Australia likely to keep waltzing with the queen

Polls show that tomorrow's referendum on whether Australia shouldbecome a republic will not pass.

On the eve of the vote deciding whether to make the Commonwealth of Australia a republic, Coralie Mulholland has made her choice.

"There are too many unanswered questions" in the republic model on offer to voters, she says in a shopping mall in the suburb of Parramatta. "And when you ring your member [of Parliament] to ask, they don't know."

She is unimpressed when the republicans say that some of the changes being proposed "won't make any difference." She asks, "Well, if it won't make any difference, why are they doing it?"

This kind of credibility gap is making it appear all but certain that tomorrow's referendum will not pass and the monarchy will remain. For many Australians, the real contest to watch this weekend will be the Rugby World Cup final between their national team and France.

The referendum once looked as if it were going to be about how Australia would adapt its Constitution to reflect the realities of a new, multicultural society in time to mark the centennial of its 1901 federation. There were even visions of opening the 2000 Sydney Olympics with an Australian head of state.

But now the story seems to be about a people whose skepticism toward authority is deeply ingrained, leading them to stick with a distant foreign monarch rather than accept an arrangement in which their president would be chosen by their own Parliament.

Those holding out for a particular kind of republic not on the ballot - one in which the president is popularly elected - have forged a tactical alliance with monarchy advocates and others whose motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The House of Windsor has rarely been mentioned in the republic debate in recent months. As Mrs. Mulholland observes, "The monarchy hasn't done much to endear themselves lately." A Newspoll survey for the Daily Telegraph this week found that of "no" voters, only 9 percent are motivated primarily by the desire to retain Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. By contrast, 45 percent plan to vote "no" because they are satisfied with the current system, and another 33 percent share Mulholland's concerns about too much uncertainty over the proposed republic model.

For many advocates of change, the current arrangement whereby the queen appoints a governor-general to serve as her representative is an anachronism in today's multicultural Australia - and a sign of a country not quite full-grown. One young Sydneysider who is mortified at the prospect of the "no" side prevailing on Saturday laments, "It's like being 18 years old and being unable to go away to university."

But for constitutional conservatives like Dame Leonie Kramer, chancellor of the University of Sydney, the notion of a sort of national adolescence to be grown out of, or "apron strings" to be cut, is absurd. Moreover, conservatives tend to be put off by professions of a need for "national identity."

"All this self-conscious going-on about kangaroos and koalas ... reduces Australian-ness to a pretty low level," says Dame Leonie.

To pass, a referendum needs a double majority: a national majority of voters overall, and a majority of voters in a majority of states, four out of the six. It's a high hurdle that's been cleared only eight times since 1901. The current referendum proposal has grown out of a commitment Prime Minister John Howard, a monarchist, made during the 1996 election campaign. To neutralize constitutional reform as an issue, he promised to hold a constitutional convention. The convention met in February 1998 and produced the proposal for a republic, including a president chosen by Parliament.

Mr. Howard has been openly campaigning against the referendum, however. Donald Horne, the historian whose 1964 book "The Lucky Country" made one of the first calls for Australia to become a republic, blasts as "a political failure" the fact that the voters will not be given the one option he feels they would really like to support, namely a directly elected president. Many republicans blame the prime minister of ruining a historic opportunity.

"Australia has been changing quite rapidly in the way it defines itself, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, with acknowledgment of Aboriginal rights and acknowledgment of its place in Asia," says Professor Horne.

"I believe that when the right combination of political circumstances is in place, the question [of a republic] can be put to the people in a sensible form."

As both he and Dame Leonie point out, the present Constitution took 12 years to work out.

But time is not on the monarchists' side, as even they realize, and discussion is beginning to shift to the period after Howard is out of office.

Michael, for instance, a young bank employee enjoying the noon sunshine in First Fleet Park in downtown Sydney, says he will support the monarchists: "I like the queen; I feel an affinity for England." But he adds that after the vote, "there will be some soul-searching to see what Australia really wants."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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