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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 10998

Interview with Kerry O’Brien 7.30 Report, ABC TV

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 11/08/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 10998

Subject(s): Constitutional Preamble

11 August 1999

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………….

O’BRIEN:

John Howard, mateship was obviously very hard for you to give up in this preamble.  I’m told you were still trying to hold on to it until very late last night.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, that’s right, Kerry.  I didn’t want to give it up.  I love the word.  I think it’s very evocative of something that means a lot to a lot of Australians.  But what I had to take into account was that if I hung on to it I wouldn’t have got the Democrats’ support.  We’d reached agreement with the Democrats on a wording in relation to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and I would have been seen as a bloke who, for a personal passion for a particular word, was prepared to sink a once in a century opportunity of having a recognition in our Constitution of the special role of the indigenous people.  And I thought, in the end, that was the wrong thing to do by the country and I felt it was the wrong thing to do by reconciliation.  And that was the view that I came to and my senior colleagues agreed with me and, I’ve got say, the overwhelming bulk of my Party Room agreed with me.  And I’m happy in my own mind, disappointed though I am that mateship’s gone, I’m sure I gave it the right call.

O’BRIEN:

Regardless of what you would see as its noblest context, that word, the idea of enshrining it in the Constitution did seem to make a significant number of people squirm and many women seeing it as too blokey.  Do you respect that response?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I do.  I got a mixed response from women.  A lot of younger women said they didn’t care and a lot of younger women use the word ‘mate’ now far more freely and in almost a gender neutral but not quite as much as women now use this American word ‘guy’ that everybody uses now which I still have…

O’BRIEN:

Well, you could hardly say guy applies to both genders.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I tell you what, it’s commonly used in that context amongst a lot of young people.  I mean, the common expression, you guys, to a group of men and women is very common now.  But look, I understand those views but there’s also the comradeship that it evokes, the struggling together and caring for each other in adversity which is redolent of some of the noblest parts of Australian history.  Now, look, I respect the range of views and, in the end, for the sake of a higher cause I let the word go.  It’s as simple as that.  And the higher cause was to reach agreement with the Australian Democrats on some very positive and noble and generous words about the role of our indigenous people.  Now, we can argue about whether you should have this word or that but nobody can quibble with that paragraph about the indigenous people isn’t anything but a noble, generous paragraph.

O’BRIEN:

Well, obviously there are some people who are quibbling.  You’ve heard Gatjil Djekurra already.  He was your choice as Chairman of ATSIC which is the most broadly representative group for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia.  Did you consult him, did you consult ATSIC?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I had no direct discussions with ATSIC but there was a lot of input from a lot of people.  There were hundreds, or at least a hundred, individual submissions.  You’ve got to remember that the newly elected Democrat Senator who was the Chairman of the New South Wales Land Council before he became Democrat Senator, I thought he brought a more contemporary view to the debate.  I found talking to him very constructive. 

O’BRIEN:

But why wouldn’t it have been constructive to talk to Gatjil Djekurra as Chairman of ATSIC?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, his views were communicated to me very firmly from the very beginning.  Look, people lock themselves into custodianship.  Could I make the observation – a lot of people locked into custodianship, I was locked into mateship, for the sake of a compromise and for the sake of getting agreement I was prepared to bend and to be a bit flexible…

O’BRIEN:

But you were able to keep talking with people like the Democrats about that issue but Gatjil Djekurra and other Aboriginal leaders didn’t get the opportunity to talk to you about…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but you must remember in the end the people who are elected to Parliament have a right to resolve these things after listening to others.  I mean, everybody participates in the vote and you have the special situation now where one of the Democrat Senators is, in fact, an indigenous person and he’s…

O’BRIEN:

But he is there representing the Democrats.

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course, but he’s also conscious of his special affinity with the Aboriginal people because he’s one of them.

O’BRIEN:

Did you consult the Reconciliation Council?

PRIME MINISTER:

Their views were communicated to me. 

O’BRIEN:

Can you understand why some Aborigines might feel insulted or left out of the process that they were unable to have any direct dialogue with you on this issue of a preamble which you say yourself goes to the heart of reconciliation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think what goes to the heart of reconciliation was to get a form of words which although a lot of people are not happy with can’t be seen as other than very generous and going a long way further than we’ve ever gone before.  And bearing also in mind that people locked themselves in behind custodianship and I indicated from the very beginning that there was a difficulty with the word custodianship so far as the broader constituency or parts of the broader constituency on the centre right of politics in Australia was concerned.  And I’ve said from the very beginning that it’s far better to get something that is short of what you would want as an ideal but at least to have it than to say, well I’m settling for nothing than a total ideal.  Now, I’ve been willing to settle for something that I regard as less than ideal.  I would like to have seen mateship stay in.  There are other words that are in that document that weren’t my first preference but, in the end, politics is the art of the possible and if the possible is respectable and something that you can throw your weight behind then it’s worth preserving in order to get it.

O’BRIEN:

Do you understand what the problem was with custodianship?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, some of the people on the centre right of politics took the view that that could possibly imply notions of continuing ownership which might, at some stage in the future, complicate understandings in relation to native title.  Now, I personally didn’t have a difficulty with that word but, in the end…

O’BRIEN:

Because it’s true also that you’re going to pains to ensure that the words in the preamble will not have any legal hangover.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, that is right but I can’t speak for everybody.  I have to take people with me.  And just as I am encouraged all the time and I’m being in this interview to take account of what other people have to accept, you have to accept that I have a constituency too and it’s not much point my reaching accommodation with a particular group and then finding that people who are normally aligned with me saying, “hang on John, we can’t go along with all of that”.  Now, I think people have been very flexible on this.  I think our side of politics has been very flexible.  I’ve been flexible.  I’ve tried very hard to get a compromise because I think it will help reconciliation if we can have a preamble.  And I say to those in the indigenous community who would have liked me to have gone further, do you really prefer to have nothing at all, rather than what is now on offer?  Because that really is the choice.  I mean, is it really better for reconciliation to go into the next century with no reference at all to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in our constitution just because the reference did not go quite as far as you would have wanted?

Now, if had have applied that test I’d have said “no” last night to Meg Lees : “I’m not prepared to settle for a preamble that doesn’t have mateship in it”.  Now, I think the public would have condemned me for a lack of responsibility and leadership on that and I think there’s got to be a give and take in all of this.  It is a difficult area and we are inching bit by bit, phrase by phrase, almost towards a better understanding and I hope that people will see it in that light.

O’BRIEN:

On the republic Bill itself.  You were pretty blunt in your view that the President would really be chosen by the Prime Minister regardless of who else is involved in the process.  Do you think that is a true application of the spirit and reality of what the Convention, the people’s Convention put up?

PRIME MINISTER:

 Well, I do.  I mean, bear in mind I’m not proposing that. 

O’BRIEN:

I think we know that.

PRIME MINISTER:

You must understand that….I mean, don’t ask me to defend something that I’m not going to vote for.  But my analysis of it is that if a Prime Minister under that model wanted ‘X’ to be the President, then one way or another ‘X’ would get nominated and one way or another ‘X’ would get up.

O’BRIEN:

In other words the Prime Minister could fix or manipulate the committee of 32 representing the people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I believe that that person would one way or another end up getting on the list therefore you’d be entitled to chose him, and in the end…

O’BRIEN:

And then you could equally nobble the Leader of the Opposition?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m not saying you’re not, no I was careful the other night when I made this comment to say that with the support of the Leader of the Opposition.  I don’t want anybody to think for a moment that the model that is being put up is anything other than a process whereby through the nomination of the Prime Minister with the support of the Leader of the Opposition, two-thirds of the parliament appoints the President.  Now, it is not a direct election model, it’s not even a tenth of the way along the road to that.  I mean, that community consultation was put in to placate the direct election republicans at the Convention.  I know that.  I mean, I saw the process go on.  I don’t criticise the ARM for doing that.  I mean, they had to compromise, like I have had to do on the preamble.

O’BRIEN:

So do we assume though that any public committee that you put up to help advise you on things can be equally open to the sort of manipulation you’ve talked about?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, this is a committee of an entirely different kind.  I mean, I am just expressing a view about it.  Let’s just talk about the particular thing we are analysing, not some other hypothetical thing.  That is the view that I expressed about it.  I am sceptical even verging on the cynical about whether the change, even though on the face of it looks impressive, in reality the Prime Minister, providing the person he nominates has the approval of the Leader of the Opposition, can secure his way.  Now, I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, I have said very openly I do not favour a directly elected presidency – I don’t.  So I’m not saying the thing is necessarily a bad thing, but I just don’t want anybody to think that the public consultation gives them a sort of de facto direct election.  It doesn’t.

 O’BRIEN:

 Prime Minister, we are out of time.  Thanks for talking with us.

 [Ends]

Transcript 10998