Workers Online
Workers Online
Workers Online
  Issue No 11 Official Organ of LaborNet 30 April 1999  





The Young Republican

Interview with Peter Lewis

Jason Yat-Sen Li stole the show at the Constitutional Convention with his community consultation compromise. Now he faces a bigger challenge, convincing Australia to vote Yes.

What role will you be playing in the lead-up to the referendum?

I'm the co-chair of the Yes Coalition and a member of the Yes Funding Committee. There are three main Republican structures, the Australian Republican Movement, the Yes Coalition and the Yes Funding Committee. Each has distinct roles. The ARM is the main campaign political infrastructure; they're the ones with all the networks set up around the country. They will be developing the message and laying the foundations for the campaign, as well as a certain amount of message dissemination. The purpose of the Yes Coalition is to diversify the Yes message; its a Coalition from all parts of the community; from the science, the arts, entertainment, academia, business, people who may not be members of ARM, but who want to campaign Yes for the Republic.

Is this a recognition that the Australian Republican Movement has an image problem?

Its to diversify the Yes message and the benefits that comes with that. Some people may be reluctant to join the ARM, it may have that elitist stigma with some people. It's not taking over from it, but it is aimed at sending the message: this is not an ARM Republic; that there's lots and lots of Australians from across the community who want to see a Republic. The Yes Coalition is merely about message dissemination, we won't be about campaign infrastructure, although we will be working with the ARM on this.

The Yes Funding Committee will control the $7.5 million for advertising in the last four weeks. This does not have any formal links with the ARM or the Yes Coalition. It is a formal body and its members are appointed by the Prime Minister. The three bodies will be integrated to the extent that everyone is working towards the November referendum. The Yes Funding Committee has also been making submissions to the Attorney General's Department on the form of the legislation. For example, we weren't happy with the name. The long title of the Bill, which is what people will see on the ballot paper in November, is "Bill to bring into law an amendment to the constitution to have a Republic in Australia with a President elected by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament". We weren't happy that it wasn't an accurate portrayal o the proposal, which involves community consultation, nominations from the people, a screening committee and then parliamentary approval. This is a much more transparent process where the public has a say, which wasn't reflected in the referendum question . We also wanted to emphasise that it was an Australian citizen who is going to be the Head of State.

How much of these types of manoeuvres is an attempt to actually prevent the Yes vote getting up?

It's hard to comment on what John Howard's intentions really are but the effect is that it is confusing and there are lots of distractions out there, whatever his motivations.

How confident are you that the vote will get up?

Reasonably confident. In the last Newspoll in The Australian, which as admittedly a couple of months ago, people were saying that 33 per cent of people support the model. A lot of people read that as doom and gloom for the Republic. I disagree. The campaign machine hasn't started at all and that 33 per cent isn't a bad start at all. Without any campaign starting to roll, that's not a bad start. Bear in mind also that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, support for Parliamentary appointment was lower than five per cent. So there's been a significant increase.

How do you view the merging of the monarchists with the Direct Electionist supporters ?

Completely baffling. I'm not sure how they are going to work together. In a sense they are the most diametrically opposed groups. They are the groups who should be most at war with each other. The monarchists, or the constitutionalists as some like to call themselves, say our major problem is changing the constitution. What we are advocating is the minimalist change, it's not going to change our system of government in any significant way, we're just getting an Australian Head of State. What the direct electionists want is more large-scale change to our system of government.

And why do you, as someone with progressive political views, shied away from the idea that we should make the centenary of Federation an opportunity to have this broader debate?

Because I'm being pragmatic. I'm looking at what can be achieved in this time frame. The polls are saying "we want a directly elected president", you can't deny that. But you won't just get a direct election, there are all these other things that must accompany it: you have to codify the powers, you've got to do something about the Senate's ability to block supply. There are all these peripheral changes. To be completely honest with you, I'd like to see a directly elected President. I just don't think it will get up for another 20 to 50 years because although people want to directly elect a President, can we get a majority of Australians in a majority of states to support a significant move away from our present system of government.

This is an important first step. The proper context for looking at direct election is where we're having a broader review of the governmental process, when we're looking at the role of the Senate, where we're looking at the role of the minor parties.

But when will that happen if not now?

There's a lot of inertia out there, but I think it will happen within ten years. People are very unhappy with the system of government right now. There's written commitment to ongoing constitutional review out from the ConCon. But this is a good first step. I honestly think that it would go down and continue to go down for 10, 20 years and more if you have a direct election model. In other words, this bipartisan model is the only one that can be politically successful. I don't want to wait 50 years for a Republic.

The other point is this, there's a lot of constitutional negativity out there, people are saying: we've had 43 referenda and only eight have got up, none have gotten up without bipartisan support. If this gets up, all of sudden there'll be this attitude of: look, we can do it, we can change the constitution progressively. It's a very good starting point for the direct electionists.

A third point, the main enemy of direct election is not us Republicans, its the monarchists. And its very very strange that they're getting into bed with them right now. If this gets up in November, the monarchist/Republican debate is over, the Monarchists are out of the game. Then there'll be no distractions, the monarchist argument will be out the window, you won't have to deal with them. Then you'll be intelligently, over a longer time frame, with more debate, looking at a genuine, progressive reform of the governmental system. That's the way it should go.

Let's talk about the way you engage with the public on an issue like this. From where I sit, political elections are about personalities. This referendum is about ideas, not personalities. What different methods of campaigning do you see needed to get it up?

I agree this is not your usual political campaign because the issue is complicated on the one hand, and its very emotional and close to people's hearts on the other. So it's not a campaign that's going to be won by fancy sloganeering or razzle-dazzle electioneering, it's going to be won by giving the pubic lots of opportunities to get information, ask questions, take the answers home, talk about it and reach their decision over a period of time, an evolution of consciousness. The advertising, I think, will reinforce people's opinions once they have been made.

How are you facilitating that first step?

That's the role of the Yes Coalition. We're going to set up lots of little forums, events in town halls where people can turn up after work on an evening and in a very informal, non-antagonistic environment, chat about it. We'd like to answer questions, see what people want to know.

So a bit of a travelling road show..

All over the state and hopefully all over the country, so people can come and ask questions and talk about what they're worried about, get the information and talk to their family and friends about it. Then, hopefully, we'll have a second round where they can iron out any residual issues. Then, in the end, that's where the advertising will come to the forefront. So it won't be your traditional political campaign, it's going to be won on the ground.

Now you came into this debate via your election to the Constitutional Convention. At the time you were working for the War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands. Why did you nominate?

It was an interest in the NESB issue. Dad called me and said: you know the Constitutional Convention is coming up and I know you're interested in this stuff, do you want to run? I thought: how the hell am I going to run an election campaign from Europe? So we decided to forget it and just follow it. Then they appointed half the delegates and Dad faxed me the list of appointed delegates and there were almost none of NESB background and on an issue as important as this, we decided to run to make a statement. We didn't really think we'd get in.

When you say "we", who do you mean?

Me and the old man.

And was the old man involved in politics?

Not at all. I came back for two weeks. We did a very limited campaign in Sydney under the title "a multicultural voice" and we ended up getting about 40,000 primary votes, which showed there was a lot of people who find this notion of inclusivity very appealing.

When you got down there what happened? How did you get into the centre of things? Was it calculated or what?

It was a lucky star. There was this Republican deadlock, the ARM model versus direct election. My advantage was that I came in without a fixed frame of mind, I didn't belong to either group and didn't have any of those allegiances, I didn't feel committed to any particularly model. I guess that facilitated the circuit-breaker role. I sat down at the end of the first week and realised there was a problem. The idea was to make a concession to direct election to hopefully bring some of them on board and there was an obvious concession - the crux behind direct election is that the public has to have a say. There's a fear of leaving things to the politicians, so that's where the suggestion of a public nomination model came from. And also a presidential nomination screening committee which would be non-political. So on both levels there would be meaningful community involvement at both those points. And that succeeded in bringing quite a few direct electionists on board.

But did you ever ask yourself: what are they going to do listening to me. I'm just a snotty nosed young person

Yeah, I was very lucky. We just started going around to the direct electionists asking what would happen if there was public nomination with this community committee. We all want a republic, would this be enough to sway you? A lot of them said, OK.

Was there a degree of goodwill around the process?

Heaps of goodwill, people really wanted the best for Australia. In the end people were willing to put that before their personal agendas. That's the thing, a lot of people have their view about what the perfect Republic would look like. If you got 100 people, you'd get 100 models. So the idea was always to reach consensus. That was what came out of ConCon.

Of course, your profile out of the ConCon saw you courted by the Unity Party during the federal election. Tell me a bit about that?

After the ConCon I went back to the UN in the Netherlands. Then the Pauline Hanson stuff came up and the way it was dealt with by the political machine in Australia. We felt in the context of the federal election there had to be an organised political protest at the highest level against One Nation or else Australia and Australians would look they endorsed it or that they weren't doing enough against it. That was our main reason for being involved in Unity. It wasn't with any particular agenda, it was specifically to tackle One Nation, to make a public stand that could be seen around the world.

And why that, rather than, for instance backing Labor?

Because we saw that all political parties have constraints of pragmatism. If you take too strong a stand you will alienate a section of the electorate. Perhaps the Labor Party would have been afraid of alienating a particular group of base voters if they came up too strong against One Nation and all their policies. And if you are trying to win government, these things are legitimate. But the reason the people I was involved with formed Unity was not to win a seat or win government, but to make a principled stand.

You left Unity during the state election, what had changed from the federal campaign?

Exactly that. We had set up unity to put principle ahead of political pragmatism. What happened in the State Election is that the people running it decided they did want a seat and so they did a preference deal with the Shooters Party and Fred Nile's Christian Democrats. So it completely betrayed what we understood Unity stood for, it went against the whole essence of it.

Do you have personal interest in getting involved in politics again?

My main concern is the Republic now, after that I don't know.

What would a party like the Labor Party have to do to make it more attractive to a young person form a multicultural background like yourself?

The talk about breaking down the factions is very, very positive because there is a perception I feel that it's very difficult for someone who is not in the mainstream to make it, to get anywhere within the Labor Party. That's a very strong perception among minority groups. There is also a perception of a contradiction in policy that's very strong in its minority focus and, on the other hand, an understanding that it's quite difficult as an ethnic Labor Party member to get anywhere because of the factional system. I think its important for Labor to break down those old ways of working and to revitalise its membership as part of a refocussing down.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 11 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: The Young Republican
Jason Yat-Sen Li stole the show at the Constitutional Convention with his community consultation compromise. Now he faces a bigger challenge, convincing Australia to vote Yes.
*  Unions: ACTU Moves on the Republic
The ACTU Executive has endrosed the Australian Republic -- but it's given Howard's Preamble the short shrift it deserves.
*  History: And A Hundred Years Ago
Just as it was a hundred years ago, it is important that trade unions and their members are actively involved in the current republic debate.
*  Reader's Forum: John Passant
A Workers Online reader explains why he'll be voting "no".
*  Review: Mountain Men and Women Framed
Working Lives, a history of working people from the Blue Mountains, looks back to illuminate future challenges.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, Labor Council's fortnightly newsletter for unions.
*  International: Performers on the World Stage
Australian performers know better than most the importance of identity, self and place. That's why they are committed Republicans.

»  Unions Challenge: Reclaim the Republic
»  Freeloader Legislation on the Agenda
»  Unions� New Years Eve Plea
»  Skill Shortage Leads to Tiling Crisis
»  Apprentice Chefs Get Fairer Share of the Pie
»  Rail Workers Strike for Passenger Safety
»  Living Wage Sparks New Activity
»  ACTU Endorses East Timor Action
»  WorkCover Troubles Can�t Hit Injured Workers
»  NSW Young Labor Turns 50!

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Computer Decision Can;t Be Taken Lightly
»  Unionists Return From Timor
»  Latham Misses the Marx
»  Help Another Student

What you can do

Notice Board
- Check out the latest events

Latest Issue

View entire latest issue
- print all of the articles!

Previous Issues

Subject index

Search all issues

Enter keyword(s):

Workers Online - 2nd place Labourstart website of the year


Wobbly Radio

[ Home ][ Notice Board ][ Search ][ Previous Issues ][ Latest Issue ]

© 1999-2000 Labor Council of NSW

LaborNET is a resource for the labour movement provided by the Labor Council of NSW

Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005

[ Privacy Statement | Disclaimer | Credits ]

LaborNET is proudly created, designed and programmed by Social Change Online for the Labor Council of NSW


 Labor Council of NSW

[Workers Online]

[Social Change Online]