PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11205

Press Conference, Sydney

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: 07/11/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11205

Subject(s): Referendum result; Preamble result.

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

Ladies and Gentlemen, I will just make a couple of remarks and then I will be happy to answer your questions. Last nights’ count delivered a clear verdict in favour of the ‘no’ case. There is no doubt that opposition to change was very widespread and if in fact Victoria does vote for change it will be by the narrowest of margins. I think it is important in the wake of last night’s outcome to examine very briefly the dimension of the no achievement. It should be remembered that the ‘yes’ case had the support of the Australian Labor Party organisationally, the Labor Party was official mobilised comprehensively to support the ‘yes’ case. It also had the support of about one-third to forty per cent of individual members of the Liberal Party in accordance with the conscience, the free vote that was afforded to members of my party some eighteen months ago and, how can I put it, it also enjoyed what I would have to say was an unprecedented level of barracking from significant sections of the Australian media.

So when you put those three things together it is quite a significant achievement on the part of the ‘no’ case. I want it recorded again that at every stage of this process I kept the promises I made to the Australian people. I have never disguised my support for current constitutional arrangements. I made that plain before I was elected Prime Minister in 1996. I made it plain again before the 1998 election. I made it plain at the Constitutional Convention. I have followed to the letter the promises I made on this subject at every turn. This Referendum would not have been held but for the facilitation of it by the Government I lead. I promised the Australian people before I became Prime Minister that we would hold a Constitutional Convention. We did. I said at that Convention that if a clear view in favour of a particular republican model emerged we would put it, and the model that was voted on yesterday was the model that emerged from the Constitutional Convention.

I didn’t hear any leaders of the Australian Republican movement at the Constitutional Convention accusing me of manipulation or trickery, they were in fact lyrical about my decision to embrace that clear view. It is only in recent weeks that criticism of that has arisen. Indeed, if you take your minds back to the Constitutional Convention you will remember that my decision to commit the issue to a referendum enjoyed overwhelming support from those people at the Convention.

I have long believed that this issue should always have been a non-party political one. That is why I declared at the Constitutional convention that members of the Liberal Party would have a free vote. And I want to congratulate the members of my party, on both sides of the argument for the civilised, respectful, courteous way in which they have conducted themselves during this campaign. The Liberal Party has demonstrated to Australia that on certain issues the sensible thing, the only thing, is to have a free and open vote. And I am very proud of the fact that the Liberal Party did that and I am immensely proud of the fact that we have done it without doing any damage to ourselves, rather I think we have enhanced the respect that we have in the eyes of the Australian community.

There has been a very clear outcome as I said during the course of the referendum campaign it is not something that I would expect to be revisited in a hurry. I regret very much that the preamble has been defeated. It was always going to be a struggle because of the incredible focus on the republican issue and I am not sorry that I put the preamble. I have tried and I thank Senator Ridgeway for his co-operation and his help and I thank others who supported. I did try to get put into the Australian Constitution some noble and gracious and positive words and I don’t regard the rejection of the preamble as a rejection of those sentiments, rather I think it can be found the explanation for the defeat of the preamble can be found in the fact that the overwhelming preoccupation was with the republican issue. I did not have a sense that people were rejecting the words of reconciliation contained in that preamble or indeed any of the other words.

The last thing I want to say in my introductory remarks is that the referendum, having now been held, the government will renew its focus on those issues of direct concern to the Australian people. That is not to say that the issues debated up to yesterday are not of interest and concern to Australians but it is to say that the top priority of this government has been, is and will always be responding to the concerns of Australians around this country of ours and dealing in a very direct fashion with those things that they regard as important in their daily lives.

I want to thank all of those who participated in the debate, it was a fascinating exercise in democracy. There was a lot of talk about what the Australian people think. There is a lot of interpretation of opinion polls, there are lot of people who sit in judgement on the mood of the country. In the end you only know how the Australian people think when they vote through the ballot box and they voted to reject this proposition and they voted to reject it very solidly.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given what you said a few moments ago about the leaders of the republican movement, what do you say to Malcolm Turnbull’s remark that you are the Prime Minister that broke Australian’s hearts?

PRIME MINISTER:

Peter, I prefer to let personal views go over my shoulder.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said at the outset that I think that the Australian people have delivered a clear verdict in favour of the ‘no’ case. Do you think it is a clear verdict in favour of the monarchy, or was it a verdict that said they didn’t like this republic?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am not blessed with powers of analysis that others clearly have. I can only respond to what I see, Karen, and there is a particular proposition put and it was rejected. Now I think we have had a little too much of the ringing declarations that a great majority favour this, clearly the mood of the country is that. The mood of the country is expressed collectively by Australians in a ballot. And collectively in a ballot they voted to reject this proposition. And this proposition was the proposition advocated by the mainstream republican movement of Australia. It was also incidentally supported by many direct election republicans such as the Reverend Tim Costello, Moira Rayner, Peter Beattie, Jim Bacon, Geoff Gallop, all Labor leaders who supported direct election at the convention but once the direct election fell out they decided to join the ‘yes’ case. I think one of the things that has been overlooked in this campaign is that the ‘yes’ case itself was a coalition. Some of the strongest advocates of the ‘yes’ case were originally McGarvie-ites, Greg Craven who authorised the ‘yes’ advertisements is a supporter of the McGarvie model and my colleague Peter Costello was a supporter of the McGarvie model. They were perfectly entitled to take the view they did and I understand and respect the view and those two people made an intelligent contribution to the debate.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister what happens now with the preamble? Would you be inclined to try again, perhaps at the time of the federal election?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know, it’s just a little too early Dennis. I haven’t thought of that. I am not really in a position at the moment to respond to that. I have got to say that I wouldn’t like to have something like that put up again unless it had broad cross party support because it could be misinterpreted and I don’t want it misinterpreted. It was a genuine attempt on my part to negotiate my way through the thickets on that issue. You have got to remember that I had to take a lot of people on the right of centre of my own coalition on that issue particularly in the National Party and they went along with it by and large although there were some misgivings in Queensland and in the National Party organisation. So those sorts of things are always a bit of a compromise but I am very strongly committed to the reconciliation cause. I still want to press ahead with that. I think we have made some headway getting the regret motion through Parliament was seen as a real step forward and I wouldn’t want yesterday to be seen as any sort of signal to me that reconciliation does not have the support of the community. I think the preamble was probably defeated by apathy or ignorance, not by hostility.

JOURNALIST:

Do you agree with some of your colleagues that there is a republican sentiment abroad and Tony Abbott in one of his books, a way to address the sentiment while maintaining the constitutional arrangements would be by legislation to rename the Governor-General the President. If he knocks on your door next week and says can we do this, would you accommodate him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have had a number of hypothetical visits put to me already from my colleagues. That is another one. Look, I haven’t thought about that, I certainly don’t have any plans to do that. Can I just say in relation to the mood in the Australian community - I listened to the debate about the mood and one of the arguments that was put in favour of the republican cause was I think put by Sir Zelman Cowan the former Governor-General, the idea of having somebody who is head of state who would interpret the nation to itself. With the greatest respect to him and others who hold that view, I don’t think that can ever happen in that country. We are too individualistic to ever find one single person who is going to interpret the nation to itself.

The mood I find in this country is an Australian mood and that’s the only mood I ever find. I don’t find … I’ve found that for years. The mood of this country is distinctively Australian irrespective of the constitutional arrangements and I think the other point that has got to be made is that - and it was touched on by David Malouf the author in an excellent Lateline programme I think last Thursday - when he said that one of the weaknesses of the whole debate was that from his point of view of someone who wanted a Republic, but didn’t feel the frantic urge for it that others felt that the issue had not been a genuine grassroots movement.

Now, that was his observation and if I look at the two campaigns, I can’t say from total detachment, but I was not involved in a day-to-day organisational sense of the ‘no’campaign there was a more authentic grassroots character about some aspects of the ‘no’ campaign, than there was the ‘yes’ Campaign and that just has to be said. And if people are trying to draw lessons from this, there are some lessons you shouldn’t draw. You shouldn’t draw party political lessons. That would be a huge mistake. There is no implication in the fact that - party political implication - in the fact that Mr Beazley’s seat voted heavily ‘no’ and my seat voted by 10% ‘yes’. Neither of those results particularly surprised me and I think if anything those results vindicate the decision I took to allow free vote.

JOURNALIST:

Why weren’t you surprised by the result in your seat?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not the least bit because the referendum was never a test of loyalty to me or to my Party because it was a free vote. I said to my electors and I said to the people of Australia this is a free vote, this is not a referendum on the popularity of John Howard or the popularity of Kim Beazley, it is a, from our point of view, people are free to vote and I in fact wrote to all of my branch members explaining my position and saying to them that if they chose not to support my position I did not regard that in any way as a act of disloyalty to me or to the Liberal Party and I think our judgement in treating it as a free vote so long ago has been vindicated by what happened and I think a great mistake was made by Mr Keating when he tried to use it as a political divider against us back in 1993 and that in a sense has been repeated by Mr Beazley. I see no virtue in this sort of immediately lapsing back into being a debate about the Labor Party saying well we’re going to run on it at the election. They can if they want to. It’s not going to make any difference. The people who normally vote Liberal who voted ‘yes’ in my electorate and in other Liberal held seats …that’s not going influence their vote at the next election and I am also quite happy to acknowledge that the people who voted ‘no’ in Mr Beazley’s electorate are not going to suddenly turn around and vote against him at the next federal election.

I think we have to understand that this is one of those issues that’s separate from the normal Party political process. I mean I found in my own wandering around the country just too many examples of people who sort of had cross views. There were many close friends of mine who voted ‘yes’ and they were quite open in saying so, in explaining their reasons and there were many people I know who are habitual supporters of the Labor Party who voted ‘no’ and not just for the reason that they supported a direct election, they just had other reasons. There’s a deep conservative element in many sections of the Labor vote in this country and I think its leader misunderstands that.

 

JOURNALIST:

There were suggestions recently that we might be seen abroad as somehow cowardly or pathetic if we vote no, and you have said that you don’t believe that is the case. Now that we have voted no, what do you say to anyone who may suggest that...?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well can I just say that the last thing Australia is seen at the moment abroad is cowardly or weak. Our reputation abroad has never been higher. It has never been higher because we are seen economically as strong and successful and in relation to East Timor we have taken a lead and demonstrated a leadership capacity which has won the admiration of the world. And I spoke on this morning to the Defence Minister who’s in the United States and he said the feeling in regard to Australia is quite remarkable. I have spoken to a couple of our Ambassadors in European, two European countries over the past few weeks and they have said exactly the same thing. The last thing Australia is at the moment around the world is a laughing stock.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Kerry Jones this morning suggested that perhaps the Governor-General should now open the Olympics. Malcole Turnbull has another view. He thinks the Queen herself should be invited to?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well this has been addressed and I have explained my position on that and I am not persuaded with great respect by their views.

JOURNALIST:

Are you surprised at the way the vote has fallen in New South Wales and the Northern Territory voting …?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I am not entirely surprised let me confess about the New South Wales’ vote. I had a suspicion which I may have betrayed to one or two people that the assumption that New South Wales would automatically vote ‘yes’ was always erroneous. I think it has something to do with the fact that many of the founders of the Australian Republic Movement are to be found in Sydney and there is an automatic assumption that that view of life permeated not only the nation but the more immediate environs. But Northern Territory surprised me a bit. I thought the Northern Territory would be more, far more Republican but what is interesting, I thought Tasmania was quite fascinating. You have the leaders of all the political parties raising their arms on one side yet it voted very strongly ‘no’.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister could you expand a bit on your thoughts on how the media handled this. I mean surely it is the responsibility of the media to highlight the issues. Clearly they did have a view that ….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I did notice it.

JOURNALIST:

But equally they reported the views of both cases?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh come on. I think some of the reporting was a touch - how should I put it - declaratory of one side. I thought a couple of the wrap-arounds yesterday were a touch pointed, but anyway….

JOURNALIST:

Do you think this was formed by the views of the owners?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know. I have no idea. No, I think, I can respect and understand and I repeat that I can respect and understand that amongst a lot of people who work in your profession where there is a pretty strong view on this subject. No I understand that, I respect that. That’s your right as individuals. I just do think that the barracking was a bit excessive and it was one of the barriers that the ‘no’ case had to overcome and I think on any, whatever your view, on any objective test it would be pretty hard to contest that.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] Asian countries might interpret this vote as a sign that Australia reaffirming its ties with the West or Europe at the expense of its relationship with Asia?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t. Australia was always going to have ties with the West as you put it or America irrespective of Constitutional arrangements. I think we are really limiting ourselves unnecessarily in getting worried about these things. Asian countries don’t really give a damn about our Constitutional arrangements. They accept that we have a right to make whatever arrangements we like. Lee Kuan Yew put it very nicely when he addressed the National Press Club on that subject. What they’re interested in is how we relate to them and I don’t think it is going to make the slightest bit of difference but thankfully these are the things that are decided by us for our reasons and according to our priorities.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think given the nature of the anti-politician nature of parts of the campaign, how much do you think the process has contributed to an overall diminishing of the view of politicians and are you concerned about it….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think it is going to make an enormous difference to the general view of parliamentarians in the community. In the end, there is sort of, there’s an ambivalence in the Australian community. On the one hand they like, because of part of our inheritance, they like to sort of have a go at those in authority and nothing is ever going to change that. I know it. On the other hand they are sort of saying well we want people in positions of authority to lead. I would have thought that this debate has demonstrated that this is the sort of issue where people don’t want to be told too much by Members of Parliament or their political leaders what to do. It seems to have been just as you are right to say well in my seat there was a majority ‘yes’ vote I think it is right to say that there was almost a record number of current and former politicians joining hands, arms and everything in saying that people should vote in one particular direction, it doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact. I think people have quite shrewdly and quite calculatedly made up their mind what they’re going to do.

I had reported to me by the people who worked on polling booths both in Sydney and in Adelaide, a very large number of people who just quite clearly had decided how they were going to vote. They were not interested in how to vote literature, not that it was a very complicated ballot paper, and I think Australians are always far more intelligent in these exercises than the elected politicians give them credit for.

JOURNALIST:

Do you expect your parliamentary colleagues in the Liberal Party to accept the umpire’s decision and to cease actively campaigning for a republic.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, I mean the free vote is over. That doesn’t mean to say that we won’t talk about the issue at Cabinet or talk about it in the partyroom, but our situation has always been when it comes to process in relation to constitutional change, there is a Government view. We decided that we would allow a free vote in relation to the substance of the issue and I’ve explained why I think that stance has been vindicated. But now that the thing is over, the free vote is finished and we all get back to our lasts and we get on with the job of responding to things that are of direct and immediate interest to the Australian people.

JOURNALIST:

Kim Beazley says he’s going to go to the next election with…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he can do what he likes.

JOURNALIST:

But isn’t that going to put people like Peter Costello in an awkward position?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t think it will do anything of the kind. I think he is the day after repeating the error that helped produce yesterday’s result. I mean he really hasn’t got the message that people don’t want something like this party politicised. He really doesn’t get the point, after all of this, he doesn’t seem to get that simple point that this is not something that is, I mean, you cannot say well, I’m going to go the next election with a policy and the whole implication of your question is that he will be trying to disadvantage us politically. And once you go down that path you have no hope of getting constitutional change of this magnitude through. And I’m not setting myself up as a political consultant to him but I would suggest with respect that if he really is serious about it, the last thing you’d do is try and obtain a political advantage over your opponent. That’s what Paul Keating tried to do and in many ways yesterday’s defeat of the republican cause can be laid at his door, the way in which he started the whole process. It was conceived out of political malice, a desire to divide the Liberal Party and a desire to bind into his leadership of the Government of the that time those elements who had opposed his deposal of Hawke.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister when will you talk to the Queen about the referendum?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I guess as is the custom, I’ll see her at the CHOGM meeting in South Africa next weekend. That might be on the agenda.

JOURNALIST:

So you won’t talk to her before…?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Who won the World Cup?

PRIME MINISTER:

Fantastic wasn’t it? If I’m a little slow this morning it is because after having followed a referendum, I then got a second or third wind and stayed up to watch a magnificent game of rugby and I though the boys were terrific, I thought Finnegan’s try was absolutely stupendous and he was like a tank. It was a fantastic performance – and what a great year – what a great year for cricket, rugby – it was just fantastic.

JOURNALIST:

Is there anything that would convince you to put this question to the people again Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I said during the campaign that I wouldn’t see it coming back in a hurry and I think that’s all I can ever say. I mean, it is always, you are always required in this business to make declarations related to moments in time, and it is always hazardous. Look, I can honestly say to you that I think the mood of the people whatever their attitude apart from those who were very deeply and intimately involved, I think the mood of the people this morning is well okay, the Australian people have spoken, they’ve spoken very clearly and it is now over, and let’s get back to other things. Now, what the mood will be in a year’s time or two year’s time or five year’s time, I don’t know but that is what I think the mood is today and I can only repeat what I said previously and that is that I can’t see it coming back in a hurry.

JOURNALIST:

So what do you say to the 45% of Australians who voted yes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I say to them that I understand and respect their views. We are all Australians together and as phrase that I frequently use is that the things that unite us are greater and more important than the things that divide us. And the thing that unites us is a common love of Australia and that is an infinitely more powerful thing in our hearts and souls than anything else, and that in the end is what public service and public contributions ought to be about. And I bear no malice or ill-will to anybody who voted yes. As I said I know many people who are close friends of mine who decided to vote yes. We had a different view but I respect them, and I’ve tried in my own contributions to be moderate and measured in what I’ve said and to understand the other point of view. I mean, one of the mistakes people made in this campaign was to assume that in some way I didn’t mean what I said. Mr Turnbull wrote and article once in which he predicted I would change my position, that I would become a republican before yesterday. Now, I mean, it was always a mistake for people to assume that I wasn’t going to stick to what I’ve said. It’s almost as if one is in a no-win situation. I’ve said all along where I stand. Now, people can disagree with it, they can deride it, they can attack it, they can criticise it , but they can’t say I haven’t been consistent. And I say in reply to them, I understand and respect your point of view but we’ve had a vote and as Australians we have to accept the outcome, and I would have been saying the same thing if the vote had been in the reverse. I said that no matter what would have been the result I would have accepted it. But there has been an outcome and I bear no malice to anybody as a consequence.

JOURNALIST:

Will the Queen’s visit be seen as provocative…?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think the visit will go other than without incident, and I think that would have been the case if the yes vote had carried. Once again, Australians are sensible and courteous. Those Australians who are aren’t interested, won’t be interested, and those who are will be. And that’s the nature of this country. We handle those things extremely well. We don’t sort of get tense and bothered about those sorts of things. We are appropriately laid back. Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 11205