thing by the office.
Few people would argue that Lord Casey and Sir Paul Hasluck, as former senior Liberal ministers, were also very distinguished and politically neutral Governor-Generals. Indeed, one of the first events I attended as a new member of parliament in 1974 was a farewell dinner to Sir Paul Hasluck, and I well remember the glowing tribute to his political neutrality that was paid by Gough Whitlam, who was then Prime Minister.
The final person in the group is the present Governor-General, Bill Hayden. I acknowledge that when his appointment was mooted I was publicly critical of it because it struck me as passing strange that a person who had publicly expressed such avowed republican views should be offered the vice-regal post. But I equally acknowledge—I have done it before and I do it again tonight—that he has discharged his obligations with dignity, fairness and complete neutrality.
The point I simply make about that, and the reason why I briefly traced the experiences of those four distinguished Governor-Generals of Australia, is that all of them have behaved in a politically neutral fashion. All of them, despite their differing political backgrounds, have been subsumed by the great traditions and conventions developed over centuries of the Crown, which have devolved upon the governor-generalship of Australia.
The Prime Minister, in his proposals last night, has adopted in part the recommendations of the Republican Advisory Committee. He has adopted the proposal that the President should be elected by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. But he has not adopted the proposal of the Republican Advisory Committee that some attempt should be made to codify the powers of the new head of state—the proposed President of Australia.
That is an interesting proposal, because what in effect the government is inviting the Australian people to do is to accept the proposition that you can without any legal doubt, let or hindrance transfer unimpaired the reserve powers of the governor-generalship to the president in an Australian republic. It is interesting that, on this particular subject, Professor George Winterton—who I think was a member of the Republican Advisory Committee, is a leading republican and a professor of law at the University of New South Wales—had this to say, and I think it is worth reading the quote to the parliament because it is relevant to the debate about the efficacy of the proposal put forward by the Prime Minister:
If the Governor-General’s powers were inherited by a republican head of state, since the link with the monarchy would be severed, the present conventions governing the exercise of the reserve powers might not subsist. They might if they were regarded more generally as conventions of Australian government, although they are not uniquely Australian, but are, of course, shared with Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and other countries. But if they were seen as conventions of the monarchy, abolition of the monarchy might well extinguish them as well. So a republican constitution cannot simply continue the present constitutional position of conferring powers on the head of state in general terms, relying on the constitutional conventions to govern their exercise.
I put that forward, and I remind the parliament and the people of Australia that they are not the words of somebody who is resisting change. They are in fact the words of somebody who is an avowed supporter of change. The relevance of those words is that they cast some doubt and they raise questions about the preferred proposal and the preferred option put forward by the Prime Minister last night.
The proposal of the government is that the future President of Australia should be elected by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting of the parliament. Inaccurately, last night, the Prime Minister said that no party had enjoyed two-thirds control at a joint sitting since the end of World War II. In fact, in 1946 the Chifley Labor government would have had 69 per cent of the members and senators present at a potential joint sitting of the parliament.
It may well be suggested that that was possible because at that time we had a different method of choosing the Senate. I notice my colleagues opposite nod in agreement, but I might also remind them that it is quite possible for the present method of electing the Senate to be altered by a simple vote of both houses of parliament. It does not require a constitutional amendment. In other words, the present unlikelihood of either side of politics getting a two-thirds majority is not entrenched and, on the Prime Minister’s proposals, is unlikely to be entrenched in the constitutional changes that he intends to make.
Last night, and I think quite appropriately to a debate of this kind, there was much discussion about the sense and spirit of independence felt by Australians particularly as we approach the centenary of Federation. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this is not a debate about who is the better Australian; this is a debate about what is the better system of government for the 18 1/2 million people who inhabit this continent.
The independence and the sense of independence of a nation are not measured solely in legal or constitutional terms. There is little doubt that the sense of independence, and the sense of national identity, that emerged in the Australian people early this century preceded many of the legal changes that were referred to by the Prime Minister in his speech last night. When we are talking about independence and a sense of nationhood, it is important not only to see it in constitutional and legal terms but also to see it in broader terms. There are, for example, many people who believe that, no matter what our constitutional set up, Australia cannot see herself as truly independent if we continue to labour under the enormous levels of foreign debt that we do at the present time.
I want to say a couple of things about the prospects that lie before us if the proposals put forward by the government are implemented. The prospect that Australia might end up a federal republic but have one or more of the states continuing links with the monarchy is a prospect that fills me with a great deal of disdain. I do not think it would be an outcome that would be in the overall interests of the Australian nation.
I put it to the House and to the Australian people that the worst possible outcome that we could possibly have in this country would be to hold in two or three years time a referendum on converting Australia to a republic that produced what can only be regarded as an inconclusive result. If one of the tests of whether a nation should change its constitutional arrangements is the test of whether or not that change is likely to build on the existing unity of the nation, surely the time to have a referendum to alter its constitution is at a time when as best it can reasonably be discerned that change is likely to enjoy overwhelming support.
If we were to have a referendum in 1998, and that referendum were to be carried narrowly or defeated narrowly, that would be the worst possible outcome. I remind the government and the Australian people that in the history of federation only eight out of 42 referenda proposals have been carried. No major referendum proposal has been carried which has not enjoyed the support of both sides of parliament.
That is one of the reasons why we on this side of the House believe very strongly that the best way to tap into the mood for change in the Australian community at present is not to go down the take it or leave it path outlined by the Prime Minister last night; rather it is to establish a people’s convention, and I will come to that in a moment. In putting forward a proposal for a people’s convention, I might remind the parliament that there are other issues of great constitutional significance that many sections of the Australian community would like examined. Many Australians believe that the external affairs power of our constitution is currently being abused.
Opposition members —Hear, hear!
Mr HOWARD —Many Australians believe that the relations between the Commonwealth and the states are not operating satisfactorily. Many people believe that if it is time, 100 years since Federation, to examine the status of our head of state it is also the right time to have a look at some of these great constitutional issues.
Opposition members —Hear, hear!
Mr HOWARD —I say to the House that it is essential that not only the issue of whether or not Australia should become a republic is examined but also there be a mechanism to examine these other issues. That is why the coalition unhesitatingly recommits itself tonight, if elected at the next election, to establish in 1997 a people’s convention to examine not only the question of whether or not Australia should become a republic but also all these other questions that so many other sections of the Australian community wish to examine.
I repeat tonight that, if that people’s convention is established, it can examine a number of issues. It can examine the role of the head of state in the Australian constitution, including implications of change for the role of the states. It can examine the allocation of legislative and executive powers and functions between federal and state governments, including areas of overlap and duplication. It can examine the use of the external affairs power of the constitution. It can examine the question of whether we should introduce four-year instead of three-year terms for the federal parliament. It can examine the basis on which new states, in particular the Northern Territory, would be admitted to the federation. It can examine any other matters which the convention members would themselves determine.
Is it not strange that a proposal that would allow the Australian people to be involved at the beginning of the process instead of only at the end is greeted with derision by the Australian Labor Party? I also make it clear on behalf of the coalition that amongst the 50 per cent of the members of the convention that will be appointed by the government of the day 10 per cent—
Mr Cleeland —Appointed?
Mr HOWARD —Yes, 50 per cent will be appointed and 50 per cent will be elected, which is the normal thing to do with a people’s convention. Some 10 per cent of those will be in the age bracket between 18 and 25. I make it very clear that, if a clear consensus emerges from that people’s convention, that consensus will be put to the Australian people for approval at a referendum.
By having outlined proposals for a people’s convention, I believe that what the coalition has done is to provide the best vehicle to enable the range of views that exist in the Australian community on this issue to be properly examined. Even the most objective observer would have to acknowledge that amongst those who want Australia to become a republic there is a deep division of opinion. Even if passing regard is to be paid to the various opinion polls that are held on this issue, there is overwhelming support for the notion that if Australia is to become a republic then the president of the Australian republic should be directly elected by the Australian people.
That indicates that the range of views in the Australian community is so broad, the idea that the Australian people should be presented with only one alternative—that is, the alternative desired by the present Labor government—is a completely unacceptable way to examine the mood for change now in the Australian community. The most effective way of doing it is to provide to all of the Australian people not only a capacity to be consulted, as they must, at the end of the process but also a capacity through a people’s convention to be involved at the beginning of the process.
The idea—and I say this very seriously to all members of the House—that the Australian people will accept, without argument or demure, the idea that they are being consulted simply because the matter is being debated here in the House of Representatives or the Senate is not an idea that commends itself to the overwhelming majority of the Australian people. One of reasons why there is a desire in the Australian people at the present time to have an elected President—if, in fact, we do become a republic—is a feeling that, no matter what arrangement is worked out that only involves the members of parliament, in some way that will shut them out of the process.
That is not necessarily a view that I personally share, and I understand many of the reasons why there ought to be a parliamentary process for the election of a President if Australia is to become a republic. But those who want a republic achieved in this country, those who want change achieved in this country, must understand that, if the very strong feelings of the Australian people in relation to the election of a President are not accommodated or at least properly assessed and properly discussed—and how better can that be done except through a people’s convention—then those who want to bring the republic about will not achieve their goal. No matter how ardent you may be and no matter how zealous you may be about bringing about a republican change, you have to recognise that there is a spectrum of views in the Australian community: there are people who want to retain the present system; there are people who want to have an elected President; there are people who want the parliament, by a two-thirds vote, to choose the President; and there are a large number of people who might want, through the processes of consultation and the processes of change, to consider other options.
At the beginning of my remarks I indicated that although this was not an issue that touched upon the daily lives of Australians; although this was not an issue that would affect the living standards of Australians; although it is an undeniable fact that whether we become a republic or remain as we are will not have any impact on the level of unemployment, the level of social deprivation or the level of social privilege that might be enjoyed by different sections of the Australian community, it is nonetheless a very important debate about the future of this country. It is a debate that ought to be conducted with a goal of achieving—if there is to be change—a change through a process that unifies and does not divide the Australian community. No matter how strongly people may feel on either side of the debate, the fact remains that that sense of unity and that sense of oneness are not present in the Australian community at the present.
If we do want to achieve change that unifies and does not divide, then we need to choose a method of facilitating that change about which the entire Australian community can feel comfortable. That is why the coalition has proposed the idea of holding a people’s convention. If this debate bogs down into a slanging match as to who is the more patriotic Australian, if this debate bogs down into some kind of stupid points scoring debate about whether we might sell more coal or more wheat or more services into the Asian Pacific region—if this debate bogs down into that kind of rather pointless points scoring, then I think the Australian community will suffer and the Australian community will be the poorer as a consequence.
The great problem with the approach outlined by the Prime Minister last night is that he will not give you, the Australian people, the referendum question—that is, the referendum option that you want. He will pass through the parliament without your involvement the referendum proposal that he and he alone wants. He will then demand that you answer his question at a national referendum.
Our approach is quite different. Our approach is to involve all of the Australian people at the beginning, the middle and the end of the process. Our approach includes all Australians. Our approach is to allow you to help decide the kind of constitution the Australian people want for their future, not the kind of constitution the current Prime Minister wants for your future. Our approach is to allow the people of Australia to decide not only the questions and the options but also, fundamentally, the referendum itself.
Our view is a fundamentally democratic view. We believe the people of Australia cannot be involved enough in deciding the future of our constitution. With an issue as critical and as important as this, there cannot be too much democracy. That is after all a possession of all of the Australian people, not just of the 148 members of the House of Representatives.
The Australian constitution is no more Paul Keating’s constitution than it is mine. All Australians should have an equal say in its future and in our country’s future. The Prime Minister believes that any involvement by the Australian people is too much involvement. He believes you should be involved only in the final stage and that you should be asked merely to adjudicate on his question about your constitution, rather than allow you to be part of the creation of any change if that is what you want. That is why the only way to properly handle this matter is through the people’s convention of the coalition.