Australians, looking away from Britain and more toward Asia, now seem determined to create a republic

THE move to make Australia a republic has suddenly lurched into high gear as members of the opposition parties stumble over each other to join Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in a drive to sever this country's enduring links to the British throne.

Opposition Liberal Party members traditionally have been monarchists. But four of the country's six state premiers, most of them Liberals, have said either that they would start removing the trappings of royalty or that the idea of an Australian republic wasn't so bad after all. A former Liberal prime minister even concluded it was inevitable.

Tim Fischer, head of the conservative, rural-based National Party, grumbled that he was ready for it if Australians were. Even opposition leader John Hewson, whom Mr. Keating trounced in a March 13 election, conceded, "It is a debate we have to have."

Keating is the first major political leader to recognize and then articulate this profound change in Australian thinking. The desire to become a republic is part of his vision of Australia as a modern, strong, egalitarian nation that bows to no one. He has been steadily pushing Australians to start thinking of their country as part of the Asian Pacific, and to lose the traditional sense of cultural inferiority to Britain and the United States.

In the prime minister's speech before Queen Elizabeth II during her last visit, says Tony Poole, executive officer of the Australian Republican Movement, "He said to her, `Yes, we have links. But just as England is moving into the European Community, we're moving into the Pacific.' "

"Britain is our 10th-largest trading partner," Mr. Poole says. "We do more trade with Indonesia and Malaysia than we do with ... Britain. So it's partly an economic reality and partly a fact that we've been slowly moving in this direction in other instances."

Keating's surprising re-election may have something to do with why the politicians are suddenly so eager. The Liberals' post-defeat soul-searching suggests in part that they need to be more in touch with contemporary thought. And the Liberals do not want to be left out of reforming the government. So now the question is no longer when, but how Australia will become a republic.

THE change could come as early as seven years from now, with the nation's centenary in 2001. But a lot needs to happen between now and then: People need to talk about the idea, hash out its benefits and costs, work up a new constitution, design a new flag, figure out what to call the country, and when they're done, vote on it. Keating has said he would set up a diverse group of eminent Australians to develop a discussion paper on the options for a Federal Republic of Australia.

Interest in royalty (aside from widely read gossip magazines about the latest doings of "Princess Di" and "Fergie") has been dwindling for some time. The queen's three visits in the last 10 years have been more and more sparsely attended. A poll in January showed that 65 percent of Australians now favor an Australian, rather than the queen, as head of state.

When Australia was formed in 1901, it had no Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence as a focus of national identity. Some note a rising desire to see Australian values of egalitarianism and "mateship" reflected in its Constitution and laws.

"We've never had something of our own to be proud of," says Peter Botsman, executive director of the Evatt Foundation, a think tank. "This is one definite act to proclaim [an] Australian constitution and laws that will forever frame us as part of our culture."

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