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Preamble Referendum: Howard-Ridgeway Urge A YES Vote

Last updated on December 12, 2023

Prime Minister John Howard and Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway have held a joint press conference urging Australians to vote yes to the preamble in Saturday’s referendum.

Transcript of joint press conference held by Prime Minister John Howard and Senator Aden Ridgeway.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Ridgeway and I have decided to call this joint press conference to make a joint appeal to the Australian people to vote yes to the preamble on Saturday. And the fact that the two of us have come together at this news conference symbolises the value of the preamble as a uniting element in constitutional debate in Australia.

Because Senator Ridgeway is a self-declared yes voter on the republic and I am a self-declared no voter on the republic. But on the issue of the preamble both of us together are asking the Australian people to vote yes because we see the preamble as a way as we go into the next century of expressing what unites us rather than continuing a debate about what doesn’t unite us.

And the values continued in the preamble are values that I believe the overwhelming majority of Australians support. For the first time in 100 years there will be a positive gracious, decent statement going into our document, our Constitutional document, regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this country.

The other statements contained in the preamble are all statements that encapsulate fundamental Australian values. I believe that if the preamble is carried it will make a very positive contribution to the reconciliation process in this country. And in practical terms that remains an important goal of the Government. I have appreciated very much the practical contribution that Senator Ridgeway and many of his other colleagues within the indigenous leadership have made towards the process of reconciliation.

Inevitably, the republican debate was going to dominate the airwaves and the newspapers and public comment over the past few weeks and we would like to bring a greater public focus in the remaining days of this referendum campaign on the preamble. We want Australians to understand that it is a uniting statement. It is a statement that carries all upside and no downside. It is a statement that the most conservative Australian who has the most hostile views towards the republic imaginable can vote yes to. It is equally a statement that a person who is an enthusiastic republican can also say yes to. And that, in a sense, it is symbolised in that unity and that coming together.

And I am delighted that Aden and I have had the opportunity this morning to hold this news conference and to, from our different perspectives on the republic, he a republican, I an anti-republican, nonetheless joining together inviting the Australian people to cast a yes vote in favour of the preamble.

I’ll now invite Senator Ridgeway to address the news conference.

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

Well, I guess the first thing I should say is that it probably comes to no surprise that I will be voting yes for the preamble and yes for the republic on Saturday. It’s also of no surprise that there are diverse views amongst indigenous people about whether the preamble and whether the question of the republic ought to be supported in any fashion. And it’s clear that we start from the no/no, to a yes/no, to a no/yes and a yes/yes.

So I am quite delighted to be here today to, in partnership with the Prime Minister, advocate a yes vote and to call on Australians to vote overwhelmingly yes in favour of the preamble. I think that it provides a very significant opportunity, a moment in history that ought not escape the Australian public in terms of the significance of what the preamble says about Australia and about Australians.

For too long we have existed as a country that is nothing more than an annex to a British act of parliament. And it’s high time that through the preamble and perhaps through the question of the republic that we deal with some of the unfinished colonial business of our past. The preamble in many respects is an opportunity to chart a forward moving path. And the only way to move forward is by moving forward. I accept that there is criticism from some people about perhaps semantics in terms of what it is the preamble captures and what it doesn’t. And I remind people again that it highlights and it captures, I think, many of the values and principles that are important to all Australians in terms of equality, in terms of respect, decency, in terms of diversity. These are things, I think, that Australians can vote for.

But I think significantly the preamble also identifies, recognises and captures the faces of all Australians – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants and other Australians. But more importantly, it also in the broader sense throws a very wide net to capturing younger and older Australians. It gives people an opportunity to affirm themselves by voting yes.

And so on Saturday it will be an opportunity of Australians, irrespective of whether they are of the persuasion of being monarchist or a republican, to affirm something in themselves. And I call on the Australian people so many days out from the time that they cast their crucial vote that they vote unequivocally and overwhelmingly yes for a preamble that is a recognition of Australian people and a recognition of themselves. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Do you have any questions for either of us?

JOURNALIST:

The polling shows that the support for the preamble has eroded quite seriously. Do you both regret that you didn’t get going earlier on this given that we are only three days out?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have tried to avoid in relation to both the republic and the preamble to give a running commentary on the polling and I am not really going to break that habit this morning. But clearly, we want there to be more focus by the public on the preamble in the last days of the campaign. It was inevitable that most of the airwaves were going to be dominated by the republic irrespective of efforts that were made in relation to the preamble. It should be borne in mind that there is no significant campaign against the preamble and to my knowledge there will be no organised activity on the polling booths on Saturday advocating a “no” vote for the preamble. So it comes from the point of view of campaigning you are operating from a different vantage point. The important thing about the preamble is for people to know what the words are. In the nature of things, the Electoral Commission found itself unable to put all of the words of the preamble on the ballot paper because of size considerations. It’s therefore important and a number of steps are being taken including in the remaining days of the campaign to bring to the attention of the Australian people the wording of the preamble. Our experience has been that once people know what is in the preamble that they give very ready assent to the aspirations of the document because they are aspirations that most Australians feel extremely supportive of.

JOURNALIST:

Senator Ridgeway is a yes vote more important to you than a yes vote on the republic?

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

Well, I have always considered that the pre-eminent question has been the issue of the preamble because that’s what it does in terms of giving a reason for Australians to want to vote for a republic. I think that it’s one thing to talk about Australia maturing and coming of age and perhaps shoving off from mother England, but it’s also another question to fill the vacuum by affirming something in Australians themselves. And the preamble to a great extent does that. But irrespective of the outcome on Saturday, even if it’s a no vote on the question of the republic, the issue of the preamble is one that must be resuscitated and it must be revived in order to ensure that Australians vote for themselves. That’s what the preamble seeks to do. I don’t believe that the campaigning for this issue is too little too late. The pre-eminent question for other Australians has primarily been the issue of the republic and I respect the fact that both camps have had an opportunity and a large amount of time in terms of airing the issues to deal with those concerns. People I think have gotten to the point of having nearly made up their minds about which way they’re going to vote. There is an opportunity now to draw attention to the issue of the preamble for both camps in order to ensure that there is an overwhelming vote of yes support for the preamble.

JOURNALIST:

Senator Ridgeway, if the preamble is lost, what moral message does that send to the rest of the world that Australians rejected including Aborigines or recognition of Aborigines in their constitution?

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

Well I think that it’s a significant moment in history and that the eyes of the world are watching Australia in terms a range of issues including race relations, one of the things that we have to be mindful of is that if there is an overwhelming vote of yes then that will come about by the tenacity, the moral tenacity of Australians who understand how significant this moment is. And I place my faith in Australians because I believe that by and large people express a goodwill in resolving a lot of the unfinished business, that this can be a yes vote and people can vote according to the moral issues that the question of the preamble raises. I would hope that perhaps on Sunday or earlier next week we will have a very clear result that says the preamble has been successful.

JOURNALIST:

Senator Ridgeway, a lot of Aboriginal leaders have expressed their disappointment that there’s not actually… that this isn’t in the body of the Constitution… means that there is no real change in law. So what real advantage is there in the reconciliation process to having the preamble to the Constitution?

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

I think you have to understand the constitutional reform has been part of a phase in and incremental process. There’s no way of removing that. There are other issues in the constitution that ought to be dealt with this time around as well including some of the racially discriminatory provisions, but they’re not being dealt with. Having said that people ought to understand that the preamble is not the place for setting standards or rights. It is the place that recognises the human dimensions of Australian society. And the preamble that’s currently on offer does all of those things. But in addition to that I think that it lends itself to if there is an overwhelming yes vote, to revisiting the issue in terms of the main body of the constitution and dealing with the question of perhaps other rights based issues. These are things I think that are going to have to be worked out over a longer period of time. Perhaps the reconciliation process will chart the course in terms of dealing with the harder and more difficult issues. But I think that somehow you have to rally Australians around a significant focal point. The preamble provides the opportunity for that occur and to ensure that as we move down the path of dealing with unfinished business we are able to take all Australians with us, not just a select few who can rally up support and rally in support of a particular issue. It must capture the rest of the nation.

JOURNALIST:

How much do you feel that “it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is resonating with the Australian people in the final few days before the vote and do you think that is going to be the decisive issue when they actually go to vote?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s something that’s resonating significantly. Yes I do. I think it is one of the things that people have got to take into account. In fairness to the bipartisan way in which this press conference was called, I don’t intend to use it as a major forum to put my point of view on the republic. It’s well known. Obviously that’s important, but I’d like to endorse what Aden has said about the preamble and that is that it’s a statement of how we see the human attitude and the human condition. And it’s an attempt to say something simple and noble about what we believe in as Australians and it will be a great shame if that opportunity is lost. And if it is lost it will be through perhaps people not being aware of the words, not so much of them being opposed to the concept or what those words stand for.

JOURNALIST:

Are you worried about whether it sends out the wrong message to the outside world?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t any of these things in the end send out as many messages as some people like to think they do. I don’t know that Australians hang on every decision taken by the British Parliament or the American Congress or indeed any other legislature. Everybody has their own way of handling these things. I mean I am concerned about these issues in so far as they affect Australia and in so far they affect how Australians relate to each other. I think it would be enormously beneficial if we could go into the next century with a united affirmation of some of the fundamental values of the Australian community including in particular the recognition in a positive, noble, gracious way for the first time of the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But not only that. Also the contribution made by our diggers, the contribution made by immigrants, the importance of the environment, the value of the rule of law, the equality of men and women, and the common spirit that binds us together in times of adversity, called by another name in other contexts.

JOURNALIST:

Isn’t the wording of the question though unfortunate though Mr Howard, because people are faced with just “do you support the constitution being amended to include a preamble?” Given that it has received virtually no publicity during the campaign, lots of voters are going to say, well….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s not right to say it’s had no publicity. Well it’s actually had quite a lot. I mean it’s had quite a lot of electorate wide publicity. Many of the newsletters that have been sent out certainly by many of the Coalition members that I’m aware of on a householder basis having included a full statement of what is in the preamble. So there would be for those who’ve sought to find out in any way there has been quite a lot dissemination of the words in the preamble. As you know from your own political experience you have to disseminate again and again and again over a long period of time for the message to get through to some people. Now that’s just the nature of the democratic and communication process. But I certainly share Aden’s view that now is an opportunity, as so many people I suspect have formed a view about the other issue. Now here’s an opportunity in the last three days of the referendum to elevate really a knowledge of the fact that there is another vote and in that way people will seek out and have the opportunity of reading the words in the document.

JOURNALIST:

You couldn’t have done better with the wording on the ballot paper?

PRIME MINISTER:

We looked at all sorts of ways and so did the Electoral Commission and it became quite difficult. I mean remember all the debate about the wording of the republican question? Michelle, you imagine the arguments we’d have had with some people over the summation of the preamble.

JOURNALIST:

You couldn’t have just put it there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you could have. You could have put it on the back. But all the advice we had from the Electoral Commission was against that.

JOURNALIST:

Senator Ridgeway, you spoke of “reviving the preamble”. Are you saying that if Australians vote ‘no’ ­ that you won’t let this matter rest?

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

I think that this is part of an historical process in terms of the development of national political history. If there is a no vote it’s not a question of not advocating for further constitutional change in the future. I think that that’s going to arise in any event. As to whether we get an opportunity to revisit the question of constitutional reform even in the context of another preamble, I don’t believe that if there is a no vote this time around that an opportunity will make itself available in the foreseeable future. And I would say that on all counts that even on the question of a republic that if there is an overwhelming no vote I don’t believe that Australians will want to revisit the issue for at least another 100 years.

JOURNALIST:

Do you agree with Senator Ridgeway that a strong vote for the preamble could open the way for further constitutional reform and that even the suggestion that some of these rights issues might ultimately be incorporated into the body of the Constitution?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well our position as a government is that we would like the preamble supported. We are not saying to the Australian people that has an automatic consequence. Indeed we don’t believe it has any consequence in relation to the formal wording of the constitution. I respect the fact that Senator Ridgeway might have another view on that and it is properly open to him and his party to argue that point of view but the Coalition is for the preamble, that’s it, as to other matters, well, they have to be dealt with on their merits. We do believe that the preamble will make a very valuable contribution to the reconciliation process and that’s why I’m very keen to see it supported.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, are interest rates going to rise further?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t comment on the future of interest rates, you know that, in either direction. Now, let me say in relation to the increase that was announced this morning by the Reserve Bank ­ the Governor has pointed out that the many reductions in interest rates which have given us our lowest level of interest rates for 30 years occurred in a climate of a recessed, indeed, declining world economy. The very small adjustment that’s been made this morning reflects the fact that the world economy is growing now quite strongly, that the outlook for growth is better than what it was a year ago. There have been in countries like Korea very significant improvements in our region in the level of economic growth and that of necessity the stance of monetary policy ought to change somewhat. As to the future, I don’t speculate in any way or either way about what’s going to happen.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you think the Queen or Royal family will be distressed if Australia votes to be a republic on Saturday?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s been made abundantly clear and I’m sure it is the view of the Queen that this is entirely a matter for the Australian people.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think she’ll be upset?

PRIME MINISTER:

She has made it perfectly clear all along it’s entirely a matter for the Australian people. I am certain that whatever decision is taken by the Australian people she will accept and respect.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] I’m about to report back to Aboriginal radio. Given the conflicting reasons Aboriginal leaders have given to Aborigines have been given about whether to vote yes or no to the preamble, do you have a message to them?

SENATOR RIDGEWAY:

Well, I think the message to indigenous Australia is that there needs to be an understanding that there has been an absence of recognition of indigenous people in Australian society for almost 100 years. This provides an opportunity for indigenous people to finally gain some recognition in the Constitution. It’s not the end game. I think it’s the beginning of an ongoing process. But I think that people need to understand that in a broader context of it is an opportunity to vote yes and affirm something that unifies the nation rather than divides the nation. So in talking in the context of unfinished colonial business we have to create a starting point for being able to bring about the substantive issues of what unification of Australia means in terms of all of those that make up all walks of Australian life. So, a call to indigenous Australia is to understand that this is clearly a need to understand that for the first time they will get recognition and that they can feel comfortable about voting yes irrespective of the semantics because it plays a vital role in terms of their recognition in national life.

JOURNALIST:

Peak interest groups are saying that the interest rates have risen too early. Do you share their view?

PRIME MINISTER:

These matters are decided by the Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank has decided to lift the official interest rate by 25 basis points. They’ve given certain reasons which I fully understand and I think they are intelligent reasons but I’m not going to get into a debate about whether it should or shouldn’t have happened. It was a decision of the Reserve Bank. We’ve held very strongly to the view since becoming the Government that monetary policy should be set and administered independently by the central bank, therefore, I’m not going to get into a debate either way accept to observe that the reasons advanced by the bank make a great deal of sense to me.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Rupert Murdoch today seems to be likening your government to the Suharto regime for not embracing the Productivity Commission’s suggestions on media ownership, draft suggestions….

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] .. in the business section of The Australian.

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t got to that, Michelle. I’m still wading through the Sydney Morning Herald.

JOURNALIST:

Well, can I just quote: (inaudible)“….sounds like Indonesia under Suharto”..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m sure citizen Murdoch was being, you know, particularly ­ how shall I put it ­ particularly expansionary and colourful in his political comparisons when he was making that. Of course any comparison between us and the Suharto government is quite absurd and I’m sure he’s had his tongue well and truly planted in his cheek.

JOURNALIST:

He had a few side-swipes on the front page.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I read those.

JOURNALIST:

What did you think of those?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think we’ve got the pace of reform in this country right. This has been a very reformist government. I don’t think we’ve been timid at all. I think we’ve been balanced. I think we’ve been courageous but we haven’t been foolhardy. And economic reform is just not something which is handled for the benefit of the boardrooms of the nation. It is also something that has got to carry the people with it. And unless you carry people with economic reform you will lose your authority both political and moral to undertake reform. And I understand the mood and temper of the Australian people and that is that they will accept reform if you satisfy two conditions. If you persuade them that it’s in the interests of Australia and also if you persuade them that it is fair. And it can’t be handed down to them in some doctrinaire fashion. You have to take them with you. And we’ve seen evidence that if the process is felt by the community to be going too quickly and without explanation and without sensitivity then they will reject it or they will slow it down. And I think we have got the balance right. And you look back over the last three-and-a-half years, we’ve transformed industrial relations, we’ve transformed taxation, we’ve pursued a very strong competition policy and we’ve pursued a very courageous privatisation policy, we’ve got the budget back into surplus. That’s a pretty impressive performance in three-and-a-half years. I think actually it stacks up very well in such a short period of time with the performances of the Reagan and Thatcher governments which I noticed featured in Mr Murdoch’s comments.

JOURNALIST:

So do you think he was twisting your arm?

PRIME MINISTER:

What he’s doing…he’s just making a comment which he’s entitled to make.

JOURNALIST:

Quite a lot of them!

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t mind. I enjoy reading the comments of leading businessmen in this country, and a lot of them I agree with, a lot of them I don’t. I think Mr Murdoch has been an incredibly successful and astute businessman and I have considerable respect for his business accruement. I don’t always agree with his political assessments. I do on some things, I don’t on others.

JOURNALIST:

Does that mean no further consideration of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have made it very clear we are not going to revisit the issue of the cross-media rules unless there’s some sort of change in the attitude of other parties. I mean, my view on the cross-media prohibition is well known. I think it’s silly and I think it defies the modern reality of convergence. But I have been down that track and I am not going to embark upon another journey to only have the same result. There is a significant opposition to change within the ranks of the Labor Party, within the ranks of the Australian Democrats and there are some reservations within my own party about it as well. Now, I have other fish to fry and other things to do and I have made my position quite clear on that.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, what happens to Coalition MPs who speak out next week in conflict with the outcome of a referendum result?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the free vote applies, plainly applies to the Ministry. I mean, we are not going to, sort of, hang draw and quarter the odd individual or private member who might express a view. But I think there’ll be an overwhelming feeling right through the Coalition. But having had a free vote on this issue, once the result is known we move on. I don’t think people are going to want to continue the debate in a public fashion. Look, I think everybody accepts that. Look, we have, I think, done extremely well. As you know, you have got a variety of views at the leadership level of the Government. The four people in leadership positions in the Liberal Party, three of them are voting yes and one of them is voting no.

But I think we have all maintained an incredible degree of civility and cordiality and respect about it and I think some of the arguments put by some of my colleagues in favour of the republic have been some of the better arguments put in favour of it. And I am quite sure they feel that the arguments that I and others of my colleagues have put in favour of the status quo are amongst the better of those arguments. But that’ll all be over. Come Sunday, the free vote ends. It, sort of, ends here in Sydney at 6:00pm eastern daylight time and elsewhere appropriately throughout the country. And it will be over and we’ll return to Government mode. There’ll be a Government position on any future constitutional responses. There won’t be an individual position, a Government position. We allowed a free vote sensibly, maturely and I think we have benefited from it. A strong party is one that is willing to allow a range of views on issues like that to be put on public display. I think that shows our strength and our depth and our maturity. And I am glad we did it. I wouldn’t have done it any other way if I’d have had my time over again. And I think everybody recognises that having had our run on that and everybody has put their point of view we’ll now go back.

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