|Issue No 39||12 November 1999|
Let Sleeping Dogs
Interview with Peter Lewis
Republican campaigner Jason Yat-Sen Li dusts off after Saturday's vote. We ask him: where to now?
Two days after the Republic went down, how are you feeling?
We are disappointed but we are defiant at the same time. We are already beginning to talk about what the next steps are going to be. Yes, we lost. But ... forty six per cent of Australians not only wanted a Republic but wanted this model and when you look at it that way it's not a bad result at all, given the odds that were stacked up against us. So we're feeling disappointed of course, but we are going to soldier on. The Republican spirit is still well and truly alive.
How do you soldier on though? Turnbull's flagged that he's walking away from it. There is a lot of community dissatisfaction with the ARM and the way they ran their campaign. Howard said it's officially off the agenda and Beazley really says we are not going to look at it for five years. You need to get a Labor Government first before he'll do it anyway. So, how do you keep it on the agenda?
You keep the networks that are pro-Republic. I mean, bear in mind that those 46 per cent of voters for a Republic obviously saw through all the scare mongering of the No Campaign. We lost due to lies basically and I imagine that everybody who voted Yes feels similarly to the way I do about this. And that is that we were ripped off. That this campaign was a campaign of deception, and that it was always stacked against us.
I mean, there's a certain amount of frustration and anger there, and that will remain into the future. It's just a matter of keeping up the networks and the next time around it's going to be a much more grass roots community based process. That's what Kim Beazley has flagged. He wants that to happen and so it's up to us to start retaining those grass roots networks - building on them - and putting in place a more consultative sort of process to gauge what the public wants. To start educating at a grass roots level about what direct election means. What becoming a Republic means. Getting people to the starting line basically.
So are you basically accepting that the next referendum will be on the direct election model and that Republicans have to accept that's it and get behind that?
We need to think about direct election. I mean, direct election is difficult and it's always been my view that it's a radical change - it's a very big change for our system of government. Now, that may well be a good thing but it will be difficult to pass at a referendum, simply because it is a radical change and the scare mongering of the No Campaign to accompany that will be even bigger than the scare campaign this time round.
I think what it will take is a political process to back it, preceded by a plebiscite on do we want to become a Republic or not. That's what Kim Beazley said. I think a plebiscite is absolutely essential because that way you can knock out the monarchists and you knock out the scare mongers and then it becomes an intelligent debate about what sort of model is best for Australia.
Do you accept that any Republic is contingent on Labor winning power federally?
I would say so, because I can't see anybody from the Liberal Party, apart from Peter Reith, but you never really know what Peter Reith's on about, supporting a direct election model. And I think the public pressure will be on the direct election model. Peter Costello is a Republican but he's a conservative Republican and from what I understand of his views, There's little prospect he'll back a direct election model. He will probably favour something even more conservative than the model put up this time.
In terms of the results that came through on Saturday, it appears that the Republicans just failed to get their message across with the lower socio-economic groups - with working class Australia. Surely that's an indictment on the ARM and the way they ran their campaign?
I don't think so at all. I mean, how do you expect an organisation of private individuals with really a small budget to educate an entire nation?. I mean, we didn't have very much more than the $7.5 million given to us. How do you expect a group of private individuals to bring the Australian public up to speed, starting from scratch to bring them up to a level of understanding of the system of government where an informed choice could be made. hat's not a responsibility of private citizen. That's a responsibility of government and I think the government has failed dismally in that this year. It was obviously in John Howard's interests to do so because he wanted this referendum to fail from the start.
But then you say that what we need to do next time is improve the grass roots campaigning. Are we saying then that we've got to rely on government to do the grass roots campaigning?.
I think we need to do two things. What happened this time was right after the Constitutional Convention process the excitement fell away and we only had a few months - probably about half a year to a year to start the grass roots work. We tried as hard as we could but because initial polling showed that 30% of Australians didn't even know we had a Constitution, it was always an incredible difficult process to bring the community up to a level of understanding where an informed vote could be made.
The Republicans in many ways had to wage two campaigns. One was an information campaign itself; and two was a vote YES campaign, and it was just too much for the time that we had. Especially, starting from a starting point of indifference largely.
So, what have you learned about politics during the whole process?
The biggest lesson I think is, as Bryan Brown said, you can't fall down after the first punch. It's a long term process. The other thing I've learned is that there are people with differing views to your own, who may feel as passionately about their point of view as you do about yours, and it's a matter of respecting other people's opinions. Not necessarily believing that everything that you have to say is necessarily right, but that the debate and the invective is all part of our healthy democracy.. All this debate and the invective and the exchange of opinions are all part of our healthy and thriving democracy in Australia.
So, what are your plans now?
I'm going to go back to New York to finish my studies. To finish my Masters for six months and then I've got no idea. I'm going to head home and hopefully make myself useful.
Have you worked out what you are going to say to your classmates in New York?
I'm going to say look, Australia is Republican. We were done in by a Prime Minister who had rigged this process to fail. We did the best that we could. We lost the battle but we will win the war.
You're still keen to keep going with the Republican cause - and what about other political causes?
There are three major causes that really get the blood up in me and they are all intangible causes. Issues of the soul as Lindsay Tanner calls them. That's reconciliation, multi-culturalism and the Republic. They are issues of identity about where we are going as a people. Honestly, who we are as a people and they are very, very important for getting our society on the right track, building on social cohesion and making everybody feel welcome here. A much more inclusive notion of what it means to be Australian so that nobody is made to feel unwelcome in their own home.
Finally, you've probably spent more time on air in the past few months with Sophie Panopoulous than any other Australian. What memories of that will you take away with you?
Oh look. You couldn't get a word in with Sophie. She was obviously passionate about what she believed, but here opinions were all over the place. She was entirely inconsistent and I just hope that there's some good film footage of her saying "don't trust the politicians" because I'm almost certain that she is going to run for Liberal Party pre-selection in two years time at the next Federal Election.
Interview: Let Sleeping Dogs
Republican campaigner Jason Yat-Sen Li dusts off after Saturday’s vote. We ask him: where to now?
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005