After mentioning in my last entry on the late Gough Whitlam that I once interviewed him for my student mag, I dug out the interview to remind myself how it went. Even though it’s about the fleeting events of the day, I thought I’d scan it and share it here.


An Evening with Gough (or 10 Minutes Actually)

Togatus, 9 September 1988, vol. 59, no. 11, pp. 10-11.

It’s not every day that a humble student journo gets to interview an ex-prime minister, so when you get the chance you leap at it, even when events pass you by...

Gough Whitlam was one of seven distinguished guests at The Great Referendum Debate held in the Uni [of Tasmania] Centre on the 18th of August in aid of the 1988 Paralympics Appeal. Others included Senators Barney Cooney and Michael Tate (for “yes”) and Peter Reith MP, Senator Shirley Walters and Ewart Smith (the ID Card buster) for the “no” case. Sir Rupert Hamer introduced the debate.

Dr Richard Herr (of our Pol Sci department, and moderator of the debate) kindly organised a brief interview after the event between Mr Whitlam and Togatus’s Rory Ewins and Shane Roberts. The results, although recorded a fortnight before the referendums were universally rejected, make an interesting postscript to the referendum process and what might have been.

TOG: The Australian public has a reputation for knocking back referendums... what sort of chances do you think these proposals have of being passed?

GOUGH WHITLAM: I think there is a very good chance, but particularly that is the case because on this occasion, for two and a half years, the Constitutional Commission and its five advisory committees have sought the views of the public in every part of Australia, and has taken the views of the people who have made submissions, orally and in writing, into account. Four thousand submissions; a fifth of them orally, at meetings of the commission and the committees. When we started our deliberations, it was found in a public opinion poll, which we commissioned, that less than half the electors in Australia knew we had a constitution. We also found that 70% of people in the 18 to 24 year group were not aware that we had a constitution; and it may be embarrassing for you to know that the poll also discovered that the states where the greatest proportion didn’t know there was a constitution were Tasmania and Western Australia. So it’s for that reason that on this occasion I believe the public has learnt more, it’s been involved more, and it’s become more interested.

When the electors read the Electoral Office’s “Yes and No” case they will be able to see for themselves the text of the four proposals which they’re asked to approve on the 3rd of September. They’ll also be able to read the text of the Constitution insofar as it deals with those subjects. And they will then realise, quite clearly, without any difficulty, that the proposals are reasonable, and desirable, and in fact necessary; that it is only if these proposals are approved by the electors that the people elected to the two houses of federal parliament, or to the houses of the state parliaments, or to local government councils, will be able to do their jobs properly.

You suggested in your talk that there’s a tendency for the “No” case people to put up red herrings...

You’re absolutely right, the whole game is for opponents of the proposals to confuse people, and particularly to confuse people in Tasmania and Western Australia. For a proposal to be carried, for it to become part of the Constitution, it has to be approved by a majority of the electors in the whole of Australia, and also by a majority of the electors in the majority of the states, four out of the six states. There have been many cases where a majority of the electors in the whole of Australia have been in favour of a proposal, but the proposal has not been approved by a majority of the people in a majority of the states. So therefore the whole idea is to play on the fears of Tasmania and the less populous states, to spread disinformation, to stir misapprehensions. l don’t think it will work, because the opponents think that people are as uninformed and uninterested as they were in the case of previous referendums. That’s not the case; they know more about it.

So they concentrate on places like Tasmania... do you think enough work is being done by the “Yes” case in these areas?

Well it’s not only that you have to take account of the yes and no cases... you will have had, because you’re an elector, a copy of the yes and no cases, plus the text of the proposals, plus the text of the Constitution where it has something to say about the subject matter of these four proposals.

In many cases of course, the Constitution doesn’t mention the subject matter of the proposals. There’s nothing in the Constitution about local government; and the proposals say that the states—no mention about the Commonwealth—the states must establish and continue a system of local government, and that the people in local government must be elected, and that the people in local government must have the powers to make by-laws and carry out their functions for which they’re elected. The Constitution doesn’t only cover the Federal parliament; it covers the state parliaments wherever the people of a referendum think it should cover the state parliaments. Local government has been set up by the states, and its position ought to be guaranteed in the Constitution.

There are three other things, the fourth proposal dealing with rights and freedoms. Those are the existing rights and freedoms which the Constitution intended to guarantee as regards the Federal parliament. The proposal is to see that those rights and freedoms are guaranteed as regards the states and the territories as well. For instance, freedom of religion is compulsory as far as the Federal parliament is concerned, but only in Tasmania is there a provision in the state constitution for freedom of religion. In the Tasmanian state constitution, that provision can be taken out by the parliament itself; but as regards the Federal parliament, the provision can’t be taken out of the Federal Constitution unless the electors at a referendum say it should be taken out. That’s the difference. We ought to see not only in Tasmania, but all the states, that there should be a guarantee of freedom of religion; and also we ought to be able to see that that clause can’t be taken out unless the electors say that it can be taken out. People say “what about rights and freedoms, what about other ones, what about Bills of Rights and all these sort of things?” The proposal concerns solely the three matters which are in the Constitution vis-a-vis the Federal parliament at the moment: jury trial; fair compensation for property which the government takes from you; and freedom of religion. Those ought to be extended to what the state parliaments and the territories can do.

It’s quite clear for people to read themselves. There’s no excuse for people not reading those pamphlets. Don’t be put off by broad accusations. There was one said tonight by the spokesman for the “no” case, that the proposal for simultaneous elections for the Federal parliament has been rejected three times. On one occasion it was supported by 62.2% of the electors, but it wasn’t supported by the majority in a majority of the states.

In other cases: civil aviation back in ’37, Menzies put up the proposal that the Federal parliament should be able to pass laws about civil aviation. It was carried in the whole of the country, but only got a majority in two of the states. You’ll always find people opposing any proposals to alter the Constitution. What fools we look now that the Federal parliament didn’t get jurisdiction to pass laws about Civil aviation back in ’37. lt got it later through international agreements.

The proposal that Federal parliament’s powers, this was back in ’46, should be extended from merely paying old age or invalid pensions to the whole field of welfare payments—that was only narrowly carried! There were millions voting against it! What fools they now look.

An Evening With Gough

23 October 2014 · People