The Queen's Defenders Down Under

Royal Loyals

In an affluent Sydney suburb, a gathering of elderly Australians are balancing orange squashes and dainty sandwiches, trying desperately to save their nation's monarch, who lives on the other side of the planet.

The Australian Monarchist League is in a royal tizzy. Queen Elizabeth II may soon be dethroned as this nation's head of state. A Constitutional Convention is set to vote Feb. 12 on whether to adopt a republican model, with a president replacing the British monarch.

"Upsetting? Yes. Terrible," Phyl Stephenson, a league member, says, shaking her head indignantly as her crown-shaped earrings catch the light. "What these people are trying to do is treason."

League members describe the queen as a wise, beloved granny who gives them a feeling of security. "People want to have that sense of belonging," explains Anne Youl in a genteel voice. "That's why the Americans try to invent that sense of a royal family with the Kennedys. I'm a fifth-generation Australian, but I still feel [the British monarchs] are my roots."

The monarchists have long opposed what they term "republicanism by stealth." They campaigned against the removal of the queen's portrait from government offices and overseas embassies under the former leftist Labor prime minister, Paul Keating (a republican of Irish-Catholic ancestry). And when government bookshops stopped selling the queen's picture, the monarchists began distributing reproductions of her 1955 portrait.

The portrait harks back to the monarchy's golden age following World War II. But today, most of the queen's foreign subjects have deserted her and Australia, once a British penal colony like parts of early America, will ultimately follow them, political commentators predict.

The republican edge

Despite the league's fervent language, the members' impressive ancestral ties and their talk of opulent social affairs, it is a small organization. Republican delegates outnumber monarchists almost 2 to 1 at the convention that is taking place in the nation's capital, Canberra.

The league has just five delegates at the convention. League president Phillip Benwell claims republicans spent more than $6 million on their campaign last year to get delegates elected to the convention. By contrast, he says the league spent less than $75,000.

During the strategy meeting at Mr. Benwell's home on the eve of the convention, people are asked to chip in $2 for a fund-raising raffle. The prize is a second-hand CD of "The Pipes of Scotland."

Most members do not reside in exclusive Sydney suburbs, explains Benwell, and they include truck drivers and domestic servants. Born in Cheltenham, England, to a family boasting tea estates in Ceylon and early Australian pioneers, he is a kind, self-effacing man who lives on the first level of a house in the posh Bellevue Hills suburb.

To many Australians, the monarchists are radically out of step with the thinking of a modern nation that increasingly looks to Asia, while Britain - never really caring two hoots for its former convict colony - deepens ties with continental Europe.

Australia's move to a republic will be the inevitable result of it becoming a multicultural society, notes Sydney sociologist Alec Pemberton. "It is silly to expect people to show allegiance to a British monarchy when they still have an affiliation with Italy or Greece," he says.

To the mainstream Australian media, the monarchists are objects for comic derision. "The kindest thing they call us is grayheads," says Benwell wryly, referring to the age of many - though not all - members.

But some say the taunts are unfair, for there is something appealing about the noble, civilized era they represent. They uphold an "old-fashioned notion of loyalty and duty based on a social and political hierarchy," says Dr. Irving. These values slipped away with rapid social changes in the 1960s and America's replacement of Britain as the world's most important country, she adds.

A staunch republican, former independent state and federal politician Ted Mack defends the monarchists from their harshest critics. Too many republicans are "kicking the values of the over-70s in the teeth," he says, with their demands to change the Australian flag and its Union Jack symbol, under which the country's war veterans fought. "These are people who lived through the Depression and World War II and have made Australia what it is today," Mr. Mack says, "They have a right to feel very bitter."

A delegate to the Canberra convention, Mack is campaigning for a directly elected Australian president. Polls suggest the Australian majority supports this presidential model if there is a new-look republic.

If the convention's delegates agree to a republican model, then the avowedly monarchist prime minister, John Howard, says he will put it to a referendum next year, pitting it against the status quo. Australia could have its own head of state in time for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. But as the convention draws to a close on Feb. 13, it is still uncertain what form of republic may be adopted.

The latest polls indicate the majority of Australians prefer no change if they can't have a directly elected head of state.

Safeguarding democracy

In a nation where most inhabitants know little about their country's Constitution, the monarchists see themselves as "safeguarding democracy" against republican politicians who are in a grab for more power. "The queen can't be bribed but politicians can," says Ms. Stephenson loudly. "The queen is apolitical. We've got the crown - more power to the people!"

Though supporting multiculturalism, Benwell criticizes some ethnic groups for promoting a "foreign" republican culture over "the Australian way of life." And he thinks the convention is a political tactic to distract people from more important issues, such as unemployment and Aboriginal land rights.

Still others worry that the debate will be a long, divisive and expensive process, referring to Canada's experience on proposals to change its Constitution.

The monarchists believe the Australians will vote against change. But, says Dr. Pemberton, "They are trying to hold back the tide and they can't. History will catch up with one."

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