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Richard J. Wood

Queensland Campaign Director (No Republic)

Transcript of an interview with Richard J. Wood aired 25 October 1999, on Radio 4QR

Presenter: (Carolyn Tucker) Good morning and welcome to the program. In just twelve days the Australian people will vote Yes for one of our own to be president or No to remain with the status quo, which has the resident of another nation, Queen Elizabeth, at the apex of our Constitution.

Passions are beginning to run high. Last week saw an outbreak of hostilities inside the Coalition government, with even supporters of the No case critical of its attack on politicians. But through it all the leaders of the case have stayed on message -- if you want to vote for the president, vote No to the politicians' republic. Today, the State's most active campaigner for the No case, Richard Wood, joins us.

Thanks for joining us, Richard.

Well with twelve days to go, how is the campaign going? Are you confident of victory?

Wood: I'm certainly not complacent, Carolyn. I think anyone can win. I'm hopeful, though, that the Australian people have too much good sense to junk a tried and true system for a dud model.

Presenter: What is your analysis? I mean what are your strong states and what are your weak states?

Wood: I think the outlying states, with the possible exception of Tassie, are pretty strong for the No case. New South Wales and Victoria are the big battlegrounds but, in the end, this is Australia's Constitution that we're fighting for. It's a system that I want to survive far into the future and we're not giving up on any states. We want the whole country to vote resoundingly to support the Constitution we've got.

Presenter: Is your analysis based on any polling by the No case or by the ACM?

Wood: Look, there has been polling and the polling's encouraging but, as I said, it's far too early for any side to be thinking that it's got anything other than a nose in front.

Presenter: Well, let's go to your campaign. That core message, which seems to be resonating out there, has virtually junked the monarch and appealed to republicans who want to directly elect a president.

Wood: I don't think that's true, Carolyn. I think, obviously, people are appealing to the middle ground and I guess people who are committed monarchists are not the middle ground, just as absolutely rabid republicans are not the middle ground. But, plainly, what we're trying to do is focus on the defects of the model. I think there are a lot of people out there who are attracted to the idea of becoming a republic but they want to be confident that it's a safe republic and, plainly, this isn't a safe republic because it's a dud model.

Presenter: But your message doesn't go to that so much, does it? It says if you want to vote for a president, vote No to this politicians' republic. The inference clearly is that you're going to get a vote fairly soon, that, you know, for a directly elected president?

Wood: Well, certainly, if we vote Yes on November the sixth that's the end of any hope of a directly elected president. That's the end of any chance to vote for a president and that's a simple fact and I think it's a reasonable message for us to put.

Presenter: New South Wales Premier Bob Carr today will take the message that if you vote No, you won't see a republic in a lifetime, he'll say. That would be a fairly accurate assessment, given that Prime Minister Howard would have no interest in putting another constitutional referendum of this nature back on the agenda.

Wood: Well certainly, that's a reasonable assessment of the PM's position but, if a republic is so urgently important, as Premier Carr says it is, I can't imagine that he's going to just wash his hands of this whole business on November the seventh.

Presenter: So, in other words, you believe that there would still be agitation for a republic?

Wood: Well, let's wait and see. But, if the Yes case triumphs, that's it as far as republicanism is concerned. There'll be no second bite at the republican apple if the Yes case triumphs. If the No case gets up, well obviously some republicans will want to have another go, and let's see if that opportunity comes up.

Presenter: And is there a Prime Minister on offer that … who would put it up for fairly quickly, given that it's taken nine years and a hundred and twenty million dollars to get to where we are now?

Wood: Well, look, that's a question that should be directed towards the PM or perhaps future PMs.

Presenter: I just want to make this po … put a quote to you on March the fifth this year Prime Minister Howard said,“It is the case that Australians don't like having too many referendums and if this one is defeated my anticipation is that it will be some years before another one is held”.

And of course technically, he said there's nothing to stop another one being held, we know that under section one hundred and twenty eight. So, isn't Premier Carr correct, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity?

Wood: Well, there's a world of difference between some years and a once in a lifetime opportunity. My guess Carolyn is that if the Yes case gets up, that'll be the end of it, full stop, end of story. If the No case gets up, there'll be a pause for reflection. Now whether that pause is two years, five years, ten years, who knows, that's for the future to determine.

But I think what is clear is that if you want a directly elected president you can't vote Yes to this republic because there will be… any republic that comes up now will be the end of the story.

Presenter: Would you … do you agree with Prime Minister Howard's sentiment at the Constitutional Convention that says a directly elected president would threaten our representative democracy, our parliamentary democracy and our social cohesion?

Wood: Mm. Well, it depends what kind of directly elected president it was. I think there are two respectable republican positions…

Presenter: Well, Peter Reith wants a directly elected president without codification.

Wood: Mm.

Presenter: That's a pretty powerful president, isn't it?

Wood: Well, well as I said Carolyn, I think there are two respectable republican positions. One of them is the ultra-minimalist, very conservative McGarvie model position and the other one is a directly elected presidency where the sovereign Crown is replaced by the sovereign People. Now, I think both of those are respectable positions. I don't support either of them I hasten to add.

Presenter: No.

Wood: But I think they're both respectable positions and the problem is that the position on offer is neither of them but it's this dud model, it's the …

Presenter: Well just picking…

Wood: …camel model, as in a horse designed by a committee.

Presenter: Well, just picking that up, it is however a respectable position is it not, otherwise Prime Minister Howard wouldn't have put it up at all?

Wood: Well, it's the position that the official establishment republicans wanted. It is the Keating position adopted by Malcolm Turnbull and the Republican Movement, it was the position that the Constitutional Convention supported and what the PM said was not that a great model republic was going to be put to the people, he said that the Constitutional Convention model republic was going to be put to the people and that's what is happening.

Presenter: Just one final thing before we go in this segment. If the No case goes … sorry if the Yes case goes down as badly as Peter Reith is suggesting, with one of the biggest margins in history, why wouldn't the Prime Minister revisit who should open the Olympic Games in Sydney?

Wood: Well, the important thing is that they are our Olympic Games and they'll decide who opens them. Now, they've decided that the PM is going to open them and I'm happy with that decision.

Presenter: So no matter how big the margin the No vote wins by, that will not be revisited?

Wood: Well, if the No vote wins, that's a great victory for all the people who've supported the No case, including the Prime Minister.

Presenter: Yet we still won't be inviting the Queen?

Wood: Well, I'd be arguing that the Governor-General is the head of state and the choice is between PM and the Governor-general and not between the PM and the Queen.

Presenter: And that argument could be reopened?

Wood: Well, as I said, it's really in the hands of other people and the Prime Minister has made a decision.

Presenter: Time for a break Richard. When we return, is Australia in danger of heading down the path of Nazi Germany?

[News break]

Presenter: You're on 4QR with author and No campaigner, Richard Wood. No campaigners have raised the spectre of an Australian republic paving the way for a fascist dictatorship. Mr Wood, can I just put a proposition to you?

Wood: Yes.

Presenter: Now, the Queen had an uncle who was very briefly King, who had an opinion that Adolf Hitler and some of his closet cronies weren't totally irredeemable. He had some sympathies towards them.

Wood: Sure.

Presenter: Now, I'm sure you would imagine, as I … you would say, as I would say, that if someone said from that, that the Queen was likely to lead Australia into a fascist revolution, or to suddenly urge her government to annex the Sudetenland, that would be an unbalanced comment?

Wood: You're asking me, Carolyn?

Presenter: Of course. You'd agree, wouldn't you? (laughs)

Wood: (laughs) The point is that…

Presenter: So, you agree with that?

Wood: No, but the point I'm…

Presenter: No, do you agree…

Wood: making…

Presenter: …with that?

Wood: The point I'm making is that the focus of the Crown in Australia is the Governor-General, not the monarch. The Governor-General has the power, under our Constitution, not the monarch. And we'd need a Governor-General who wanted to invade the Sudetenland before we'd have that…

Presenter: Well, I'm interested …

Wood: … kind of a problem.

Presenter: you're not going to clear the Queen of wanting to invade the Sudetenland.

Wood: Yes.

Presenter: Now, this is an advertisement that's been submitted to a Queensland provincial newspaper. It says republican hall of fame, Napoleon Bonaparte, Stalin, Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Mao Tse Tung. Republicans all -- tyrants all. Now, isn't that ludicrous, as well?

Wood: Well, look, there are some people with … fairly extreme ideas on both sides of the argument, Carolyn. But let's focus on the reality … the reality. And the reality is that we've got a dud model here and if we ever had a replay of 1975, under the Turnbull-Keating model, you'd have an umpire with no security of tenure and, in a replay of 1975, you'd have the Prime Minister and the president coming to that meeting, both armed with a dismissal notice of the other and it would be a question of who drew first.

And we could be in a situation with a Prime Minister and a pretender, a president and a pretender and no way of knowing which was which, until the High Court had sorted …

Presenter: But just before…

Wood: …the whole thing out.

Presenter: …we go on …

Wood: And that could take months.

Presenter: But the implication … but …

Wood: …that could take months.

Presenter: …you have is, that this could lead to a fascist takeover, a communist takeover …

Wood: Well, I've never said that.

Presenter: …a takeover by Ugandan tribal chiefs …

Wood: I've never said that. I've never said that, Carolyn.

Presenter: You've said… you've likened Australia, under a republic, to a Weimar republic.

Wood: No, no. I didn't say that. I said that Weimar was an example of what could happen to countries under stress, in periods of great constitutional uncertainty. That's what I said. Now, I don't pretend, for a moment, that Australia is going to become Nazi Germany tomorrow, if we become a republic. But what I am saying is that our political stability would be compromised and our institutions would be weakened.

Sure, we could go on for years and years and years and no one would notice the difference. But what if we find ourselves in a situation with much more aggressive and dictatorial individuals in the prime ministership, in the Leader of the Opposition's role, and in the presidential role, that we've had up to now.

Presenter: You're talking about reality. Let's look at the campaign that your side's been running. You're talking about the proposed model being a politicians' republic.

Wood: Mm.

Presenter: Now the reality is that we currently have a Governor-General appointed by one person, one politician, the Prime Minister. Surely that is the politicians' system, not the alternative?

Wood: But, you see, it's the nature of the office. At the moment, we have a Governor-General who is appointed like a judge and acts a bit like a judge and so what we're really … what the republicans are really asking us to do here is to… is to substitute a president elected like the Speaker of the parliament for an Australian Governor-General selected like a judge.

Presenter: With all the same powers as the current Australian Governor-General but two hundred and seventy-odd people involved in the election and not one.

Wood: Yeah. But, see, you can trust the politicians to pick judges. You can trust the politicians to pick the holders of vice-regal office. But I don't believe you can place the same trust in the politicians to make the same kind of sensible choice for a political office, and this presidency is going to be a much more political office than the Governor-Generalship is now because this president is going to be the supreme figure in our political system, and this president is going to be someone that people look to constantly for leadership whenever the politicians are mucking up.

Now, are the politicians going to trust themselves? Do we trust the politicians to pick the right person to do that kind of job? I don't think the politicians will do a great job picking someone for that kind of role.

Presenter: The current government, whose Prime Minister made it a promise of his when he was elected, that he would restore faith in politicians, that he would make the community respect them again.

Wood: Mm.

Presenter: Now where does that sort of remark sit with his promise?

Wood: Sure. Look. Look. You know, I think politicians are good at lots of things. I like politicians … some of my best friends are politicians. Politicians … Politicians are great at lots of things. But one thing that I don't believe they would be good at is picking from a politicised process someone to be the umpire.

Presenter: But there's nothing to stop the Prime Minister, for example, appointing a non-citizen of Australia as Governor-General. I mean we gave an Order of Australia to Ali Alatas.

Wood: Mm.

Presenter: I mean, if we want to talk scenarios, under the present system there is no check or balance on the Prime Minister.

Wood: And… and there's nothing to stop the Prime Minister picking some crony to be the Chief Justice, either, but the system that we've got works. We know it works, because it's worked for a hundred years but if you suddenly change the system you impose all these extra stresses on the political culture and we all know how things work Carolyn.

If … no one in politics gives the other side anything without getting something back in return and if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have got to agree on who the president is, it'll be a deal. The Prime Minister will say, look I'll let your nomination for president go forward if you'll pass my tax bill. That's the way it'll work, it always does work that way.

Presenter: Let's talk about the Queen. What does the Queen do for Australia now, what does she do?

Wood: Well, the beauty of the Crown, the beauty of the Crown is the power that it denies to others, that's the beauty of the Crown. The Queen presides at the apex of our system and because she's there, the Governor-General doesn't represent himself and doesn't represent a political party and doesn't have the temptation to egomania and playing God which sadly, politicians sometimes fall prey to.

Presenter: Richard, time for another break. When we return the split in the Coalition over the republic.

[News break]

Presenter: You're on 4QR. John Howard has allowed his ministers and parliamentarians free reign on the republic, but at what cost? Mr Wood, on one side of this debate, they've got the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, they've got the Workplace Relations Minister. On the other side of the debate, they've got the Treasurer, the government's two leaders in the Senate and they've got the Attorney-General.

Wood: Mm-hmm.

Presenter: Now, how can the government rely on the Attorney-General's advice in future, as the chief lawmaker, if they're not going to accept his advice now that this republic is sound?

Wood: Look, sure there are strong views inside the Coalition on this, Carolyn. But, given the fact that it is a… an emotive subject, I think that the debate has been remarkably free of rancour.

Presenter: But don't you think it's bad for the Coalition, in future, whichever way it goes, that they've had such a serious division within its ranks? And public?

Wood: Yes, but at least they have pluralism inside their party. Kim Beazley has imposed a Stalinist line on his people. Only … there's only one Labor MP …

Presenter: Hitler and Stalin now?

Wood: …there's only one Labor MP in the whole of Australia who has had the guts to come out and say he's voting no, notwithstanding the fact that at least thirty per cent of Labor voters say they're going to …

Presenter: What do you think…

Wood: …reject the dud model republic.

Presenter: …of Daryl Williams' legal advice?

Wood: Well, I think Daryl's a very good lawyer, but I think on this one he's wrong.

Presenter: Mr Wood, there are suggestions in background conversations from some of your colleagues that Senator Minchin and perhaps Mr Downer are putting the weights on republican Liberals in the parliament and warning them that a victory for the Yes case would be very bad for Prime Minister John Howard's political future?

Wood: Well, I certainly think that the media will portray it that way. I can't imagine you, Carolyn, writing a story saying that a victory for the Yes case has been good for the PM.

Presenter: Well, I think he'd be worse off if the No case gets up, actually, in terms of politics. But, can I just ask, on that question of dropping the weights on some of their colleagues, Tony Abbott and Senator Minchin and others?

Wood: Look, there's been all sorts of discussion inside the Coalition about the ramifications of a Yes vote or a No vote. There's been all sorts of discussions inside the Coalition and sure, it's my view that a Yes victory will be portrayed by the media in ways which are bad for the government.

Presenter: But what will a No victory do for the Prime Minister's standing?

Wood: Well, the PM is a No voter. And if the people support the Prime Minister's position on this, presumably that will be another win for the Prime Minister. He's had a lot of wins, the Prime Minister, he gets no credit from the media, even when he wins. He certainly won't be getting credit from the media if his position doesn't get up on this.

Presenter: How will he able to intervene in this debate, as he said he would in the final two weeks, without appearing to use the moral authority of the prime ministership, behind his comments? Which could be… could upset some people within the government.

Wood: Well, why shouldn't he? He is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is entitled to a view on this and, because he's the Prime Minister, his view is entitled to be listened to with great respect. Surely you're not saying that because he's the Prime Minister, he's disqualified from talking on this?

Presenter: But he said…

Wood: No one says that the Treasurer is disqualified from talking on this. No one says that the Foreign Minister is disqualified from talking on this. Why should the Prime Minister be disqualified?

Presenter: Well, he himself said the Prime Minister should remain above the fray. That's what he has said.

Wood: No, no. What he said is that he will be making judic… a judicious intervention. He said that he will be letting the people know where he stands on this. And he's done it in the past and I assume he'll do it again, some time in the next fortnight.

Presenter: Do you find that… well, how deep is the split within… particularly within the Liberal backbench, on this issue? Is it a rift that will suddenly disappear on November seven, or will it continue?

Wood: Well, they're all working together, happily, on a whole range of issues. The government is functioning extremely well. People disagree on this particular subject, but I think it's to the great credit of the Liberal Party that they've been able to run this issue in the genuinely liberal and pluralist spirit that they've managed.

Presenter: But we've seen the Speaker of the House and the Deputy Speaker coming out, saying that they think that, you know, particularly the Deputy Speaker, he's a monarchist, but he thinks the campaign that your side's been running is appalling …

Wood: And lots of repub…

Presenter: …and dishonest.

Wood: …and lots of republicans think that the republican campaign is a lousy campaign.

Presenter: But they've got people speaking out publicly -- how can this be a cohesive…

Wood: But what's wrong with that?

Presenter: Well, afterwards, how's it going to work? They're all going to be happy and friends…

Wood: [clears throat]

Presenter: …and nobody's concerned…

Wood: Absolutely right. I mean, they're big enough people to be able to disagree on a subject like this, but still maintain our friendships and still be able to work together on all the other subjects that they've worked together on.

Presenter: We're right out of time.

Wood: I think we can do better than that.

Presenter: Thank you very much, Richard Wood, for joining us today.

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