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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11177


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: 04/11/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11177

Subjects: Referendum; interest rates



John Howard, no doubt you've seen the pro-republican ad that shows President

Clinton standing alongside you as he toasts the Queen of Australia. How

did you feel standing alongside him as he proposed that toast and you drank

to it?


Well, I don't think I gave much thought to it. I was more interested in

what I was about to say in my speech of welcome. And, in any event, that

particular toast has subsequently graduated to the Queen and the people

of Australia which has been the toast used at Government House now, I think,

for about 18 months and used more typically now at similar functions. But

I've got to say, I didn't give a lot of thought to it. I was, frankly, more

concerned about what I was going to say to the President in my speech, to

be quite honest.


I suppose, though, the question is what he thought about it as the most

powerful, most influential political leader in the world.


I don't think it really matters on this issue, Kerry, what others think.

It's a question of what Australians think. I mean.


Isn't it also a question of other people's perception of us as an independent



Well, I'll certainly come to that. But the vote on Saturday is something

for us and us alone to decide and we have to decide what is the best arrangement

for us. I don't think anybody can seriously suggest we're not an independent

country. I've just been through the most intense series of negotiations

of any Prime Minister since World War II in relation to East Timor and if

anybody suggests that the outcome would have been different if we'd been

a republic, or we would have won more respect or different respect then

I think they'd be having a lend of themselves. I mean, frankly, the independence

argument is the weakest argument of all.


The Queen is our Head of State. She is the Queen of Australia. Where does

Her first responsibility lie, to Britain or to Australia?


Well, the Queen is by law the Queen of Australia. By constitutional convention

the Governor-Generalship has evolved into the effective Head of State of

Australia. And one of the issues in this whole debate is whether you disturb

that arrangement and replace it with a model that I think would leave a

President more vulnerable and less secure than is the Governor-General under

the present arrangement.


What difference does the Queen make if, as you say, the system has evolved

into the Governor-General effectively being our Head of State?


Part of that evolution is the development over hundreds of years of a system

of government that has created at the APEX an impartial, non-political arrangement,

which has given us 100 years of incredible stability and one that I'm unconvinced

can be adequately replicated in a republican proposal, particularly the

republican proposal that's on offer on Saturday. I mean, this really, in

the end, is a question of whether you believe a change is going to make

this country better, more secure, more stable. Now, this is a good and decent

country no matter what its constitutional arrangement but I'm unconvinced

that you should discard something that has so manifestly helped to make

this country stable and successful politically.


Can you understand how many people, including people who have come to this

country since the days of empire when this system was actually established,

that they might find it faintly ludicrous that we share our Head of State,

the Queen of England, the Queen of Australia, the Queen of New Zealand,

the Queen of Canada, the Queen of the Bahamas, the Queen of Barbados, the

Queen of Jamaica and so on?


Well, Kerry, these are things that people will put in the balance. I respect

the opposite point of view. I mean, I'm not going around the country personally

attacking people who have republican views. I mean, I think it's important

that we have sensible debate. I put those things on one side and then against

that I say to myself we are a clearly independent country, clearly Sir William

Deane under the Constitution of Australia effectively discharges the role

of Head of State. And I ask myself, can you get something as balanced and

as stable and as good under the republican model on offer on Saturday. And

my answer to that is no. I mean, to start with, the President under that

model would be far more vulnerable than is the Governor-General under the

present system.


We'll come back to that in a moment, it's an important point, but if our

Governor-General, Sir William Deane, goes to the United States, he's not

given the official recognition as our Head of State, the Queen of Australia

gets that, not Sir William Deane.


Well, I think, Kerry, that over recent times many of those practises have

changed. I mean, there's quite a bit of debate about this. I think previously

that was probably the case but more recently the Governor-General has magnificently

represented Australia overseas. I mean, look at the wonderful way he represented

all of us at that very moving service at Interlaken in Switzerland. I mean,

he is a person and I think all of the people that have filled that job in

recent years can act for all of us. And, indeed, one of the problems I find

with the republican model is I don't really think because of the nomination

process, the pool of talent for a future President, will be as deep as is

the pool of talent from which Governors General is now drawn because the

nomination process will, I'm sure, discourage some people from allowing

their names to go forward through fear that they might miss out, the embarrassment

that if their involvement is made known that might compromise the job they

are now doing. None of that happens under the present arrangement and I'm

not sure that you'll have the same pool of talent available.


Peter Costello is one who has challenged your argument that the Governor-General

has become the effective Head of State. But when you use the word effective,

what does that really mean? Are you comfortable with the proposition that

while-ever the Queen remains the Queen of Australia and officially our Head

of State, that under that current system no Australian can ever be our official

Head of State, they can be the Queen's representative, they can never be

Australia's true Head of State?


Well, self-evidently, Kerry, I support the present system and the answer

to that question, of course I support it.


But you're comfortable with that?


Look, I wouldn't be arguing in favour of the status quo if I weren't in

favour of the present system. I mean, the reality is that under our arrangement

the ceremonial duties of government are performed by the Governor-General.

The real executive powers of government are performed by the Prime Minister.


Well, one of those ceremonial powers is the opening of Olympic Games or

Commonwealth Games.


Well, no, I'm talking about the ceremonial functions of government. There's

nothing in our system that says that a Prime Minister shouldn't discharge

ceremonial functions generally.


But it's certainly been a convention in the past, hasn't it, that the Queen

or her representative has opened Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games in



Well, Kerry, I took the view, and I'd take the view if we were a republic,

that it's appropriate that the Prime Minister do it. And I should say I

took that view when Paul Keating was the Prime Minister and when nobody

really, and myself included, thought I would ever be Prime Minister. So.


[Inaudible] as a republic?


No, no, under our present arrangement. The point I'm making is that I think

it's appropriate, given the Australian character and so forth, that it be

done by the Prime Minister. But, in the end, something like this can't stand

or fall on who opens the Olympic Games. I mean.


How did you, just as a matter of curiosity, how did you communicate that

to the Queen because on her own website she expresses the view that she

actually enjoys taking the occasion to mark events like, for instance, the

Commonwealth Games? And I assume that if you, as Prime Minister, think it's

more appropriate to open the Olympic Games in Sydney you would also think

it appropriate to open the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne?


Well, Kerry, to be perfectly frank, I haven't communicated anything on that

to the Queen and I haven't read her website but.


I'll give you a copy on the way out.


Well, all right, I'm fascinated that you're a keen reader, fascinated.


As you know, under the proposed republic model the President would perform

exactly the same job as the present Governor-General with the same powers

and limitations so what is it you fear from such a President?


Well, it's not a question of what I fear from the President. I start from

the premise that we have a very strong and stable and workable system, even

the republicans [inaudible] acknowledge that, that's why they're trying

to duplicate it in their system. And I look at the model on offer and I

see the instant dismissal of the President in the hands of the Prime Minister

I don't think rival in any republican constitution in the world. I see a

provision in the bill which says which will go in the Constitution that

says that the reserve powers of the monarchy will continue. I mean, you're

getting rid of the monarch but you'll continue the monarchy, which is the

reserve powers. And I ask myself, can you really continue the reserve powers

of the Crown in a republic and I wonder about that as a concept. And I think

it's - whatever some of the lawyers say about that and I think I've got

Sir Harry Gibbs at least on my side in raising questions about that. But

the real weakness of this model is, I think, the Governor-General is less

vulnerable under the present arrangement than would be the president.


Although you'd agree with me that effectively the Prime Minister appoints

the Governor-General and effectively the Prime Minister can sack the Governor



Well yeah but it's never happened, the latter has never happened.


But it can happen in the same way as you're describing it possibly happening

under another system. It can happen.


Clearly we are being asked to endorse the new system so we have to examine

it. What I argue is.


So putting the existing system under scrutiny in the same way. You do agree

with me that you right now have the power to sack a Governor-General in

the same way that you have the power to appoint a Governor-General?


I do.


You're a politician, and do we trust your appointments..


Well I'd invite you to look at the record. I mean one of the great things

about the Governor-Generalship of Australia is that no matter how partisan

has been the political background of those appointed to that office once

they have got there they have adopted the a-political traditions of the



But why would that be any different with a president? [Inaudible] a process

that, I assume you'd acknowledge, is on the face of it more democratic,

more open to public consultation, the process of appointing a president

under this model than it is now?


Well, I think the process of appointing the president under this model is

a bit of Clayton's system. It's a compromise designed to placate the direct

election republicans.


But how is it a Clayton's system when it needs the agreement from the Opposition



No, I am talking about the public consultation part of it.


But the part of it that requires you to at least pay lip service.


That's the bit to which I'm.


I guess even a Clayton's process is better than none and secondly you've

got the back up of needing the approval of the Opposition Leader which you

don't have now, and the approval of two-thirds of the Parliament which you

don't have now.


But, Kerry, my main criticism of it is not its Clayton's element, although

that is criticism, my main criticism is that the president, in my opinion,

is more vulnerable to arbitrary removal than is the Governor-General under

the present arrangement.




Well because the mere fact that you have to go through a process of requesting

the Governor-General's removal, and even Gough Whitlam acknowledged in his

writings about 1975 that this argument that he could have instantaneously

got rid of the Governor-General is wrong.


But instantaneous as opposed to writing or phoning the Queen and getting

her formal agreement.


But there's also the constraint that I'm sure would apply with any Prime

Minister of not wishing to directly involve the monarch in a political issue.


But secondly, the Prime Minister who capriciously sacks a president then

has to face not only eventually the public's view of that but also has to

get the support of the Parliament within 30 days of that sacking.


Yes, but he would presumably be Prime Minister because the majority of the

House of Representatives belong to his party.


[Inaudible] high water if the Prime Minister makes a capricious judgement

that his party would automatically support him?


Can I just finish though that, I mean, plainly his party is going to support

him because he would not have dismissed the president other than for a major

political reason and presumably his party will be on side with him. So I

don't think the need to refer back to the House of Representatives provides

any safeguard. But even if he's disavowed, that president is gone.


Why didn't you give the people of Australia their chance for a simple, honest

expression, yes or no I do want a republic, I don't a republic? Let's work

out the models later if the majority want it. Why not have that plebiscite,

that direct expression of democratic opinion?


Well, Kerry, what we've done is what we promised to do.


Yes, I understand what you're doing but why not that, as a first step?


No, but please, surely that is a very powerful response at a time when politicians

are attacked for not keeping their word. On this issue I've been fair dinkum

with the Australian public. I've never disguised my own support for the

present system. The Australian people elected me Prime Minister knowing

my views on the present Constitution. I said we'd have a convention. I said

at the convention if a clear view emerged I'd put it to a referendum. A

clear view did emerge.


But you also said you wouldn't have a plebiscite. Why no plebiscite?


Well, Kerry, because that is the commitment we made that, you see, the problem

with the plebiscite is that you could end up in constitutional no mans land.




Well, let me explain. You can have a plebiscite and people just say yes

we want a republic. Then you consult the public again and they say well

we want this type of republic. You then put that type of republic up at

a referendum which the law requires you to do, and it gets defeated and

you're in a constitutional no mans land. You've destroyed the legitimacy

of the existing constitutional arrangement but you've got nothing to take

its place. I mean the only way you can..


This way you have handed the monarchists a very powerful weapon to defeat

any republic because you are automatically giving them the tool to divide



Kerry, what has been put on Saturday is what Malcolm Turnbull and Kim Beazley

and John Faulkner and many people in my own party, and a majority, a clear

majority at the constitutional convention voted for. When I announced at

the end of the convention that I was going to put this proposal to a referendum,

Tom Keneally, one of the most prominent republicans in Australia said it

was the ultimate act of grace for a person in my position with my support

for the present system to obey the wishes of the Constitutional Convention.

The public on Saturday will vote on what came out of the convention. We

didn't hear any talk about plebiscites when the convention ended. People

were lyrical about the character of the convention and now that, you know,

people are expressing concerns about the outcome they're searching around.

Now, I don't think that's reasonable. I kept my word on this. I promised

the people. I eyeballed them and said, I do not support change but I will

give the Australian people the opportunity to vote for a model that comes

out of the Constitutional Convention and that is exactly what I'm doing.


Mr Howard we're out of time but very quickly on one other issue - interest

rates. The Reserve has put them up one-quarter of one percent. There is

some question mark about whether the banks will take that rate even higher,

with home mortgages at least. What's your response to that? Do they have

a case for that?


Well, I don't think the banks have a case and I think there will be deep

anger in the Australian community, very deep anger, if the banks take it

any further. The Australian banks are strong and stable and that's good.

They're also very profitable banks and I don't think there'll be much sympathy

within the Australian community if that quarter of one percent is taken

any further. They're clearly entitled if official rates go up to adjust

accordingly, but to go beyond that would not be popular, would not be justified,

and would not have the support of the Government.


Prime Minister we're out of time. Thanks for talking with us.




Transcript 11177